City Planning: Fourth Avenue a “Missed Opportunity”

Crest entrance
The 2nd Street entrance to the Crest, one of the recent additions to Fourth Avenue.

After Streetsblog ran a critique of new development on Brooklyn’s Fourth Avenue last week, we asked the Department of City Planning to address a few questions that came up in the comments. Namely, what can be done to stop developers from putting up parking lots, blank walls, and industrial vents right next to the sidewalk? The DCP press office sent us this reply, which sheds some light on the zoning requirements the city uses to encourage active retail streets, and how it chooses to apply those measures: 

It is of paramount importance to City Planning that we create places with a vibrant pedestrian environment. In higher density areas with a concentration of commercial activity, such as Downtown Brooklyn, Jamaica, and Hudson Yards, we’ve included retail continuity and transparency requirements. In certain special districts we require that parking be "wrapped" with commercial, residential or community facility uses on the ground floor. However, in other less established commercial areas there’s been a necessity for ground-floor retail to remain optional, rather then mandatory which might result in barren, empty storefront space.

The lack of retail storefronts along 4th Avenue is a missed opportunity, and we expect that as new housing adds potential customers, future developers will see the advantages of providing ground floor retail.  The city continues to evaluate our parking policy as we continue to look for creative ways to ensure an active public realm throughout the five boroughs.

The zoning on 4th Avenue (R8A coupled with a commercial district) is
essentially the same zoning that has been applied in a number of other
parts of the city, such as on Court Street in Downtown Brooklyn and
Upper Manhattan, where it has resulted in buildings with active ground
floor uses.

On the question of parking requirements, and whether developers have included on-site parking by law or by choice, here’s what DCP said:

Accessory parking in the R8A district is required for 40% of the dwelling units; parking can be waived if 15 or fewer spaces are required or if the zoning lot is 10,000 square feet or less.

In R8A (6.02 FAR max):
On a 10,000 sf lot, you can build approx 60,000 sf (approx 60 units).
On a lot of up to 15,000 sf, the parking requirement is reduced to 20%. You can waive out for 15 or fewer spaces, which translates to 75 units.

The permits for the Novo, for instance, (the 1st building to go up on 4th Avenue) list 113 units, with 60 parking spaces (attended). This exceeds the required 45 spaces.

Sounds like the minimums have to go and more changes are in order to rein in developers’ bad instincts. Parking maximums, anyone?

  • Larry Littlefield

    Novo built all the spaces because it has more units. With fewer units, or a building subdivision, Novo could have waived.

    But that sets up an interesting dynamic. Young singles clearly have less need of their own car than families with children, and are statistically less likely to have their own car. But if you build family-sized units, you can waive parking, but if you build small units for singles and couples, you can’t.

    I’ll bet many of those spaces will be rented out to non-residents, although the legality of this is questionable. “Accessory” parking is rented out to non-residents all over the city.

    Perhaps the parking should be related to the size of the building, not the number of units. Thus the larger the units, the higher the share of the units with a parking space.

  • ddartley

    And why the minimum parking requirement in the first place, waive-able or not? And from when does that first date?

    (I’m sure all that’s been answered here before (by Larry, probably), but I’m throwing it in there in annoyance.) Couldn’t the requirements just be scrapped, or very significantly shrunk?

    Shouldn’t a city want to attract people and families who spurn the idea of owning a car? Not very informed or original questions, I know, but there they bloody are.

  • CityParent

    I don’t see why families with children in the city have any greater need for a car than anyone else.

    My wife and I raised two kids in Park Slope, and we have never owned a car. We all took the trains, or biked to soccer, or rented a car if we left the city. I don’t feel like our lives have been diminished in any way for lack of a car, and it has saved us a hell of a lot of money.

    The only reason most of the families I know “need” a car is so they can escape on weekends to their country homes… otherwise the cars sit, idle, all week in the parking lots we call our streets.

  • Larry Littlefield

    (Couldn’t the requirements just be scrapped, or very significantly shrunk?)

    I would expect that if this issue were opened and the sort of people who show up at public hearings understood how easy it is to waive parking, the political result would not be what you expect.

    (I don’t see why families with children in the city have any greater need for a car than anyone else.)

    More people in the household, more need to buy in bulk when you shop. And the trip to visit the relatives outside NYC (if you have roots in the tri-state) is much more doable with four people in a car than on transit.

