Quinn Praises Empty Garage at East River Plaza Ribbon Cutting

QuinnRibbon.JPGCouncil Speaker Christine Quinn cuts the ribbon for East River Plaza and its 1,428 parking spaces. Photos: Noah Kazis

Officials held a ribbon cutting ceremony for the suburban-style East River Plaza shopping complex today. The fleet of cars that the city’s leading politicians and developers arrived in barely registered in the mall’s giant parking lot.

It’s safe to say that East River Plaza will go down as an urban planning disaster for the ages, but as politicians praised the project, they gave no indication that they’ve absorbed lessons from its big mistake. The mall’s eight levels of parking, a full 1,428 spaces, take up the better part of a city block. Those spots have mostly been sitting empty, hogging space and sucking the life out of the pedestrian environment — a testament to the city’s lax urban planning oversight and the fantastically faulty assumptions of the developer, who now admits that more people than expected are walking or taking transit to East River Plaza rather than driving.

So it was particularly jarring to hear praise for all that parking from City Council Speaker Christine Quinn. She thanked the city for rezoning the area "to make it not only a place where commercial development could occur, but also a place where we could have parking, so people could come here and take those 488 rolls of toilet paper home with them, out of Costco, as I myself like to do."

Never mind that parking takes the place of what could be more retail and more jobs, or that 82.3 percent of East Harlem households don’t own a car [PDF]. This empty lot is failing even as a place to store private cars. 

A ribbon cutting may not be the occasion to expect reflections on lessons learned, but today’s event was a great opportunity to explore East River Plaza and document a colossal mistake that should never be repeated. Photos after the jump.

EntrytoStores.JPG

Amazingly, to get to any of East River Plaza’s stores, you have to walk through the parking lot; the entrance to Costco is just behind the camera. There is no pedestrian option. On the other hand, you can exit directly from the FDR Drive into the parking lot.

TakeYourTicket.JPG

Further evidence that East River Plaza’s shoppers are all assumed to be drivers: the view from each store. You walk out and face the parking lot and a sign reminding you to pay your parking ticket. That’s it. Even suburban malls have a nicer environment for people walking around.

ParkingLot116th.JPG

The parking lot is simply enormous, a dead zone dominating the landscape — in this case, 116th Street. Of course, with the FDR just east of the lot, this is an area where the automobile already dominates.

EmptyFloor3a.JPG

The lot is almost completely empty inside. To be fair, not every store in the mall is open. But floor 3a, which connects to the already open Best Buy and GameStop, was almost completely empty this morning. 

  • Larry Littlefield

    Is the city paying for the losses due to the empty parking? That is the question.

  • poncho

    or that 488 rolls of toilet paper would fill about half the square footage of the average manhattan apartment. bulk shopping costcos are not for most manhattan residents, nevermind the low car ownership on the island.

  • During her plenary speech at Velo-City Global in Copenhagen (where Janette Sadik-Khan was present, at least earlier in the week) Vadana Shiva said,”The takeover by the automobile in our different economies and our different cultures – in my personal point of view – is one of the most violent phenomena on this planet.”

    If you agree with that, you may also agree that what Christine Quinn said at the ribbon cutting is hate speech.

  • Christopher Stephens

    While I agree with most of what you have written, I would point out one error: you do not have to walk through the parking lot to get to the stores. If you are walking or taking the bus (M15 or M16), you approach the entrance to the stores along 117th Street. You walk past the loading dock to Costco on your left and the parking lot on your right for half the block. Not exactly a rich uban tapestry, but certainly no worse than the wire factory that was on this site originally.

    You might also want to compare and contrast this development with the Bronx Terminal Market – same developer? Certainly it has many of the same flaws (pedestrian-hostile, car-friendly).

  • Council Speaker Christine Quinn… tear down this garage!

  • Danny G

    You Streetsblog folks are usually pretty open-minded but I can’t believe how off you are on this one. Don’t you get it? This building is 20th century revivalist, thats its architectural style. It’s being retro on purpose, obviously!!!

  • Ghastly!

  • Jackson K.

    From afar this story seems a bit unfair. Granted I’m not a resident of the area, so I don’t have any bitter feelings about the project, but how do you make fun of an ’empty’ parking lot on a Tuesday morning? And while Costco is open, isn’t Target and a few of the other larger stores not open yet? It would seem to that you would want or need ample parking for a Costco. It’s not like the A&P where you go for a loaf of bread or some milk.

    In the end it’s hard to take this story seriously since there’s no objectivity in the reporting. Am I wrong?

