Council Mems Display Parking Ignorance at Flushing Commons Hearing

The fight over Flushing Commons shifted to the City Council yesterday, as a key subcommittee turned its attention to the contentious megaproject and the battle royale over parking in booming downtown Flushing. Though the developers propose to redevelop an 1,100-space municipal parking lot and still increase the total amount of parking on-site, that isn’t enough for most members of the City Council or the vociferous critics who turned out for the hearing. The pressure on the developer is pushing in only one direction: build more parking and charge less for it.

flushing_commons_6.jpgFlushing Commons will already flood Downtown Flushing with parking, but many are calling for even more. Image: Inhabitat

Council members may show fluency with the policy details of some issues, but yesterday’s hearing proved that parking isn’t one of them. Basic concepts, like the fact that adding more parking will exacerbate Flushing’s grinding congestion, not alleviate it, or that free parking is bad for business, simply haven’t begun to penetrate the consciousness of most council members, who wield final authority over major land use decisions. Sustainable transportation advocates have a long way to go in educating our legislators about how parking really works.

In a rarity for the NYC land-use process, where battles tend to focus on building heights, housing affordability, or job creation, parking issues took center stage at yesterday’s hearing. Flushing merchants waved signs reading "Give us parking or death" as the Zoning Subcommittee interrogated the development team over the appropriate quantity and price of parking at Flushing Commons.

The proposal for Flushing Commons includes 1,600 parking spaces, with another 200 slated for addition to a nearby municipal lot. That number came straight from the parking-obsessed Economic Development Corporation, which reasoned that Flushing Commons should build not only the number of spaces required by zoning — around 700 — but also replace each one of the 1,100 subsidized spaces in the municipal lot it will replace. It’s an enormous allocation of space to the private automobile in the heart of downtown Flushing, a neighborhood with the third busiest pedestrian intersection in the city and the busiest subway station outside Manhattan.

Most people who testified, however, believed 1,600 parking spaces would be unacceptably few. Without the ability to park all day at the municipal lot, said one Union Street merchant through a translator, "I have to give up my job. I don’t want to lose my job and I oppose this project." Her sentiment was repeated over and over again.

Elected officials responded by calling for more and cheaper parking, seemingly unaware that their position would take a toll on housing affordability, transit service, street safety, and the bottom lines of many businesses.

Council Member Dan Halloran, who represents a neighboring district, identified himself as a Republican normally inclined to support new development, but found himself an outspoken opponent of the parking plan for Flushing Commons. "It would seem to me that if you put in 620 new units of people living there and thousands of square feet of businesses," argued Halloran, "saying there’s 500 more spots quickly gets eaten up." 

Other officials focused on the price of parking. "Just to be blunt about it," said Land Use Committee chair Leroy Comrie, "I think the city should subsidize parking for the businesses."

Brooklyn rep Diana Reyna focused on the developers’ plan to allow nearby businesses to validate shoppers’ parking tickets, providing them with a discount. Validated parking should be free, she argued, or you’ll be "running them under the ground because they have less customers coming to them." 

Bronx Council Member Larry Seabrook, currently facing federal corruption charges, lambasted both Flushing Commons and the Bronx’s Gateway Center Mall for putting any price on parking at all. "I’m opposed to any place charging people to shop," he said flatly.

Both Halloran and Comrie suggested adding more parking by rolling back NYCDOT plans to widen certain sidewalks in downtown Flushing [PDF], where pedestrian counts are higher than anywhere else in the city except Times Square and Herald Square. That space could be used for angled parking instead, they proposed. 

Yet another potential victim of the unslakeable thirst for parking is the Macedonia Plaza affordable housing project, set to be built next door to Flushing Commons. Chuck Apelian, the Land Use Committee chair for Queens Community Board 7 and a Flushing Commons supporter, complained that Macedonia Plaza was designed without any parking for its 140 units. "We’re talking about parking, parking, parking," said Apelian, "and this site can’t be exempt." Adding parking could reduce the amount of affordable housing that can be built on the site.

The irony here is that the project’s developer, TDC Development President Michael Meyer, quotes parking guru Donald Shoup and understands the connection between parking policy and broader transportation goals. When the committee members fretted about the traffic that the project would generate, Meyer reminded them of "the congestion that overproduction [of parking] would create." In defending the amount of parking at Flushing Commons, Meyer explained that under the proposed pricing scheme, which would charge less for long-term stays than short-term parking, more customers would get to use each space over the course of the day. 

