We got our hands on a copy of the City Planning Commission’s report on the Riverside Center mega-development [PDF], and as we reported last week, the commission is allowing Extell Development to construct 1,260 parking spaces under two Upper West Side blocks. It’s possible that the number of parking spaces could drop lower when the public review reaches the City Council, where local representative Gale Brewer has said she favors 1,100 parking spaces.
In terms of reducing traffic and improving the urban realm, there are reasons to be of two minds about the commission’s decision. Compared to what’s on the development site now, Riverside Center will be a significant improvement for livable streets and environmental sustainability. But compared to what could have been built on the site, it’s a concession to the automobile and inconsistent with the principles of PlaNYC.
The arguments for each side go like this…
Point: Riverside Center Will Remove Over 1,000 Parking Spaces While Adding Thousands of New Residents
Currently, there are 2,387 parking spaces on the Riverside Center site [PDF]. Once the project is built, that number will drop to 1,260, a significant reduction in the amount of parking. Moreover, the ratio of parking spaces to people will drop even further, as Riverside Center is expected to contain between 2,000 and 2,500 housing units in addition to retail and a school, according to the CPC report.
“It’s far fewer parking spaces, which is a victory on some level,” said Rachel Weinberger, an expert on parking policy and planning professor at the University of Pennsylvania. She noted that in Copenhagen, they brag that they reduced the amount of parking in their city center by two to three percent each year — steady reductions can make a big difference.
City Planning appears to have made limiting the parking supply one of its top priorities for the site. The reduction in parking from Extell’s proposed 1,800 spaces was one of only three modifications that the commission made to the developer’s plan. (They also insisted that Extell locate a proposed auto showroom where it would do less harm to the pedestrian environment, and modified the affordable housing regulations for the project.) In contrast, a call for Extell to fully fund the construction of a new school, which was perhaps the most popular demand at the project’s public hearing, went unheeded.
Finally, the City Planning report again inscribes into the public record a commitment to lowering the amount of parking in the area and supporting a more sustainable development model. “The Commission acknowledges that in recent years, City policy has sought to limit parking supply in the densest parts of Manhattan while taking into account market demand, and affirms that this approach is consistent with promoting the pedestrian-friendly, transit-oriented character of this part of the city,” the report states.
Dan Gutman, an environmental planner who’s worked on parking issues at Riverside Center and the nearby Hudson Yards site, picked out that statement as an important sign of progress for City Planning. “Most of the time, they just approve whatever the developer asks for,” said Gutman. “This time they reduced it because they said they have a policy.”
“For City Planning, this is a big step,” concluded Weinberger.
Counterpoint: Riverside Center Could Be Built With Far Fewer Spaces
Riverside Center’s parking supply will be far out of line with its Upper West Side neighbors. If it were built with the same amount of parking as the successful developments around it, the project would contain only 550 spots, according to Regional Plan Association staffer and CB 7 member Hope Cohen.
City Planning’s own math is questionable. “You could do it another way and come up with a lower number,” said Gutman. They calculated that of the 1,650 or so cars that currently park at the site, 430 wouldn’t be able to find a replacement spot in a neighborhood garage. Then they granted Extell another 830 spots that the developer would have been able to build as-of-right under the Upper West Side’s parking maximums. (Interestingly, this is based entirely on the residential units; City Planning allowed the retail to be built without adding any parking to the arithmetic.) Both of those numbers can be called into question.
The 830 figure is much too high, given the site’s location. The parking requirements in the area switch at 60th Street, the midpoint for Riverside Center. City Planning chose to apply the higher parking requirement of 35 percent, which covers the area north of 60th Street, to the whole development, rather than the 20 percent maximum in effect below 60th. “City Planning could have pushed it further by either splitting the 35 and 20 percent and taking a blend of those or just opting for the lower end,” said Weinberger.
The 430 replacement spaces are also hard to justify. Why do those drivers get shielded from the effects of neighborhood change when no one else does? “When there’s new development on the site where my bookstore used to be, no one says that you have to replace the bookstore,” said Weinberger. “The argument that those spaces have to be replaced is unique to parking.”
Gutman also noted that City Planning decided it needed to provide spaces for cars left over when nearby garages reached 90 percent capacity. If they had calculated the overflow assuming that those garages would fill up all the way, as Gutman said the commission has done elsewhere, they could have cut that 430 number significantly.
Finally, Weinberger questioned why such intense development had to happen at Manhattan’s edge. “Why, when the whole country is trying to do TOD are we doing such a huge development so far from transit?” she asked. If the city insisted on making the most of the last large, undeveloped lot in the area, there should at least be some sort of shuttle service connecting Riverside Center to Columbus Circle.
“This underscores how we’re not connecting transportation and land-use planning the way we really need to be,” concluded Weinberger. “It’s kind of unfortunate.”