Manhattan Community Board 7 approved its recommendations for the Riverside Center mega-project in a special meeting last night, laying out a long list of demands. Many of the modifications would make the development more walkable, whether by integrating the project with the city’s streets and sidewalks or, more controversially, reducing the amount of parking proposed for the site. The board wants Extell Development to chop the number of parking spaces in its proposal from 1,800 to 1,000.
The current design calls for 2,500 apartments, split among five towers facing inward around a central public space, between 59th and 61st Streets next to the West Side Highway.
Many of the board’s recommendations seek to re-orient the project around the Upper West Side’s street life. They ask for retail along West End Avenue, "where it will be successful and used by the community," according to board chair Mel Wymore. Similarly, rather than allow the project to be built on an elevated platform as the site slopes toward the Hudson, the board demanded that the project be built at street level. Otherwise, said board member Hope Cohen, the project would resemble the crime-ridden Bryant Park of the early 1980s, which was physically and visually cut off from the sidewalk.
Those and other pedestrian-friendly design improvements, like sidewalk widening, won unanimous support without comment. But when it came to parking, Community Board 7 was split in half.
Under a 1991 agreement, the developer, Extell, is only allowed to build 743 parking spaces at Riverside Center, according to Wymore, but they are requesting 1,800 spaces.
Extell spokesman George Arzt explained that the developers originally wanted to build 2,300 spaces, a one-to-one replacement for the number of spaces currently at the site, which is now a double-level parking lot. Extell reduced their request to 1,800 when they dropped plans to include a Costco. Arzt didn’t worry that adding so much parking would increase congestion in the neighborhood, arguing that "this complex is right off the highway, so most of the cars that are going to go there are not going to be using city streets."
Community Board 7, however, is demanding that Extell drop the amount of parking down to 1,000 spaces. Wymore said that consultants hired by the board believed that between 800 and 1,000 spaces would be best for the site and that 1,000 was a compromise position between various community voices.
Some on the board, including both transportation committee co-chairs, Dan Zweig and Andrew Albert, wanted a higher total of 1,200 parking spots. "In New York, in a place where there is no more expensive or more difficult place to own a car," said Zweig, "citizens continue to go to the trouble." Therefore, he argued, those who drive need to be catered to, since their behavior isn’t going to change. Car trips, he said, "are necessary for the lifestyle of the West Side."
Zweig also framed the need for more parking as an issue of economic justice. "The people most affected will be those unable to afford it, who will be priced out of their own garages as this trickles up the whole West Side," he argued. Of course, only 26 percent of Upper West Side households own a car at all, and those car owners, on average, earn more than double the rest of the neighborhood, who would have to put up with the added traffic, pollution, and danger [PDF].
Other board members pushed back. Ken Coughlin quoted the developer’s own draft environmental impact statement, which showed that if Zweig had his way and 1,200 parking spaces were built, it would mean 3,100 car trips a day in and out of the garage.
Cohen reminded the board that at the other new buildings adjacent to Riverside Center, the ratio of parking is far lower. Using the same ratio as its neighbors, she said, would supply Riverside Center with 550 spaces.
Ultimately, the board held firm at the 1,000-car number. Motions to increase and decrease the amount of parking in the board’s recommendation to 1,200 and 700 failed 10-24 and 9-23, respectively. The board also unanimously voted against a proposed 181,000 square foot below-grade auto service center.
Though 1,000 parking spaces would still be more than there ought to be — the post-PlaNYC city of 2010 should be less accommodating to the automobile than a 1991 agreement, not more — it’s much fewer than the developer wants to build or than currently exist on-site. The question is whether CB 7’s recommendation, which is only advisory, will be heeded by the City Planning Commission and City Council.
After last night’s vote, Council Member Gale Brewer expressed support for the 1,000 space limit. "Definitely only one floor of parking," she stated, imposing a physical constraint that would prevent the construction of any more than 1,100 spaces.
Voicing support for 1,000 spaces won’t necessarily be enough to win that reduction, however. With CB 7 making so many demands, including a significant increase in housing affordability and the construction of an elementary school, Brewer and other decision-makers will need not only to support reducing the amount of parking at Riverside Center, but to fight for it in the likelihood that not every community demand will be met.
The project now goes to Borough President Scott Stringer for his recommendations.