Big Box Mall’s Giant Parking Garage a Predictable, Preventable Waste

East_River_Plaza.jpgDespite copious subsidized parking at East River Plaza, most customers still walk or take transit to get there. Who could have seen that coming? Image: Curbed

In a surprise to few, the wannabe-suburban East River Plaza big box mall can’t fill its 1,428 space parking lot.

As the Wall Street Journal reported this week, Manhattan residents, with their 22.5 percent household car-ownership rate [PDF], are walking or taking transit to East Harlem’s Costco instead, even with the lure of subsidized parking. It’s exactly the kind of anti-urban, economically wasteful and environmentally destructive mistake that City Planning should have prevented.

East River Plaza was first designed 15 years ago by the Long Island-based Blumenfeld Development Group and Atlanta architecture firm GreenbergFarrow as a way to bring suburban big box stores to an urban environment. "None of these things had ever been built in an urban market before," said David Blumenfeld, the project’s lead developer. "There was no model to go off of, there was only the suburban model." 

What Blumenfeld did, to the detriment of the city, was to take his firm’s suburban big box store template and just subtract what felt like the right amount of parking. That guess was way off-target. "We thought more people would drive," admitted Blumenfeld. "Typically, at a Costco, they don’t come by foot or public transportation."

So has Blumenfeld changed his outlook on what type of development works for cities? Not quite. Even now, he refuses to pass final judgment until East River Plaza is full (some tenants have yet to open shop). In fact, Blumenfeld wouldn’t even say he’d do anything differently knowing what he does now.

The ill-informed guesswork of the developer — so mistaken that the mall’s massive parking lot is underutilized even at the subsidized price of $4 for two hours — poses a real problem for New York City. "It’s not retrofittable," explained parking expert Rachel Weinberger, "so all you can ever do is continue to underprice the parking, because a little something is better than nothing."

If the price of parking gets chopped lower and lower, more and more driving will be induced, even if it’s less than the developer guessed. And if the lot still stays underused, Weinberger posited, the top floor will likely get converted into monthly parking for residents, boosting car-ownership rates in the neighborhood and inducing even more driving. In any case, building all that excess parking is undermining the goals of PlaNYC even as it eats away at the project’s bottom line.

How did it go wrong? Blumenfeld pointed a finger at the conservatism of the big box stores themselves. "I don’t think the tenants were ever ready to build it without parking," he recalled. But just as important is the dog that didn’t bark: the city. "The city wasn’t really pushing" on transportation, said Blumenfeld, though it was involved in discussions. (It’s worth noting that in 1999, NYC’s current planning chief, Amanda Burden, voted against the project as a member of the City Planning Commission.)

What’s missing is leadership from the top. "The city [administration] is more knowledgeable about the city than the developer," argued Weinberger, at least on transportation issues. "The city needs to be making planning decisions rather than having suburban developers bring in suburban parking norms." At East River Plaza, that would have helped not only the city’s own transportation goals but the developer’s profits as well. 

Today, big box stores trying to expand into Manhattan have more models to follow. The Home Depot on 23rd Street, for example, doesn’t have any parking attached at all. Between that store’s success and East River Plaza’s shortcomings, some have started to reconsider their models. According to the Journal, East River Plaza’s own architect now thinks future developments across the city will be oriented more to pedestrians and less to cars. When developers like Blumenfeld aren’t ready to take that leap, however, the Department of City Planning needs to push them.

  • On top of it all, this subsidized garage continues to illegally refuse bicycles for parking. My complaint with the DCA is procceding, snail-like, to a hearing …

  • Allan

    Shouldn’t developers be losing enough money from projects like this to learn from their mistakes?

  • Danny G

    I’m going to call BS on the anti-retrofitting stance. This city has turned warehouses into offices, schools into museums, movie theatres into churches, churches into apartments, undersides of bridges into supermarkets, and rail lines into parks. It may not be ideal, and it may take a few years, but any good capitalist can turn a profit on unused space with riverside views.

  • Darin

    Leave it to a firm from car-centric Atlanta to try to squeeze suburban driving/parking culture into Manhattan.

  • Doug

    It’s a very satisfying comeuppance to suburban-style thinking applied to the urban. Perhaps a twist on the old mantra applies: if car-centric development can fail anywhere, it can fail here. This can serve as ammunition on any project that insists on more parking to say, it’s not just about environment, livable streets, etc., it’s also about your bottom line: don’t bring us more parking.

  • Car Free Nation

    The developer makes money even if the parking lot doesn’t. It’s not really their money anyway, and so long as the project is built, they’re happy.