    Theoretically, the shared/rented car solution could eventually get rid of this need, at a lower cost. I read that in DC large apartment/condo developers have struck deals with Zipcar/Flexcar to provide spaces for their vehicles in exchange for a discount for residents.

  • Larry Littlefield

    Oh, and NYC is one of the few cities with a parking maximum — I don’t recall exactly and don’t feel like looking it up, but I think it might be 225 cars. But the DOB interpreted away by saying required parking is exempt from the maximum parking requirement.

    Getting back to 4th Avenue, let’s say that ground floor retail and parking are not mutually exclusive (ie. the Crest wasn’t forced to do it). Wouldn’t it be better to have parking in the cellars, and remove the parking lane from the street?

  • Families with small children often prefer to use a car to transport them because it is easier for the parents. Strap the kid in, maybe play a movie in your DVD-equipped SUV, plenty of room for snacks, games, other gear, and you don’t have worry about them much. No need to hold their hand on the subway platform or when embarking/disembarking from a bus or subway, or pay attention to them so they won’t get bored and do something dangerous or irritating. No matter what happens, the kids can’t slow you down when strapped in.

    It’s all for the convenience of the parents, so they can expend less psychic energy on the kids than they would in the walking, biking or mass transit scenario. Instead of travel time being an opportunity for teaching the kids urban life skills or simple conversation, reading together or any other joint interaction, the parents are segregated in the front seat with the kids left to their own devices in the back.

    Of course, that is the lifestyle I see in many of the homes of the same people, so it’s not terribly surprising.

    My comments of course don’t apply to parents or children with disabilities that make family use of mass transit overly burdensome, or who face long walks to access mass transit, but I can’t think of too many other situations that require a family in the city to have car (other than the country house thing, which I agree is the main reason most of them cite for having a car in the city).

  • Eric

    Amazing! It only took the first sentence of the DCP response to render it total b.s.

    It is of paramount importance to City Planning that we create places with a vibrant pedestrian environment.

    “Paramount importance?” Here’s how Merriam-Webster defines “paramount.”

    Superior to all others : supreme [a matter of paramount importance]

    I would say that the photo of the Crest shows that the importance DCP places on a “vibrant pedestrian environment” is something less than “paramount.”

    The 4th Avenue re-zoning has created no affordable housing and nothing resemotely pedestrian-friendly. It’s been a total failure.

  • Larry Littlefield

    (I can’t think of too many other situations that require a family in the city to have car).

    I remember one Christmas (1987) before we had kids, or a car. I was on crutches, having sprained by ankle jogging by stepping in a puddle in Propsect Park that had a missing drain cover on it (no, I didn’t sue).

    Carrying suitcases and presents, we took the F, to the A, to the then-crackhead-laden elevator transfer to the 1 at 168th. At 242nd Street we would normally have taken a Westchester Bus to Yonkers and walked up Nodine hill, but in this case we caught a taxi. The trip was still over 2 hours.

    Late Christmas Eve, relatives dropped us back at 242nd for the #1 train to Penn Station where, carrying the suitcases and presents and avoiding the huge number of homeless living there at the time, we caught a late LIRR train out to visit the other side of the family. By this time my wife was getting sick. Three hour trip.

    After staying over and spending Christmas there, we were dropped off for the subway ride back to Atlantic and Flatbush. I was exhaused and had to go to the bathroom, my wife was quite sick, and the bus didn’t come for over an hour. The bus that did come stopped half way there, the bus driver got off, and the replacement didn’t show, delaying us another 45 minutes. We could have walked, but I was on crutches. We never thought to try a taxi or car service. Those are for the better off, we figured. Five hour trip.

    Fortunately, we were young and didn’t have a lot of clothes or presents coming or going.

    Now, are you suggesting we could have taken the same trip by transit with a one-year-old and a three-year-old?

  • Land Use Lawyer

    Fourth Avenue was a rezoning failure. There was a lot of resistance to doing anything beyond upzoning or downzoning. It was the last major rezoning not to include IZ and a good example of quantity verses quality in rezonings. DCP hasn’t rezoned this much of the City since 1961.

    Unfortunately, it hasn’t been very thoughtful in its approach most of the time. Grand Street is another example: in 2005 they rezoned to R6 to prevent automobile uses; then in 2008 they’re rezoning to R6-A and B because developers are building pursuant to R6.

