The Next New York: How the Planning Department Sabotages Sustainability

argyle_08_2009.JPGThe Argyle, a new arrival on Brooklyn’s Fourth Avenue, is close to transit but cedes the ground floor to parking rather than retail or even a stoop. Parking requirements throughout New York compromise walkable development. Image: Brownstoner.

This is the second installment in a three-part series on the
reshaping of New York City and its consequences for sustainability and
livable streets. Read the first part here.

Yesterday we looked at the Department of City Planning’s eight-year record on rezoning and its general success at creating opportunities for development near transit. Density, however, is only one piece of the planning process. Amanda Burden’s planning department has laid the foundation for transit-oriented growth, but so far failed to create conditions where walkable development can flourish.

"Everyone’s trying to remake themselves into New York while New York is trying to make itself a more suburban environment."

Across the city, mandatory parking minimums are holding New York back from true transit-oriented development. Additionally, the largest development projects in the city tend to sacrifice good planning in order to satisfy demands from developers with little interest in creating walkable places. Even as the Department of City Planning takes steps toward good urbanist principles in its rezonings, planners are sabotaging that very effort.

The department’s parking policy is one major impediment. By requiring most new residential developments to include a minimum number of parking spaces per unit, the department is artificially inflating the supply of parking, inducing more traffic and subsidizing car ownership.

New research from Simon McDonnell, Josiah Madar and Vicki Been at NYU’s Furman Center for Real Estate and Urban Policy [PDF] shows how these policies actually concentrate parking in transit-rich areas.

McDonnell_map.jpgRequired parking per thousand square feet of land. Parking minimums actually consume the most space along transit lines.

The research reveals that although buildings near rail stations have lower parking minimums than those in more car-dependent areas, on average residential development within half a mile of rail is still required to have 46 parking spaces for every 100 housing units. Perversely, because you can build more densely near transit, parking minimums per square foot of land are actually higher where transit options are most robust. So even as the planning department tries to concentrate growth near transit lines,
it is simultaneously filling that valuable real estate with unnecessary

The impact of inserting so
much new parking into the built environment is

New York City’s parking minimums will add a
billion more vehicle miles traveled per year by 2030, according to Transportation Alternatives’ 2008 report, Suburbanizing the City. Parking minimums can also force new development to disengage from the street, creating unpleasant sidewalks and dead spaces for pedestrians, as seen on Brooklyn’s Fourth Avenue.

"Everyone’s trying to remake themselves into New York while New York is trying to make itself a more suburban environment," said Rachel
Weinberger, the lead author of the TA report and a professor of urban planning at UPenn. Weinberger argues that the combination of
increased density and parking minimums means that the planning department is
"pushing the urban form into a more Corbusian, towers-in-the-park
shape." A form that has been discredited for the better part of 50 years.

Shortsighted parking policy has been complemented by outsized redevelopment
projects widely seen as antithetical to sustainable planning. "The big way
that Bloomberg projects have been anything but transit-oriented is not
the rezonings, but those rezonings that have been combined with major
redevelopment initiatives," said Joan Byron, the
Director of the Sustainability and Environmental Justice Initiative at
the Pratt Center for Community Development. "These are the megaprojects: Yankee Stadium,
Willets Point, or Coney Island, to name a few examples."

In these
cases, Byron says, the planning department — especially when working closely with
the NYC Economic Development Corporation — ignores good planning and
instead "seeks to maximize the return on investment for a hypothetical
developer." The upshot is that these megaprojects routinely sacrifice walkable streets in order to embrace the automobile, as Ron Shiffman, a co-founder of the Pratt Center and former planning
commissioner, described for Streetsblog last November.

In some places, the planning department’s transit-oriented rezonings
and its auto-centric redevelopments sit cheek-by-jowl. The 1,248 parking space East River Plaza, for example, hulks next to the FDR Drive in East Harlem, while just a few blocks closer to the Lexington Avenue subway, huge swaths of the neighborhood were upzoned to take advantage of the area’s transit resources.

hudson_yard_rendering.jpgThe Department of City Planning’s vision for Hudson Yards.