  • J

    Noah, you do realize that the #1 customer complaint to retailers at East River Plaza is that parking is too expensive, right? Just thought you’d find that interesting…

  • Omri

    Rollerblading rink. Bank the curves. Put a hockey court on the top level.
    Alterate between bladers and BMXers. (And parkouristas)

  • kaja

    > the #1 customer complaint to retailers at East River Plaza is that parking is too expensive

    This makes sense, as the suburban model is that all car-use is free, save for gasoline and the lease on the car itself. The parking garage is empty precisely because nobody’s going to pay to drive to a big-box store; they’re going to take the train, like anyone will when pay-your-way driving has to compete with the new york city subway.

    This parking garage isn’t subsidized _enough_ for it to work as the developers planned.

    I hope they blow it up in twenty years.

  • I don’t understand why all these stores don’t follow the Wholefoods model: Delivery instead of parking. Instead of a parking lot to induce customer demand, that at best breaks-even and is captial intensive, just offer delivery at a fixed price or offer it for free for orders over a certain amount. Wholefoods seems to have figured this out and I think the average bill at Cost-Co is much higher than Wholefoods.

  • JW

    Why didn’t the developer put that money into subsidizing a customer same day delivery service?

    For starters, urban retail of all types has to centrally located in the heart of the city near a major transit station and with a strong street presence. Both of the Home Depots in Manhattan even follow this tried and true model.

    The dumbest thing in the world is to build auto-centric retail developments in the city. If you are an urbanite with a car it doesn’t take much more time or effort to go out to a typical suburban auto-centric retail development with their big sea of free asphalt parking at the same level as the store itself. Yet the urban auto-centric developments build huge parking garages that are expensive and complicated to both the customer and retailer. They irritate the very motorists they hope to attract with their structured parking (which just looks like a hassle to them), having to take a ticket and get validation (further hassle), having to use elevators and ramps with your cart (even more hassle). Urban retail needs to be about the pedestrian, bicycle and transit rider, they are the only ones who will use the urban store and will not use the auto-centric suburban stores. And most urbanites dont stockpile food and goods to last for months like those in the suburbs or countryside (for both space reasons and their close proximity to stores). Urbanites shop frequent and in small loads. Anything that can not be easily carried needs to be delivered.

    Parking garages are the worst to retrofit with their low ceilings and sloping floors. In fact they are worthless for anything other than parking unless they were specifically designed to be convertable in the future which is rare. I believe Portland is requiring it for some projects.

  • Danny G

    I think that it will certainly be difficult to retrofit, but one can hope for the counterpoint to this building: http://www.buildingsrus.co.uk/detroit/michigan_theatre/michigan_theatre.html

  • Joby

    Here’s a solution, tax these parking lots out of existence. Shouldn’t the property taxes on a big parking structure be higher than for the mall or whatever itself? If property taxes are assessed at a comparatively high enough rate versus land uses the city should be promoting, the parking lots will go away. Developers wont think of building them, stores wont demand them and the ones that already exist will be re-purposed. Even for the parking lots that do exist, shouldn’t the rates be higher for a football field sized blacktop parking lot versus one that at least has some trees, grass and hopefully bio-swales to combat pollution and heat-island effects?

  • Joby, we don’t even need to do that. The city could simply have said that they wouldn’t give the project the $80 million in subsidies unless it was pedestrian and transit oriented.

  • @Glenn,

    Whole Foods has figured that out in Manhattan. Not so in other boroughs, where, despite this project being stalled now for years, they’ve shown no interest in engaging with transportation advocates, nor altering their basic suburban model:

    http://www.parkslopeneighbors.org/wholefoods/index.htm

  • Joby

    I agree about the subsidies Cap’n. But it requires there’s a more coherent vision at city hall than we have had. For instance – Mike’s insistence that the west-side stadium parking lots be built even after the stadium was cancelled and even though it is in direct contravention of the goals of PlaNYC.
    Changing the property tax code to get rid of parking would be more extreme but would probably do more to change the landscape of this city than anything else. It also means that many property owners (especially in Queens & SI) would have a financial incentive to retrofit their old parking lots to be less wasteful, while in Manhattan it would encourage people knocking down or repurposing existing parking structures.

  • “There was no model to go off of, there was only the suburban model.”

    Completely false. The entire project was based off Dadeland Station in Miami. And even in Miami, where so many people drive, that enormous garage is NEVER, EVER close to being full.