    Its difficult not to be reactionary as an agency – there are only so many resources and everyone has a request. But there is also a tendency to be conservative in the outer boroughs and stick to what everyone knows already in terms of land use controls.

    A good exception was the Downtown Brooklyn Rezoning, which was creative with the controls and the incentives and will likely result in a slightly better urban form than other places.

    Kudos for trying, but maybe they should think more about it rather than rushing everything through.

  • Eric

    But Larry, had ZipCar existed in 1987, you could have made that trip easily, and at a reasonable rate, without having to actually buy the car, which wouldn’t have been very cost-effective if you were only visiting your family on holidays.

    Maybe the parking requirement should be for one ZipCar for every 20 units of housing or so.

  • “Now, are you suggesting we could have taken the same trip by transit with a one-year-old and a three-year-old?”

    I don’t know, Larry, I don’t have any family within driving distance. I sure wish there were some I could visit by train. But life decisions that I take full responsibility for have taken me far from them, and as a consequence I don’t see them at times when the airfare is steep. I certainly see your point, but any argument that says one needs a car to do sympathetic thing X grates me a bit, when there are so many people who can’t do X anyway. Plenty of people in New York may never see their families again, because they’ve immigrated away from them and they’re too poor for unnecessary travel, or they came illegally so it’s a one-way trip anyway. Contrasted with that reality, the fabled American family holiday drive-together just doesn’t pull my heartstrings very hard.

  • Car Free Nation

    BicyclesOnly’s remarks are really a bit off the mark. I’ve got three kids, no car, and make do with public transportation, the occasional car service, and a rare rental car. But when I do take the subway with my whole family (which is often), it is very rarely a relaxing or pleasant experience. And it’s not because I don’t like expending “psychic” energy.

    The subway just isn’t kid friendly. My local subway stop has 55 steps between the trains and the street (that’s about a four-story walk-up). Try schlepping stroller, unhappy kid, and shopping up those stairs. Wouldn’t it make sense for the MTA to put in escalators, like they have in London.

    Simply standing on the platform is dangerous. There’s no barrier between those standing on the platform and the speeding train. You let go of your two-year-old for a second, and you’re at risk of him running off the platform. At least when you’re walking on the street, you have a little protection from the parked cars.

    If it were my Subway, I’d spend a lot more time making the experience more user-friendly. Any time you have more than 10 steps to the street, add an escalator. Set up elevator-like doors on the platforms, so it’s not so loud, and it’s safer. Take the token clerks from behind the bullet proof glass, and have them walking around greeting people and helping people get their stuff up the stairs, more benches on the platform, signs telling people when the trains coming, someone cleaning up all the time etc.

    Taking the Subway should be like going to a decent deparment store. Friendly service, ease of use, etc.

  • Larry Littlefield

    (Kudos for trying, but maybe they should think more about it rather than rushing everything through.)

    I worked for the agency for 13 years. For 12 of them, it did almost nothing, and teh few things it tried to do were shot down. I’m not sure a study, followed by an environmental review, followed by ULURP is rushing things through.

    Not to mention the City Planning Commission report, and the requirement (still there?) that all the data has to be collected all over again for the environmental review after the initial study, because the envirnomental review division doesn’t want to say what data it wants while the study is going on — conflict of interest. Would that the bond rating agencies had taken that approach with CDOs!

  • I didn’t say I never use cars. I usually rent cars for vacations outside the city. I occasionally rent cars for day trips outside the city to visit family and otherwise. I have also used a cab to get my family of four from Manhattan out to Coney Island or the Hall of Science in Flushing Meadows, in order to “jump start” things when we found ourselves at noon on a weekend with nothing to do for the day.

    Without question there are situations when a car makes sense. But there are far fewer situations in which owning a car in the city makes sense. And of course my comment about parents wanting to wall off their kids is a generalization, I’m sure there are exceptions, but it is generally true of the families I know with cars in the City.

    And Car Free Nation, I am with you 100% on the improvements you recommend for mass transit to make it more kid-friendly. But if you are saying that it is unreasonable to use the subways and buses as they are currently configured, with kids, I personally would disagree.

  • Slopion

    “But life decisions that I take full responsibility for have taken me far from them, and as a consequence I don’t see them at times when the airfare is steep.”

