Pedestrian Burdens: Send Us Pics of the Parking Garages Killing Your Street

At 1 Morningside Drive, parking minimums forced the construction of a 148-space garage. The developers put the parking on the ground floor, creating a blank wall facing a busy pedestrian street. Photo: Noah Kazis

Get your cameras ready, Streetsbloggers. It’s time to show Department of City Planning Director Amanda Burden what city-mandated parking garages are doing to the streets in your neighborhood.

In most of New York, it’s illegal to build anything of a certain size without a certain amount of parking, thanks to 1960s-era mandates in the city zoning code. Despite ample research showing that parking minimums encourage car ownership and cause traffic, DCP claims otherwise and clings to the position that these mandates are necessary.

Traffic isn’t the only cost of parking minimums, and under Burden DCP has at least acknowledged two other important ways they harm the city. Parking minimums increase the cost of housing, as the commissioner has stated, and parking on the ground floor erodes the pedestrian environment.

In some areas, DCP is beginning to rewrite the city’s archaic zoning regulations to try and prevent parking from taking the place of ground-floor retail, lobbies, stoops, and other uses that connect buildings to the sidewalk. On Brooklyn’s Fourth Avenue, where a 2003 rezoning led to a wave of development with ground floors dominated by ventilation ducts and even surface parking, DCP reversed course. In June, the department put out new rules forbidding curb cuts across the sidewalk, barring parking along the ground floor street frontage and encouraging retail uses. A draft rewrite of the parking regulations for much of Manhattan would eliminate a key incentive to build ground floor parking. In these select locations, Amanda Burden is making good on her widely-touted commitment to quality urban design.

Most of the city isn’t so lucky, however. In Upper Manhattan and the outer boroughs, parking is required in new developments. In practice, because developers often find it impractical to build underground parking, that often means the city is reserving ground floors for parking. Instead of new development fostering an engaging public realm, pedestrians encounter blank walls and curb cuts. The good news is that DCP is in the process of revising parking regulations for the “inner ring” of neighborhoods around the Manhattan core, which presents an excellent opportunity to stop forcing these dead spaces on neighborhoods everywhere.

Writing about parking regulations can get dry, so Streetsblog is going to start making the case visually. We need your help for our new photo series: “Pedestrian Burdens.”

Send us pictures of buildings in your neighborhood where parking harms pedestrian space, whether it’s a ground-floor garage, an egregious curb cut, or an ugly surface lot. Bonus points for buildings covered by parking minimums (larger buildings in Upper Manhattan or the other four boroughs) and built during the Bloomberg administration. Email your photos to tips@streetsblog.org and make sure to include the address of the buildings. We’ll feature the best on Streetsblog, building a visual case for Amanda Burden and DCP to act decisively on this critical urban design issue.

We’re starting with three of our own. The photo at the top of the post is from 1 Morningside Drive. That blank wall contains a garage with 148 parking spots, right at ground level.

On that site, on the north side of 110th Street, developer AvalonBay was required to provide a space for 50 percent of the building’s 295 units. It didn’t build a single parking spot beyond what was required by law. Had the same building gone up literally across the street, it would have been subject to parking maximums, not minimums. That solid brick wall of parking might have been more housing, retail, or open space. No wonder AvalonBay Senior VP Fred Harris has publicly called for parking minimums to be reformed.

Another blank wall created by a city-mandated parking garage, this time at 111th Street and St. Nicholas. Photo: Noah Kazis

A few blocks east on 110th sits 111 Central Park North, the most expensive building in Harlem. The front door, facing the park, boasts an elegant setback and sculpture. The luxury building presents the rest of the neighborhood, however, with a featureless wall, one-story tall. That’s its 34-car garage.

Again, the developers didn’t build a single space more than they were required to by the district’s 40 percent parking requirement. The building sits on top of the 2/3 train, three stops from Times Square.

Even without parking minimums, ground-floor garages get built on pedestrian-oriented streets. Photo: Ben Fried

City requirements aren’t the only reason parking interrupts the public realm, of course. At 655 Washington Avenue, the architect placed two single-car garages at ground level. The ten-unit building earned a waiver from the area’s parking minimums, so these were spaces the developer wanted. In fact, they’d have been eligible to build them even under Manhattan’s strictest parking maximums. Even so, the garages interrupt what is elsewhere a mixed-use street with ground-floor retail.