Meyer is the kind of developer whom a city interested in using parking policy as a lever for sustainability could work with. But that’s not going to happen when the land-use process treats parking as a political plaything. Over the life of this project, a potent mix of motorist demands, political bluster, and policy ineptitude have combined to produce a proposal that contradicts the core principles of PlaNYC, all under the approving gaze of Mayor Bloomberg. And it may get even worse.

  • BicyclesOnly

    Is there no organized constituency in Flushing to mount even a token opposition to having city taxes subsidize driving to Flushing when there are so many alternatives for thousands?

  • Joby

    The sad thing is that this lot should have been developed as a town square/park.

  • So adding more parking will increase congestion, increase the cost of the project (which means either more public subsidies or higher commercial rents), reduce the amount of affordable housing and make the whole project more auto-centric instead of a friendly pedestrian area.

  • JK

    Council should consider this basic truth: they can keep mandating more parking, but they can’t keep mandating more street space. Nothing short of knocking buildings down is going to make the streets wider or significantly increase their capacity. The net result of building huge amounts of parking is to increase motor vehicle traffic, and discourage people from walking or taking the bus. Not only is parking expensive, it also takes up lots of space.

    Incidentally, the councilmembers who are so willing to subsidize parking, should be asked why they support the City’s continued reduction in operating support for public transit, which has translated into higher fares. Ask them why they support higher fares for transit riders and free, publicly subsidized parking? Why should transit riders pay to encourage motoring?

  • J:Lai

    I don’t think the issue is about education. I don’t believe the city council wants transit and pedestrian oriented development but is just oo dumb to realize that lots of parking runs counter to that goal.

    Rather, many of the council members are actively pro-car and the have rightly determined that cars and transit/pedestrian development are competing for infrastructure resources.

    This is a fight, not and exercise in education.

    non-auto development needs a visceral way to represent the harm done by auto-centric development. The parking supporters have no shortage of store owners who claim they will be put out of business without free parking paid for by the city. The benefits of developing for non-auto travel are diffuse and somwhat abstract. The harm that cars do, however, is concrete and specific (death and injury, increased asthma, etc.) The focus should be on how bad cars are.

  • People always want unlimited free parking. It’s considered common sense that parking = access = customers and that more parking = more access = more customers. I know that’s totally wrong but I dare you to question that wisdom in front of an angry mob.

  • ddartley

    I don’t think it’s been linked to here; here’s a Times story about ethnic tensions surrounding Flushing Commons, and while I don’t see the article doesn’t fit neatly into the general take on the situation by Streetsblog & its readers, sure enough the tensions center largely around the PARKING:

    http://www.nytimes.com/2010/07/15/nyregion/15flushing.html?_r=1&scp=1&sq=flishing%20commons&st=cse

  • JS

    Observations from a 50-year Flushing resident, who still drives through downtown Flushing four times a day, 7 days a week :

    A large portion of the traffic congestion is simply due to lack of enforcement….
    – Cars that sit, double-parked .
    – Busses that block traffic by not pulling all the way into the bus
    stop, even when there is room to do so.
    – Bus drivers that drive like bullies (although I empathize with anyone
    who has to drive a bus in Flushing.)
    – Pedestrians who don’t wait for a walk signal… or at least till no
    cars are coming (my pet peeve). Sit any time, any day, at Starbucks
    and watch as the pedestrians regularly walk, in defiance, right in
    front of the on-coming cars. It’s an absolute miracle that no one
    has been killed here! Even the NYC traffic cops will walk right in
    front of an oncoming car!

    The traffic cops have a single priority to issue tickets, bringing in revenue. The easiest, and least painful, way to do this is to issue parking tickets for expired meters. They will NEVER stop people who cross against the light (except ONE great traffic cop, ONE time, a few days after I almost ran him down at the intersection near Starbucks.)

    Pedestrian traffic is impacted by stores that extend their business way out onto the sidewalk, even selling perishable foods, unrefrigerated on tables, in front of restaurants..in some cases directly below awnings where the pigeons roost and poop.

    The large parking lot in question has a huge section reserved for the 109th precinct police to park their personal vehicles for free as well as police vehicles. They even park, almost every day, on the sidewalk, or partially blocking the parking lot entrances, or in the lot but outside of designated parking spaces! They are the only ones in Flushing who can ignore all the parking rules…sending exactly the wrong message to the community…that they, the law enforcers, are above the law! They even park in the no standing zone when then they pick up a coffee or Chinese food for lunch or dinner! Build these guys a free garage above the precinct. They deserve it! …and then ask them to follow the same laws they are paid to enforce.