    Doc: When the fares are affordable, why is your air travel justifiable?

    Airplanes don’t exactly run on daisies and fairy dust; they burn jet fuel in the upper atmosphere. And leaving aside the environmental impact of airplanes (and airports), widespread, cheap commercial air travel has had any number of undesirable effects on modern society, the pace of life and the development and spread of communities.

    Sure I can empathize with wanting to see your family, but any argument that says one needs air travel to do sympathetic thing X grates me a bit, when there are so many people who can’t do X anyway. Plenty of people in New York may never see their families again, because they’ve immigrated away from them and they’re too poor for unnecessary travel, or they came illegally so it’s a one-way trip anyway. Contrasted with that reality, the fabled American family holiday plane trip just doesn’t pull my heartstrings very hard.

  • Slopion, we meet again!

    The question isn’t whether or not me occasionally flying is justifiable. In fact, I didn’t even start to try to pull your heartstrings, so your mocking has nothing to do with anything.

  • The point was Slopion, since you missed it, that I’m one of many poor fellows that does not see his family on most holidays, so I’m less interested in an argument saying that people need their cars for that purpose. I’m not asking for cheaper airfare over the holidays, and I can’t imagine where you got that idea other than a desperate attempt to pick a fight. I specifically said I take responsibility for my decisions. I respect that holiday airfares are higher due to increased demand, and would like nothing better than to see the same principle applied to road use. Furthermore, I’d love to see the institution of carbon taxes, and a decrease in airline subsidies, that would significantly raise airfares across the board. If that happens I’l fly even less often, also without complaint. Perhaps this would help convince some of my ignorant family to locate themselves closer to useful rail lines.

    What’s your beef?

  • CityParent

    Re: “bulk shopping” needs of city families

    Our family uses one of those folding, wheeled personal shopping carts. Handles the “bulk shopping” requirements of our family just fine.

  • Slopion

    My point, Doc, is that it’s pretty easy to be sanctimonious about *other* people’s choices. And yeah, I think responding to Larry’s question with the reminder that there are poor immigrants in NYC–so what’s he griping about?–was a tad sanctimonious. (I mean, there are dirt-poor people in the Third World who would love to be in those poor immigrants’ position. Doesn’t mean I shouldn’t feel for those immigrants.)

    I think it’s entirely reasonable for you to fly to visit your relatives occasionally. And, yes, I think it would be entirely reasonable for Larry to drive to Yonkers with two small kids for a holiday. I think that he, and you, and probably most everyone who gives enough of a crap to follow posts on Streetsblog, have made personal and conscientious decisions about how to balance their personal desires with the common good. I believe you’re both people of good will who are making contributions and believe in paying the cost of your transportation choices.

    But I shouldn’t single you out. I could have just as well have picked on bicyclesonly, and his/her charitable insight that parents who drive do so because they hate expending psychic energy on their children.

  • Slopion

    …and you know what? I’m being totally sanctimonious now too. I should shut up now.

  • It’s okay Slopion, no one you choose to pick on has very much to worry about. It’s not about the impacts of a single holiday drive to Yonkers, it’s about owning a car that you’ll be inclined to drive all year round, and the supporting storylines all car owners have, which too often go all the way to “why I need this particularly large SUV.” (To go fishin’!) It’s not about Larry either. I respect him and the knowledge he brings to Streetsblog. As has been pointed out, it was a different time. Things are changing rapidly. It’s vital that we see New York as a place where no one needs a car, especially parents. We have to believe in this, and we have to work to make it ever easier to live car free. If we just give in and say no, upper middle class families are so special, they really do need to own cars to get to their soccer practices and their family gatherings, then WE LOSE. Okay? We lose because if “good” families need cars, then everyone needs a car to live a full life and that is something that our future can not support. This is not sanctimony, this is civilization.

  • Doc, I agree that Streetsblog readers should be the most vociferous supporters of your nimbly phrased insight quoted below. Thanks for making such a great point.

    It’s vital that we see New York as a place where no one needs a car, especially parents. We have to believe in this, and we have to work to make it ever easier to live car free.

  • Larry Littlefield

    Some trips will always require a car, or be unmanageable without them. That’s why having cars available for affordable use is a necessary component to not having them all the time. As we’ve debated here, I’m not sure we’ve achieved that yet, although when our car wears out, I’ll run the buy vs. occasionally rent comparison again.