  • aaron

    I’d like to echo Jackson K.’s comment. While I agree with your larger point, you should have at least presented photos of the activity inside the stores at the time you took the garage photos.

  • Danny G

    Jackson,

    The problem isn’t that it’s an empty parking lot. Even if it fills up with cars and people find it functional, the problem is that it is taxpayer-subsidized. And given everything we know about our national priorities for reducing oil consumption, we should not be subsidizing auto dependence.

  • someone should do a study on the unused square footage in this beast, how many apartments & storefronts that would be, and how much money the owners, developers and city are losing from this idiocy.

    in fact, there should be a broad study on how the parking requirement is hurting the city on so many levels, if there hasn’t been one already.

  • Target isn’t open for another week. After Target opens, we’ll all see if these parking lots would work, luring those drivers (especially those from the nearby Upper East Side).

  • I was surprised that the real reason for the lack of parking was not mentioned in this article. That being that the parking is not free. I have heard relatives and friends complain that they do not pay for parking anywhere else.

    Being mobile, they have other places to patronize and not have to pay for parking. That is basically it. Oh,those whining about car dependence, please get over you environmental global warming non-sense.

  • Ian Turner

    Jose, where in Manhattan do your friends and family go that they do not have to pay for parking?

  • They do not have to pay for parking at malls. I was not writing about regular street parking. Have a good day.

  • which ones? the manhattan mall?

  • Pete

    Lennin,

    There’s already a Target at the Atlantic Terminal mall on Flatbush & Atlantic that’s mobbed. Yes, there is a parking lot there, but almost noone uses it.

  • Christopher

    DC built an urban mall RIGHT ON TOP OF A Metro station. Subsidized the parking there as well. Garage is completely unused to the point that the city is thinking of opening up for day commuters. (A horrible idea.)

    So now we have two major data points. Is anyone listening?

  • Ian Turner

    Jose, which Manhattan located malls are these that offer free parking? BTW the Manhattan Mall does not have attached parking.

  • vnm

    I am really perplexed by the architectural design of this thing. If they had to have parking attached to this big box mall in order to attract national retail chains, they should have had it underground so that the actual stores could have faced 116th Street. And they should have had half or a quarter as many parking spaces. Six stories blocking the stores from 116th Street would seem to be against the interests of the stores themselves!

    But Jose Rivera makes a good point. If there is one good thing about this debacle, it is that the garage charges for parking, which is also the case at the underused, overbuilt garage at the new Gateway big box mall at the Bronx Terminal Market. That means that the prices of all the goods at the stores should be lower, because retailers don’t need to charge higher prices to subsidize for free parking. That doesn’t erase the fact that the garage is still unnecessary, and taxpayer subsidized. (Since the parking fees are paying back the bondholders, and the bondholders don’t have to pay taxes on that income.)

    It also means that motorists are extremely price sensitive, and so bridge tolls or congestion pricing really would have a big impact on reducing traffic.

    So if it has been six months or a year after all of the stores have opened, and still nobody is using this garage for parking cars, what’s the best way to retrofit it for a better use? Go to the community board? Maybe they could donate the space to the MTA to use to store buses that run the 116th Street crosstown route?

  • LB

    Being not-from NYC, I apologize for my ignorance, but why in the world wasn’t the developer required to provide underground parking, rather than building that terrible garage? Is underground parking not the norm?

  • no problem, lb. i have a possible explanation.

    new york has a lot of stuff underground — subways, sewers and water mains, electrical stuff and whatnot. a lot of this stuff goes under existing buildings and properties. moving this stuff, i would imagine, would be a costly and time consuming nachtmare and would put undue pressure on property owners.

    plus, a lot of western u.s. cities sit on top of dirt. building underground simply requires some backhoes and a scraper. new york sits on bedrock, which takes a significant amount of effort to dig up, making it not very cost effective to stick cars underneath a building.

    could be wrong though.

  • Eric

    If I get a bike trailer so I can take home 488 rolls of toilet paper, is there a spot for me to park it? Are there bike racks? How much does the garage charge for bikes? Is there direct access from the East River Greenway?

  • annoyed in nyc

    are you aware that they are putting another 5 floors of office space and then another 5+ floors of apartments on the top of the East River Plaza and that maybe that giant parking is in preparation for the parking needs that will bring on??????????

