East River Plaza Parking Still Really, Really Empty, New Research Shows

East River Plaza, the big box mall designed for Massapequa and placed in East Harlem, still has a thousand-space parking garage. And given its location in one of the lowest car-ownership neighborhoods in the country, the garage is still as empty as when it opened, despite big subsidies for parkers.

Thanks to new research from Rutgers urban planning student Kyle Gebhart, whose paper on East River Plaza [PDF] won first prize from the American Planning Association’s Transportation Planning Division, we now know just how badly the project’s developers whiffed when building that massive garage.

East River Plaza's 1,100 space garage still looks like this, according to new research by a Rutgers planning student. Less than five percent of spaces on the upper floors of the garage are full, even at peak shopping times. Photo: Noah Kazis

To find out how the garage was being used, Gebhart went down to East River Plaza at two peak shopping times, the early evening of the Tuesday before Thanksgiving and the afternoon of the first Saturday in December. On the Tuesday, only 33.6 percent of the 1,103 spaces in the garage were occupied. On Saturday that figure had only crept up lightly, to 38.6 percent.

The top floors of the garage were essentially empty. Between 0.6 and 5.8 percent of the spaces on the upper levels were filled, according to Gebhart’s survey. One section of the third floor of the garage had been fenced off and converted into storage space rather than parking.

In contrast, the developers predicted that the garage would hold a whopping 1,190 cars on an average Saturday afternoon in the environmental impact statement for the project.

How did they get it so wrong? As East River Plaza developer David Blumenfeld explained to Streetsblog after the mall’s opening, he built his calculations around data from suburban big box stores. In the early 1990s, when the project was first conceived, there weren’t any big box stores in more urban settings. “There was no model to go off of,” said Blumenfeld. “There was only the suburban model.”

Gebhart’s research reveals just how braindead those planning documents were. The environmental impact statement drew its numbers from Home Depots in places like Pelham Bay Park, Glendale, Staten Island, and even Port Chester, where the store is off a highway interchange on the Connecticut border. Rather than assume a Manhattan location would have fewer drivers than those sites, they simply averaged the numbers from those suburban locations together.

Even with a subsidized 1,100 space garage, only a quarter of shoppers at East River Plaza drive (shown in blue). Most walk (shown in green). Image: Kyle Gebhart

“It is odd to somehow presume that a Manhattan Home Depot would generate an average number of trips from these locations,” wrote Gebhart, with a fair bit of understatement.

To estimate the parking needs of the East River Plaza Costco, the EIS looked at a single site in Staten Island, again without any sort of adjustment. “This is therefore measuring the amount of parking in the most car-dependent borough and applying it to the most car-free borough,” Gebhart wrote.

The results, needless to say, weren’t a good fit for Manhattan shoppers. Over half of East River Plaza’s customers live in the three closest ZIP codes, and by and large, they get to the mall on foot. Just under half of all shoppers Gebhart surveyed as they entered the Target on the Tuesday afternoon had walked there. Only 27 percent had driven.

Because the designers of East River Plaza had assumed most shoppers would be entering from the garage, not the street, the pedestrian environment is terrible for those entering on foot. Gebhart found that sidewalks on E. 117th Street had been narrowed near the entrance to the mall to make room for a wider street.

The moral, seemingly intuitive but not grasped at East River Plaza, is that you can’t treat Manhattan like it’s the suburbs. “If big box stores would like to locate in urban environments, it is important that they do not bring all of the elements of suburban sprawl with them,” concluded Gebhart. “Otherwise, by continually increasing the supply of parking and creating dead spaces, the city will only become more auto-dependent and sprawled as well.”

  • Anon

    This research is great, and should also be done at the nearby Bronx Gateway Center which used an almost identical template of big box stores and garages.  At the Bronx center, the garages are actually competing with all those garages built for Yankee Stadium.