  • Angus Grieve-Smith

    I wanted to thank Doc and Jonathan for moving the discussion away from what “families need.” Families need enough food, shelter and healthcare for all their members, and that’s pretty much it. Beyond that, it’s all about convenience and preference.

    We’ve gone into this on some previous posts, so I’ll try not to duplicate what I’ve said in too great detail.

    When my wife and I were childless, we had a house with plenty of storage space, and occasionally got a ride and a guest pass to go to Sam’s Club or Costco and bbuy in bulk. Yeah, I suppose it was convenient to have a case of soymilk in the basement, but if we forgot anything on those trips we had to make a trip to the store anyway, whether it was the bulk store or a regular supermarket. We did own a car for six months, and it was more convenient to drive two or three miles than to walk or bike it.

    None of that compares to the convenience and pleasure I now feel at having a supermarket around the corner. We don’t have to freeze anything if we don’t want to. We can eat fresh food every night. We don’t need to decide what we’re going to eat until a couple of hours before dinner. If we forget anything, we can get it in ten minutes.

    As far as cost savings, we can afford a smaller apartment and a smaller refrigerator since we don’t have to store two weeks of food in it. I don’t know how the costs break down, but obviously it’s a function of real estate prices and the cost of owning and using a car, so it’s pretty complicated and fluctuates widely. I don’t think it clearly favors either bulk shopping of living close to stores.

    This lifestyle works fine with one kid, and it probably scales pretty well to two. Beyond that I have no idea, but I’m sure there have been plenty of three- and even four-child families in NYC that have fared just fine without ever taking a trip to Costco.

  • Angus Grieve-Smith

    Now, are you suggesting we could have taken the same trip by transit with a one-year-old and a three-year-old?

    I think that you can pretty much draw a line around “walkable New York”; just where is left as an exercise to the reader. There are sizeable pockets of walkability outside of this area, such as walkable tourist towns like Woodstock (when I was growing up) and Ocean Grove; college towns like New Paltz, NY and Madison, NJ; and streetcar suburbs like North Bergen and Bronxville.

    It’s perfectly possible to lead a lifestyle that never requires you to leave this “greater walkable New York.” To the extent that people choose to, they will find it less convenient to do it without a car. Sometimes so much less convenient as to make it not worth the time.

    I’m not saying that that doesn’t have to be considered, but it is a lifestyle choice. Nobody “needs” to go to Armonk or Huntington any more than they “need” to do all their shopping at Costco. It’s unreasonable to ask them to give it up all at once, but it’s also unreasonable for them to ask that the city be planned around their desires, choices and conveniences.

  • Angus Grieve-Smith

    And another thing…

    But when I do take the subway with my whole family (which is often), it is very rarely a relaxing or pleasant experience.

    I don’t know about you, but ever since I saw someone get killed by a motorist’s impatience and momentary inattention, driving has rarely been a relaxing or pleasant experience. I’m human, and prone to impatience and inattention. I’d much rather deal with the hassles of taking kids on the subway than worry about the very real possibility that I might kill someone.

    Deserted country roads have been occasional sources of pleasure – but often marred by being tailgated by some country driver who’s much more routinized than I am. The only unambiguous source of driving pleasure I can think of is bumper cars.

  • Jonathan

    Angus is right in 26. Driving is a serious job with serious consequences. It’s one thing to cross on foot against the light, another to make a rolling stop to save what? Time?

  • Angus Grieve-Smith

    Here’s another missed opportunity coming up: the new Rockrose development on Court Square in LIC will replace a parking lot with … a parking pedestal! Stamford, here we come!

  • For such an elaborate set of trips, you could have called cabs for the entire journey in all directions, whether you were with or without kids. For a once-a-year event, this would not be prohibitively expensive.

    You elected not to do this for mysterious reasons known only to you. But cabs are a legitimate part of mass transit (for this reason they should be publicly owned, not privately owned; but this is another topic). A cab is the rational choice when riding the bus or subway or commuter rail is not convenient due to circumstances (such as the need to transport large items, or being on crutches, or having several kids in tow, or any combination thereof).

    Your scenario does not demonstrate the need for a car; it provides an example of how cabs obviate this need.


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