  • Christopher Stephens

    Just to address the issue of what malls people would drive to: I asked a friend who lives in Manhattan and keeps a car (mostly to visit her mother in NJ on the weekends) if she would go to this Costco, and she explained that if she needed to go to a Costco nearby, she would go to the one in LIC/Astoria, which has plentiful free parking. Her sentiments were echoed by many on the various comment sections I saw on blog postings after the East Harlem Costco opened.

  • Glenn

    Kunstler notes that a lot of suburban development takes the name of what it destroyed – like if a residential development is call Pine Grove or Quail Field, that might be exactly what your residential development displaced.

    The name “East River Plaza” sounds like a cool Pedestrian area with a vista of the East River or at least a gateway to the waterfront for the surrounding community. Instead you get neither: no view of the waterfront and no outdoor plaza.

    It’s sad that someone invested this much money into East Harlem and there will be so little returned to the investors or the community.

  • Christopher Stephens

    Actually, Glenn, to use your naming theory, we would have to call this development “Derelict Factory”, since that was what on the site for decades before this mall was built. And to say that the investors returned “nothing” to the community is simply false. There was an extensive community benefits agreement with CB11 (http://dnainfo.com/20100315/manhattan/best-buy-at-east-river-plaza-hired-less-than-third-of-workers-from-east-harlem). The locals aren’t very happy with the results of the CBA, but in my experience, they never are. And are the investors unhappy with the results? We’ll see what the bottom line on their investment was in a few years. I doubt that the poor planning on the parking situation will hurt the profitability of the development too much, as much as we would like to think anything this car-oriented must be doomed to failure.

  • Glenn

    Christopher – Read what I wrote.

    I didn’t say “nothing” – I’m saying it’s a poor return for what was invested. As for the investors, the acres of empty parking really could result in a default on the bonds and doesn’t bode well for the retailers.

    And what I said was that Suburban development is named after what it destroys (not necessarily replaces) – in this case, it destroyed a chance at a real East River Plaza – one that might revitalize the area in that corner of Manhattan and create a tourist destination uptown similar to the Seaport or a neighborhood focal point like the various real riverside plazas around the city. That’s exactly what this development destroyed.

  • Christopher Stephens

    Sure, a Seaport clone might look nice, but I don’t recall anyone ever proposing that, and given how far away the site is from the subway, I don’t think it is an ideal location for that kind of development either. And what was in place before the development, and still in place now, is not so bad. There is already a riverfront esplanade, and not far away (107th St.) there is a well-used recreation pier. There is also a large park (Jefferson Park) two blocks to the south that already serves as a focal point for the community. What the community gained was two large stores that function as something close to two supermarkets in a neighborhood that is desperate for supermarkets. Is the design hostile to urbanism? Sure. But another South Street Seaport would have been an answer to a question no one was asking.

  • Ian Turner

    Annoyed:

    Citation please? The development’s website doesn’t mention anything about office or residential space, and it seems highly unlikely they’d stick all that HVAC equipment on the roof if they were planning to expand.
    http://www.bdg.net/properties/31/
    http://www.eastriverplaza.com/html/highlights/highlights.html

  • Ian Turner

    Actually, the development’s website is particularly interesting in that every single page mentions the amount of parking. The developers really are parking-obsessed. (Or at least they think their tenants are).

    “an attached 1,250-space parking facility spanning 3 city blocks … Approximately 1,250 Spaces”
    http://www.bdg.net/properties/31/

    “The center is attached to a 1,248 car parking garage”
    http://www.eastriverplaza.com/html/abouterp/eastriverplaza.html

    “Conveniently located directly off of the FDR Drive with plenty of on-site parking. … Development Size: Approximately 485,000 SF, with 1,248 parking spaces.”
    http://www.eastriverplaza.com/html/highlights/highlights.html

    “Easy access from the street and plenty of parking”
    http://www.eastriverplaza.com/html/locationmap/locationmap.html

    “An attached 1,248-space parking facility. The site is directly accessible via the 116th Street exit of the FDR Drive.”
    http://www.eastriverplaza.com/html/floorplans/floorplans.html

  • @ Christopher,

    “The locals aren’t very happy with the results of the CBA” because the CBA is a bunch of unenforceable nonsense.

    And yeah, $4 is too much to pay for parking, so we’re going to drive the 50-mile round-trip and spend $7 on gas to get from 86th Street and 3rd Avenue to the Palisades Mall, where they have free parking.

    Make that $15 in gas if you’re Chris Quinn and your security detail is driving you from Chelsea in the Suburban.

  • @Ian Turner,

    Don’t feed “annoyed” — East+River+Plaza+apartments yields only “annoyed’s” comment.