  • Well, the problem with the conclusion is that it assumes that the incompatibility of the site design with the local neighborhood will cause it to require cars more than they currently do (which has negative effects). But in this case, that isn’t going to happen at all. There’s hardly any excess auto capacity in the surrounding area. The site will simply underperform as a destination. 

    But you know what else parks in a garage? Buses! So, if they could just provide a smoother mass transit integration for shoppers using all that dead parking space, they might do alright! Alternately (or concurrently), turn it into a discount-priced zipCar or rental hub for people who need to take trips out-of-town. Or make it the next great “Chinatown bus stop”, so that Megabus and Bolt Bus and all the rest have a nice spacious terminal where passengers can depart to and arrive from regional cities. 

  • Larry Littlefield

    “As East River Plaza developer David Blumenfeld explained to Streetsblog after the mall’s opening, he built his calculations around data from suburban big box stores. In the early 1990s, when the project was first conceived, there weren’t any big box stores in more urban settings. “There was no model to go off of,” said Blumenfeld. “There was only the suburban model.” “Gebhart’s research reveals just how braindead those planning documents were.”

    And how brain deal opponents of allowing national retailers opening in the city were as well.  They said the stores were “suburban.”  Not when you put them in a city, they aren’t. 

    As for the developer, even if they believed that what has in fact occured would occur, the EIS process would have forced this solution.  What has in fact occured is not the “reasonable worst case” which is what the process requires.

    You also have a different group of people living in the city now, with a different way of life.  More people who chose to live here for a reason, rather than just being born here and deciding not to flee when everyone else did.

    Hopefully these empty garages are enough to change some people’s minds, including developers and NIMBYs concerned about traffic.

  • Albert

    So now, what can be done about it?  Can the parking lot be torn down?  Or at least scaled back so the city can be seen from the river?  Doubt it.  “Too late.  Oops.  Sorry.  Next time.”

    When I arrived by bicycle (to redeem a Target gift card) it took me many minutes just to locate the “front” door of this execrably-designed monstrosity.  Finally found it on the side and up an escalator.

    It’s just a damn shame, because the stores do seem to be employing lots of actual local people.  Although this won’t help the Mom & Pops that the development will likely run out of business.

  • And they still don’t have reasonable bike parking!  They won’t install bike parking in any of those unused areas shown in the pcitures, they have an inadequate, unsecured  “comb”-style rack out-of doors.  all of this is in violation of the bike parking accommodations laws.  I’ve complained twice and gotten them fined twice.  They still don’t care.  What a waste.

  • Anonymous

    Maybe they could repurpose parts of the garage. Convert the top level into a dirt-bike track! 🙂

  • Dukechristo87

    I would hardley say that even Massapequa deserves to be impugned with this travesty!

  • Duh! 

    For my Masters Degree report I did while at the Bloustein School at Rutgers, in 20 minutes I was able to do the research and calculate that private car registrations in Manhattan as a whole in 2007 was less than 14% when compared to population.  Just a little bit less than the 77% in the US as a whole.  Somehow these developers couldn’t figure out that this slight difference in car ownership might somehow reduce parking demand that these stores before dumping millions of dollars into these parking decks?!?!

    Again.  Duh!

  • DevelllopNYC

    One thing that is not often discussed is that the City and the Department of City Planning contributed to this issue. The parking count for this development is not pure accessory parking as required by zoning. The total parking count was a requirement handed down by DCP as part of the project’s Special Permit when it went through the ULURP process. This parking garage cost the developer somewhere between $35 to $50 million to build and NO developer would choose to build something like that if they didn’t have to. The city also mandated that the parking be unattended parking with Pay On Foot machines as seen at Bronx Terminal Market, Yankee Stadium, etc. 

  • Bolwerk

    When I make comments to the effect that NYC needs a good light rail network, the usual criticism I get is that there is no place to store such vehicles in Manhattan.  From now on, I will just link to this article when that criticism arises. 

