On Tuesday, members of the City Council hammered the de Blasio administration for not guaranteeing enough housing units for low-income New Yorkers in new construction. But yesterday, when the topic turned to building more affordable housing by reducing parking requirements, several Council members lost their zeal for housing and worried more about car storage.
The hearing yesterday was about the City Hall proposal called “Zoning for Quality and Affordability,” or ZQA for short. One exciting aspect of ZQA is that it would reduce mandatory parking minimums for subsidized housing in a large swath of the city — freeing up space and resources to house people instead of cars. It’s not as exciting as eliminating all parking minimums everywhere, but it’s the single largest reform proposed for the city’s parking requirements in a long time.
Yesterday, Housing Preservation and Development Commissioner Vicki Been and City Planning Commission Chair Carl Weisbrod answered questions from council members about ZQA. The same chamber that the day before was so passionate about providing sufficient housing for less affluent New Yorkers suddenly seemed willing to compromise the construction of affordable residences in order to preserve the guaranteed construction of parking.
Following the lead of community boards, most council members who spoke yesterday seemed convinced that reducing parking requirements would be a burden on their constituents. Several of them wanted to keep their districts out of the “transit zone,” the area where parking requirements would no longer apply to subsidized housing. They often cited the inadequacy of transit in their districts as a reason to oppose the parking reforms, even though parking requirements make surface transit worse by pumping more traffic onto the streets.
Been and Weisbrod repeatedly emphasized that the overwhelming majority of parking spots in subsidized housing developments are unused. “We’re not saying that, in a given area, a housing provider can’t provide parking to its residents,” Weisbrod said. “We’re simply saying that we shouldn’t require it when we know and they know that it wouldn’t be utilized and those funds could better be used for other purposes — for affordable housing and, even more importantly, the space could be used for either affordable housing or open space or other community amenities.”
A major question going forward is whether City Hall and the council will water down the parking reforms before a vote on ZQA. If that happens, there will be no vote and no public record of council members’ positions on the proposal as it exists today. So here’s a record of what City Council members said about parking minimums at the hearing.
Zoning and Franchises Committee Chair Donovan Richards (Southeast Queens)
“In Queens you can get to Florida by plane just as quickly as you can get to Manhattan,” said Richards. While questioning Been and Weisbrod, he suggested that some neighborhoods in the transit zones did not have “reliable” transportation options. “Certainly there would be some adverse impacts on some of the particular transit zones you’ve presented,” he said. “So this is a continuous conversation but we’re certainly hoping that you’re open to refining some of the transit zones as we move forward.”
Land Use Committee Chair David Greenfield (Midwood)
Greenfield argued that higher-income residents of affordable housing would want to own cars. “I trust that most seniors don’t have cars and certainly it’s a better use on senior affordable housing to build units then it is to build parking spots,” Greenfield said. “[Families in development catering to higher adjusted median incomes] will have cars, you’re not building parking spots for these families, which means that we’re going to have more cars in the streets and more competition for cars.”
Public Advocate Letitia James
James implied that the area where parking reforms would apply should shrink. “I believe that the transit zones should be adjusted to take into account local conditions in each particular district,” she said. She also said that instead of letting projects proceed without parking, “each and every application would have to go to the community board not for approval but for review.”
Antonio Reynoso (North Brooklyn)
Reynoso told Been that he understands the impetus behind the elimination of parking requirements, but that it would be a tough sell to his constituents in Williamsburg and Bushwick, which he said are not “transit rich.” “It’s extremely difficult for me to make the argument against parking when the transportation infrastructure is in dire need of repair,” Reynoso said. “You can’t win the parking argument when hundreds of thousands of new residents are coming into the neighborhood and the transportation infrastructure that we currently have is unchanged.” He called on Been to “help me make the argument against that.”
Mark Treyger (Southern Brooklyn)
Treyger was emphatic in his opposition to the current transit zone and shifted the conversation to various transit-related slights against his district.
“This is a neighborhood that lost the F express,” he said. “That lost X28 on Saturdays, that lost the X29, was left out of the mayor’s ferry plan, was left out of the fancy streetcar plan, and quite frankly we are in a transportation desert in many cases in southern Brooklyn. How do you move masses of people around?”
Andrew Cohen (Northwest Bronx)
Cohen’s district is almost entirely outside of the transit zone, but he opposed the map anyway “because it’s not a process locally generated.” He equated the elimination of parking mandates with stranding elderly residents. “Asking seniors to use the subway more often in my district where I have an elevated train that’s inaccessible,” he said. “I have one elevator on the whole 1 line in the Bronx. It’s not a practical solution, so lumping this into a transit zone makes no sense and I think if you have come to the community board they would have told you that in advance before we got this far.”
Vanessa Gibson (Morrisania, Highbridge, Melrose)
Gibson said she had met with affordable housing developers in her Bronx district who had shifted her perspective on the elimination of parking minimums. She nevertheless challenged the extent of the transit zone and the reduction in parking mandates. “I’m not as opposed to it,” she said, “But I do think for those new units, especially of mixed-income, I certainly think we should provide some incentive to provide parking. I don’t think any of us realized how expensive it is to build parking across our city and looking at the transit zones — we’ve talked a lot about that, the low car ownership, the unused spaces — certainly we want to maximize on the number of units.” She said allowing car-free developments up to half a mile from high-frequency transit was too wide a radius. Gibson added: “I don’t want to assume just because you’re in an affordable unit, you may not be able to buy a car in the future. We want you to be able to purchase a car at some point.”
Margaret Chin (Lower Manhattan)
Chin, whose district already has no parking minimums, was one of the few council members to support the reforms. “The people in our city deserve to know that they can grow old here, in the neighborhood that they helped to build,” she said. “And I believe strongly in the stated goals of ZQA to make building affordable units and senior facilities easier by providing a flexible building envelope and reducing parking requirements.”
Peter Koo (Flushing)
Koo said the plan was “too ambitious” and questioned the logic of the parking reforms. “Although downtown Flushing is considered a transit zone, public transportation [there] is not enough,” he told Weisbrod and Been. “Buses are overcrowded and the 7 train constantly has service disruptions. Seniors who have visited my office cannot walk one block without assistance, let alone half a mile which is the distance of a transit zone.” Weisbrod said he understood Koo’s concerns, and emphasized that the majority of Koo’s district except for downtown Flushing is outside of the transit zone.
Brad Lander (Carroll Gardens, Park Slope, Borough Park)
Lander commended the affordable housing developer LiveOn NY for its work at the Bishop Boardman senior apartments in Park Slope. He pointed out that the parking lot serving the apartments is always empty and should be repurposed for more housing.
“We really want new senior housing and we want it soon and we’d like to build it and that parking lot is empty most of the time,” Lander said. “So please keep 8th Avenue and 16th Street in the transit zone however it is defined or changed.”