    And never mind buying a nice apartment on top of a mall nowhere near public transportation, but with plenty of parking, so that one can drive the Beemer to work in Midtown and pay the $16 congestion charge.

  • vnm

    Christopher raises an interesting argument in favor of East River bridge tolls. Driving from Manhattan to the Costco in LIC/Astoria to avoid paying $3 (is that the hourly rate?) for parking at the Manhattan Costco is made possible by NYC taxpayers, most of whom do not drive, who cover the costs to maintain the Queensboro Bridge. The 101-year-old bridge is benefiting from $300 million rehabilitation project that Wikipedia says began in 1987 (the Times pegged the cost at $220 million back in 1988 (scroll).

  • Larry Littlefield

    I was about to make the same point Vnm. If Manhattanites, most of whom are wealthy, still drive to the suburbs to go to stores because the parking is free, that’s another argument for tolling all the bridges.

  • tacony palmyra

    The owners of East River Plaza should rent space in the garage to small vendors by the day. They could make some money to cover the lost revenue from all the unused parking while making the garage a bit more inviting and less ominous.

    Also it’s interesting that Target paid all that money to wrap MTA subway cars in ads that play up the fact that their new store is in this corner of old Italian East Harlem — the ads show a street sign from 116 and Pleasant Ave — yet the actual structure is pretty hostile to the rest of the neighborhood and doesn’t reference anything about its surroundings.

  • Pete

    It’s not just the free parking in NJ that has people driving out there to hit those malls.

    Gas is significantly cheaper. While you’re over there, fill up your tank & the difference pays for the bridge toll.

    It’s the difference in sales tax. There’s at least a 1.5% difference between NJ and NYC. If you’re going to a big-box retailer and spending big money, you can save a lot there too.

    What about retailer prices between NJ and NYC? Are the prices the same?

    It’s the density of the stores. The big NJ malls have hundreds of stores.

    Of course, nothing compares to shopping in NYC, but noone would drive within Manhattan to shop.

    So drive to this mall, with a few big box retailers? Or drive to NJ, save a few bucks?

    Or stay in NYC, take the subway, and have a much better experience.

  • Since when did Christine Quinn’s desire to buy 488 rolls of toilet paper at Costco become the primary driver of urban development projects in Manhattan?

  • Free Wheel

    It’ll take more than 488 rolls of toilet paper to clean up this sh@#$tty deal.

  • zgori

    Frankly, this is no worse, and possibly even a little better, than what big box retailers do in the suburbs, building endless strip malls surrounded by acres of asphalt on what used to be farmland, snarling traffic everywhere nearby. At least here there is the possibility of being able to take transit or walk. I agree that the design could be more pedestrian friendly and the tax subsidies suck, but this isn’t exactly going to destroy the neighborhood.

  • J:Lai

    You know what would be a good use of this space?
    Some light industry.
    Given the same level of subsidies, I’ll bet there a number of businesses that could profitably locate there.
    That would have the advantage of providing higher paying jobs than those added by big box retail, diversifying the economy, and in general doing for both the neighborhood and the city than a bunch of national chain stores whose primary market is people with cars.

  • Regarding re-making this for any use, are the floors slightly sloped, as is fairly common in parking garages? That would make things difficult.

    If they tear it down it go in the Guinness Book, perhaps in its own new category “Shortest duration between construction and deconstruction…”.

  • Someone should visit the recently completed Skyview Parc/Center in Flushing. EXACTLY like East River Plaza and all of the other big box retailer developments EDC has been pushing all over the city under Bloomberg.
    Features:
    Target
    Best Buy
    BJ’s
    Bob’s Discount Furniture
    Bed Bath & Beyond

    Plus there is NO pedestrian entrance-you MUST walk thru the garage and narrow staircases/elevators to access stores. Probably the same dev company/architect?

  • R. Thibault

    If this was built for the people of East Harlem & the surrounding area it would not include a giant parking garage that looks eerily like a prison. The land where the garage is could have been used for stuff we will need very soon in the urban environment like growing food. Didn’t anyone get the memo about peak oil?

  • not a gator

    @19

    You hit on it right there. Parking tolls are part of the bond repayment scheme. All those rentiers owning tax-free bonds gotta make money somehow. Supposed income from pay parking garages gets these needless beasts built. Gainesville, FL built two… nobody uses them so the government (the federal court & local courts) subsidize them by paying jurors to park there! Oh, and two people have been shot to death, one in each garage. Lovely.

  • not a gator

    @41
    From your lips to our politicians’ ears.

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