    The most costly parking spots in Flushing in terms of traffic flow are those directly on either side of Main Street. In the scope of things, widening the street by removing these spots, would decrease available parking by the fewest number of parking spaces, and improve traffic flow immensely.

    People will drive to Flushing no matter how many parking spaces are available. Reducing the overall number of parking spaces, particularly in a lot that often has cars lined up waiting for spots to open, is foolish and irresponsible.

    Start with enforcement, and you’d have an immediate 30-50% improvement in traffic conditions in downtown Flushing,.

    Empower the vast force of ticketing agents to address other “quality of life” issues, like the cesspools of leaking garbage found daily in front of a few restaurants, and you’d really make Flushing a better place!

  • Let’s hope FC will never make it pass this sub-committee. That would solve all of these problems.

  • Parking oriented development

  • Joe R.

    I can’t believe there is even parking requirements in places with such good transit service! With parking, if you build it, they (cars) will come, and so will traffic congestion. In Portland, there are no parking requirements if you’re developing along a bus line with at least 20 minute frequencies.

    Sounds like the neighborhood residents and merchants need some education on this matter, but the council sounds hopeless. Vote them out!

  • I think a short term thing would be to send them mass emails about how this project+its parking is going to mess up the community and that this should vote against it. Anyone in favor?

  • This article’s armchair analysis of Flushing Commons is highly misguided. I’m the first to argue against high parking requirements (see my gotham gazette article) but Flushing is a unique case. The economy there is driven by ethnic small businesses who draw customers from throughout the tri-state region.

    The people that are raising the most protest about the project’s parking are the Korean merchants because their customers drive in from all of New York’s suburbs to eat and shop at their businesses. Most of these businesses are on Union St on the blocks directly North and South of Northern Boulevard. Muni-Lot 1 is where their customers park so they are rightfully concerned about the impact of this project.

    If you are concerned about sustainability and equity you should not be praising Michael Meyer—this project is going to bring in 300,000 square feet of chain retail and he is paying for ZERO affordable housing, ZERO. We should be criticizing EDC for supporting this supersized corporate chain retail and luxury housing development on public land. We should be pushing the city to dramatically downsize the project, increase its affordable housing, and require space for locally owned retail.

    I really suggest you examine the local conditions before writing ideological knee-jerk columns regarding the parking issue. It’s a total canard to call this transit-oriented development when no transportation planning is being done to increase the capacity of the #7, the bus lines, and the bike lanes to handle the influx of population here. Please focus on the bigger picture.

  • @Brian Paul
    Exactly. The problem is that Flushing just cannot handle all of the extra traffic produced by this single development. And its inclusion of luxury housing will undoubtedly raise prices in the area, not to mention nearby new development Skyview Parc is still vacant. I don’t think most people praise Meyer for bringing in FC as a whole, but just that on parking, he is thinking in the right direction.

  • K.Herlihy

    Yesterday I took my girlfriend to Flushing for a walking tour of the town I was born in 50 years ago. Quite a bit has changed, I worked briefly at the Alexander’s Department store that used to be on Roosevelt Ave just up from main Street.The crush of humanity and dearth of parking was quite noticeable. Flushing actually seems far more affluent than I had remembered.

    My problem was with the municiple parking lot off Union Street, across from the 109th Police precinct (which my father had retired from in 1970). I wheeled into the lot and saw one parking spot available directly to my left. My girlfriend and I both spotted it quickly. It was adjacent to an older bulding with a chainlink fence. No postings were on the fence or around it. I dutifly went and bought 3 hours of time on the Muni_meter nearby and put it on the dashboard. 2 1/2 hours later I come back and find a $95.00 parking ticket on my windsheild! I yell out “Why did I get a ticket!!!” A man in a car behind me called out: ” Police Dept. Parking only.” He pointed to a non-descript sign ( looking exactly like all of the other signage around the lot)tucked over to the right, on a pole about 8 feet off of the ground. “They nail people here all of the time.”

    I paid the ticket immediately but hold a deep grudge to my home town for what appears to be entrapment and an obviously thinly disguised cash machine for the NYC Dept of Finance!

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