  • What you need is a map, with the two sides of the road coloured either red for parking garages, or green for active ground floor uses. Then it is will become very clear exactly where the issues lie. If you want to get fancy, colour empty storefronts yellow.

  • We’re strategizing about how we want to use maps and visualize this project geographically. Keep the ideas coming.

  • Danny G

    $10 says those single-car garages can be rented out as storefronts to pay the maintenance charges for everybody in the condo.

  • Anon

    Another problem is when buildings place some of the parking in what would normally be the back yard of the building.  In older low-rise town-house neighborhoods, planted backyards filling the entire block behind the buildings are a very attractive element for residents who have access to them and even to upper-floor residents who can view them.  They also serve to increase the City’s tree cover and reduce stormwater runoff.  When they are taken over by parking, the building’s residents lose this amenity, and the attractiveness of the backyards in the adjoining properties is reduced, bringing down property values.  Who wants a backyard that has a parking lot on the other side of the fence?

  • Street Wall

    Just walk down Brooklyn’s Fourth Avenue with a camera and snap away.

    http://www.streetsblog.org/2008/02/06/new-york-can-do-better-than-the-new-fourth-avenue/

  • Guest

    If every new building had commercial space on the street level for retailers, plus maybe a second floor for professional offices, business services and other non-retailers, then residents wouldn’t need cars in the first place to travel elsewhere to find all the necessities of life. (What are we, hunter-gatherers?) For that matter, in the future, the posh addresses of the rich should not be allowed to banish retailing from their buildings and streets, because it just ends up over-burdening less well-to-do neighborhoods.

  • Rollie Peñate

    Let’s not forget the blank garage façades of the Mondrian and the General Services Administration on either side of Lafayette Street sharing the block Streetblog HQ in SoHo.

  • TO_Man

    Off the top of my head I can’t think of a single example of a street-killing parking garage with ground floor parking here in Toronto. We put our parking garages underground 99% of the time. And in the rare cases we can’t do that, we have them start on the 2nd floor so the ground floor can be retail. I literally can’t think of ANY examples here similar to what the article talks about. Why doesn’t NYC just ban ground-floor parking so this can’t happen? If the parking cannot be underground, make it start on the 2nd floor so the ground floor can be retail or other similar use.

  • Hmm, if OWS wants to do something useful, why don’t they occupy the entrances to these craptastic parking garages… now that’d send a message, and quickly!

  • Dennis X

    To developers parking garages are the ‘Least’ profitable use when creating new structures. A change in the law can limit the # of parking spaces thus bringing parking to a premium due to  a lack of supply.  This is happening right now at Yankee Stadium, and their now defunct parking structure.  Some under-utilized garages are being re-purposed for other uses such as Server Rooms; and with the changes in transportation with the movement to electric vehicles, charging stations.

  • vnm

    Parking maximums, not parking minimums. 

    With everything we know about global warming, the obesity epidemic, asthma, traffic congestion, and the viability of car sharing like Zipcar, how can the City actually be *requiring* developers to build parking? Seriously. If a developer doesn’t think anyone will buy into his/her building if it doesn’t have parking, let him/her build parking. If not, don’t require it!

  • Archie

    Just to be clear, since the Clean Air Act of 1970, parking in Manhattan south of 96th street has been limited to the number of spaces equal to 20% of the apartments in a buidling.  That’s the max and there was never any required.  However, in the new Hudson Yard area (2005) for some reason they did require 20% for building of a certain time.  This was challenged and was subsequently eliminated in a 2010 rezoning.  There is a quirk in the zoning that exempt above grade parking from counting against your floor area totals if the parking is below 23 feet.  It’s rare in Manhattan for parking to be more valuable than ground floor retail or than other uses, but this floor area exemption should be eliminated because it does act as a mild inducement to put parking where you least want it. 

  • lic lovr

    seriously….why is there a need for parking minimums at all?  Wouldnt’ the market direct developers to build parking only where it is needed?  Doesn’t this law actually cause more problems than it solves?

  • anon

    How about EDUCATION minimums?  Developers should be required to build schools or to contribute to a fund that is dedicated to building new school facilities for the new population moving into developed areas.

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