    It can be seen here:
    http://maps.google.com/maps?f=q&source=s_q&hl=en&geocode=&q=33149&sll=37.0625,-95.677068&sspn=36.368578,79.013672&ie=UTF8&hq=&hnear=Key+Biscayne,+Miami-Dade,+Florida+33149&ll=25.692261,-80.30434&spn=0.002528,0.004823&t=k&z=18&layer=c&cbll=25.69275,-80.305587&panoid=63snwSj-HK_IGxdcUE27rw&cbp=12,41.12,,0,-16.42

  • LB

    here’s one urban model: a costco in downtown Vancouver with residential towers on top (with it’s 700 parking spaces underground) http://www.worldarchitecturenews.com/index.php?fuseaction=wanappln.projectview&upload_id=10896

  • FJ

    With all the cars in Manhattan I can’t believe all the anti-car retoric. The problem with East River Plaza is simply the price for parking there. I don’t pay to park at any other big-box store that I shop at. So I’m certainly not going to pay to here in my own backyard (so to speak). I pay enough ransom money to park in the city. More importantly, I have a car … I can and will go else where my car is welcomed!!!

  • MK

    In fairness to Costco, it’s hard to imagine how people could possibly shop at Costco without a car. They sell bulk products; are you really going to tote your 400 rolls of toilet paper, or your 50 cans of soup, or whatever, on the freaking bus? You going to balance that on your bicycle, there, hipster? Car transportation is essential to their sales model. (Same with most big-box stores, which specialize in selling you lots of things at once. They don’t make money if you come for the one discount item; they make money when you come for one thing and fill your car up with other crap.) I fail to understand how that generalizes to Manhattan at all, but if you’re going to do it anyway, you need parking…

  • This is a common problem as suburban formats encroach into urban markets — they have no urban standards by which to inform their understanding of what is appropriate, or not. One way to try to turn this into a positive outcome is to use the parking garage as a community-serving repository for a non-profit car sharing entity. This would take even more cars off the street, while providing a convenient location for local residents to access cars on an as-needed basis, further discouraging car ownership in a city with an already low car-ownership rate.

  • Jackalope

    “In fairness to Costco, it’s hard to imagine how people could possibly shop at Costco without a car. They sell bulk products; are you really going to tote your 400 rolls of toilet paper, or your 50 cans of soup, or whatever, on the freaking bus?”

    It’s called DELIVERY. You have that stuff DELIVERED to the person’s house for a nominal fee. The STORE has the truck, not the person.

    All the neighborhood grocery stores near me do this. It’s not exactly rocket science.

  • Ian Turner

    MK, how do you square that perspective with the reality that most of the people who go to this store don’t drive?

  • Jackalope

    Oh, and you’d be stunned at what people bring onto the subway. I’ve seen people schlep home full-sized air conditioners, small furniture, carts full of canned goods…it’s something people figure out how to do, here.

    Heck, I once brought home a dozen eight foot bamboo poles on the subway.

  • Department stores used to offer free delivery before car ownership became universal among their customers.

  • Agent_Torpor

    Hey genius, you try lugging your big box mall purchases home on a bike/muni Good luck. Not happening.

    As much as you idiots try to rail against it, a car is useful in certain occassions. Shopping is one of them. And don’t even give me that CityCarShare noise. I’d rather not plan my shopping three weeks in advance in a tiny 1/2hr window, thanks.

  • Agent_Torpor

    And jackalope, you try bringing your bamboo poles on a muni bus i’m riding, you’re coming home with at least one of them sticking out of your rear end. Guaranteed.

    Muni is not your personal trunk space. Get out of here.

  • Armadillo Joe

    Agent_Torpor, you’re the comment-section equivalent of a Humvee in a bike lane. Go sling your car-centric hostility elsewhere.

  • Jackalope

    “And jackalope, you try bringing your bamboo poles on a muni bus i’m riding”

    What the fuck is a muni bus? I’m in NYC, where this development is. We have buses and subways.

    And I love the fact that you don’t believe the concept of DELIVERY exists. By the “no one can buy in bulk if they don’t have a car” logic, no one in America should have a refrigerator or a washing machine, since those don’t fit into a car.

    Delivery isn’t a terribly difficult concept. I find it bizarre that you can’t get your mind around the idea that in a place where only 25% of people have cars, it makes more sense for a store selling large items to subsidize a delivery option instead of a parking option.

  • Brian

    There’s a moral dimension to this story as well. Those familiar with eminent domain in New York know that the definition of “blight” – a legal precursor to the seizure of private property – is infinitely elastic: The World Trade Center neighborhood was “blighted,” allowing the Port Authority to take private property; the productive businesses at 40th and 8th Ave represented “blight,” allowing the politically connected Ratner, and The New York Times, to take that property. (And how’d that work out for ya? You had to do a sale-leaseback just to stay in 620 8th Ave., and now you’re in hoc to a Mexican loan-shark just to stay in business.)