  • Mike

    And now the parking lot is going to become even emptier, as I hear tell that this Best Buy is one of the stores slated to be closed… 

  • MANHATTAN IS A WALKING CITY YOU IDIOTS! There was no need for a “Big Box store”, What they should be concentrating on are “Food Deserts” in these low income nieghborhoods. UGH! Now all of this concrete at the tax payers expense WTF For??!! 8 |

  • Guest

    To reiterate what DevelllopNYC says, the ERP parking count was driven by City Planning and the Dept of Transportation when they forced the developer make EIS assumptions that a large portion of shoppers would drive.  This was certainly not a developer “whiff” as Noah claims.  Parking is hugely expensive and no sane developer would want to overbuild it.

  • Gerald F

    This article highlights both the best and the worst of America’s government.  

    The best: Freedom of the Press allows a graduate student to bring to light a major flaw in government/developer regulations.  Hopefully this freedom to disseminate information will lead to future improvements in land-use.

    The worst: America’s land-use zoning laws are short-sighting and lack common sense.  Cities and developers in a hurry to push through a numb-skulled idea face little oversight or opposition.  

  • Thanks a lot for sharing such information . Smartly written article indeed.

  • Eric L

    We would all benefit from more parking research.

  • Ian Turner

    Any chance of converting some of this extra parking to some other use? Maybe housing or retail?

  • Tim G.

    Most of the issue is the rate for parking, most people who would drive to Queens, Brooklyn or NJ don’t have to pay to park.  At this mall you have to pay to park at a very high price of $20.00 for 3 hours.  On average one waste 1 hour to just pay for your items at Costco.  If the developers of the Mall are smart they may want to cut a deal with Loews to have them compete with Home Depot in Manhattan.

  • Ian Turner

    @f38164a6114ebe2f38dc4795f89952f2:disqus : Parking at East River Plaza is $5 for 2 hours. Not expensive at all.

  • Ian Turner
  • Lillianna

    It’s ridiculous to have to pay to park here.  Moreover they want you to visit every store in the complex but as you shop your parking fee is steadily rising.  If they do their homework  they would see how many thousands of shoppers are walking into the mall having either taken public transportation or parking in the street.  How much more would people buy if they didn’t have to haul it around?  

  • Lilliannna, as you note, you don’t have to pay to park there. You’re free to walk or take transit insteady.

  • Daphna

    I am surprised there are only 1,103 spaces in this garage for it seems much larger than that.
    The whole street level of this garage along the north side has had to be retrofitted at least twice. They have changed the paint and re-directed the cars and pedestrians, and it still is a mess. They put up ugly crowd control barriers all over the place to try to redirect pedestrians and vehicles.
    117th Street which had its sidewalks narrowed and its street made wider, always has least 50% of the width blocked off to vehicles. Yet unfortunately that half is not re-purposed for pedestrians but just stands as useless space.
    Not only should they have planned on more people arriving by foot and by bike, but they also did not plan for the taxi and livery service that people use. Many people arrive by transit and walking, then want to hire a car to take them home with their purchases. This facility needs large taxi stands but no provision was made for that.
    Since so few shoppers arrive and use the parking, the garage is now renting out the spots for long term use. It is $395 per month per spot. It seems like quite a few spots are now filled this way – it looks like maybe 30-50% of the spots are now being rented for long term car storage.

  • Daphna

    I think the rates are: $5 / 2 hrs; $11 / 4 hours; $18 / over 4 and up to 24 hours. Reasonable prices for Manhattan parking. It’s not the prices that are keeping people away. They either do not own cars, or own a car but do not find it convenient to use the car for shopping trips.

  • Daphna

    The similar design mall in the south Bronx (Bronx gateway center) charges for parking: $3 for 2 hours.

  • Daphna

    Burlington clothing store replaced Best Buy.

  • qrt145

    And even at $3 the parking lot is always pretty empty.

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