    Harlem’s East River Plaza is built upon seized private property, taken pursuant to yet another phony blight designation. Even if we assume the mall itself is economically viable, how many residences and/or productive businesses were seized, in order to support that white elephant of a parking garage?

  • Tyro

    you do realize that the #1 customer complaint to retailers at East River Plaza is that parking is too expensive, right?

    Who on earth is complaining about $2/hour parking in NYC? That’s a steal, and everyone in NYC knows it. My guess is that people just don’t have many complaints, but a few tourists or guests visiting friends/family from out of town decided to go to Costco at east river plaza and complained about having to pay a nominal fee for parking because they had never seen that before in their lives.

  • Dave Cincy

    I don’t live in NYC so I don’t have a real good feel for life on the island, but wouldn’t the 22% of Manhattan residents who have a car merely drive to NJ or a suburb which has a Costco if they so desired? That’s the beauty of having a car– you can go places! The other 78% need convenient stores but certainly don’t need the parking spots. Duh.

    It seems so simple.

  • Brian

    Jackalope,

    Here’s the problem with your delivery talk. People go to Ikea to look at and get the feel of furniture, and then get it delivered to their home via Ikea’s trucks. But you don’t need to personally inspect 24 giant jars of Hellman’s mayonnaise, and other such stuff sold at Cosco. So if you have a car, you visit the store only to haul the stuff back home yourself.

    But if you don’t have car, why even visit? Can’t you just order the stuff on the net, and then wait for delivery?

  • Ian Turner

    You mean, like, via FreshDirect? What a concept.

  • BicyclesOnly

    I’ve shopped at E. River Plaza and the 125th St. Fairway by bike. I have a rack and two collapsing metal baskets. I can carry everthing I need to. A properly equipped bike, even without a trailer, can carry as much as the trunk of a sub-compact.

    The pedestrians I see shopping in these locations carry or cart their stuff home. It’s not the most convenient way to do it, but often they go as families, and every family member carries something.

  • Woody

    Kaja says, “I hope they blow it up in twenty years.”

    I say, Why wait 20 years? Blow it up now.

    They could sell tickets for seats for New Yorkers to watch the damn thing turn to dust, and sell them for quite a bit more than the $2 fee to park there.

  • Ted T.

    I’m with Woody. Demolish it now.

    And yes, the city should insist on a delivery only model as the price of admission for any big box store within the five boroughs.

  • Chris

    My wife and I used to take the subway to the Brooklyn Costco. You have to be smart about what you purchase, but between the two of us we could certainly do a decent shopping trip. Besides, if we couldn’t carry it we probably couldn’t fit it into the apartment anyways.

  • Tom

    The same thing happened here in DC. Target refused to build a store until the city built a garage under it. Now the garage is way underutilized. There was a WaPo article that said they were losing $100,000/month on the garage (the city, that is, not Target, because the city owns the garage). Target just couldn’t wrap its head around walkers, bikers, and Metro users coming to the store. Well, Columbia Heights is an outstanding success but the traffic (car traffic) sucks so I’m not sure how they’ll resolve it. They talked about renting spaces to commuters, but try driving to that garage and see what a headache it is on 14th street or Park Rd.

  • Woody

    “The same thing happened here in DC. Target refused to build a store until the city built a garage under it. Now the garage is way underutilized…. Target just couldn’t wrap its head around walkers, bikers, and Metro users coming to the store.”

    This is why we need to blow up the one in East Harlem now, to make the news shows all across the country. (Probably can’t blow up the one in Target’s basement; maybe grow mushrooms there?) The demolition will be very educational. And we can prevent the stupid subsidized parking garage money-sinkhole from being replicated in cities again and again.

  • The same thing that’s going on that the Gateway Mall in the Bronx is going to happen at the East River Plaza, those that do drive would end up parking at Pleasant Av or any side street to avoid paying for parking at that behemoth mall.

    As for the parking structure, they should at least put a nice little greenspace on the roof of the lot to take advantage of the river views.

  • Larry Littlefield

    “If Costco can deliver in Japan, why not in the US?”

    Lack of demand. But one reaons there is no demand, is because there is no delivery option. All that is required is to give it a try in the best possible location, and see if it works.

    BTW, Costco has an extensie catalog-driven business that relies on delivery, and has much more available than one sees in the stores. I have a relative who buys everything from Costco, most of which comes to his door.

    There is the possiblity that Costco (or a competitor) could develop a mini-prototype for urban locations with no parking at, say, 20,000 square feet on two floors. On site goods would be limited to fast mover, generally one-use items. The rest would be delivered via internet orders.

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