At Hudson Yards, perhaps the marquee development project of the Bloomberg
Administration, the picture is even more muddled. On the one hand, the city has invested $2.1 billion of its own money
to extend the 7 line to the far west side of Manhattan, a serious investment in
making these new apartments and offices transit accessible. On the
other hand, it took a lawsuit
from the Hell’s Kitchen Neighborhood Association to force the
administration to abandon its plan for 17,500 new parking spaces at Hudson Yards.

While the Bloomberg administration
invests billions of city dollars in making Hudson Yards a "dynamic, transit-oriented urban center,"
it has also actively fought to make it a car-friendly location.
These goals are fundamentally incompatible. "You can’t make a place auto-accessible," said Weinberger, "without
eroding the pedestrian and therefore the transit environment."

Bloomberg and Burden have undertaken a transformative
rezoning of the city, mostly along transit-oriented lines. At the same time,
their policies are not filling those transit-rich areas with development that actually fosters walking and transit use. Planners instead insist on the unnecessary construction of
parking spaces and allow developers to import suburban standards into New York City’s urban fabric. It’s as if the left hand doesn’t know what the right
hand is doing. In the third post of this series, we’ll look at how the Bloomberg administration can use the next four years to better align its development policies.

  • Larry Littlefield

    As much as Streetsblog feels compelled to post this, I feel compelled to correct it. You need to take into account the availability of waivers. With the ability to waive, and divide larger lots into smaller ones with separate buildings, parking is optional, not required. One think I leared in 13 years of reviewing and helping to write zoning regulations is that without cross-referencing multiple sections, the zoning isn’t what you think it is.

    The parking is there because the developers want it, because they believe affluent buyers do, not because the city is forcing them. To get rid of it, it would be necessary to prohibit it — to impose maximums rather than minimums, which exist in some parts of the city.

    But that would generate outrage from nearby neighborhood residents, who would see new residents competing for “their” on-street spaces, and create more opposition to new development altogether (always present below the surface from the “I’ve got mine jack” crowd).

    I’ll be interested to see your way out. Restrict parking but encourage facilties for shared vehicles (Zipcar) and rental facilities?

  • James

    Isn’t the title a little bit histrionic? I mean, ‘sabotaging?’ Come on. The minimum parking requirements in transit-accessible areas are what they are purely for political reasons. They have nothing to do with best practices in sustainable urbanism or the desires of planners toiling away in bureaucratic city dungeons. Page 4 of the report you linked to even states this – the ratios exist to protect the existing pool of on-street parking users (homeowners/voters in many cases) from an influx of new arrivals with vehicles. It’s done to satisfice a self-entitled constituency who would go batshit if they were unable to find parking. That’s the essence of it.

  • karl

    As a practicing urban planner, I would love to actually have the power ascribed to me by this article….

    I will say that by and large I agree with the goals laid out by this article, and would venture to guess that most other planners do as well. However, as the other posters have alluded to, there are other considerations that go into these decisions, many of them political. The end result is often a compromise or represents the balancing of several competing interests.

    I do enjoy these critiques of my profession. I figure that at least it means that somebody cares about what we do.

  • “The parking is there because the developers want it, because they believe affluent buyers do, not because the city is forcing them.”

    If that were true, we could simply eliminate the requirements and let the market handle the issue. I think that, if we looked at the amount charged for parking in new buildings, we would see that it does not cover the full cost of constructing the parking, which indicates that the requirements are higher than the amount of parking that the market would provide.

    I am surprised at how high these requirements are. In Berkeley, the requirement is generally .25 per unit in apartment buildings, and we are much more auto-dependent than NY city.

    In Berkeley, the general rule is that condo apartment developers provide 1 space per unit, because buyers want it. Rental apartment developers provide the required .25 spaces, and would provide less if it weren’t for the requirement.

  • Short of actually setting maximums, which may not fly politically, the city force developers to make new owners buy parking as a separate entity. They could also allow replacement if concessions are made for bike parking, transit passes or car share memberships.

  • JK

    Developers do not always want to build parking, I’ve talked to a bunch about this exact issue, and yes, city planning and community boards do force them to. Doesn’t it seem bizarre that the relatively small number of people who park curbside in neighborhoods near transit are allowed to compel the construction of hugely expensive and environmentally destructive off-street parking in new developments? It’s not enough to shrug and call it “politics,” it’s baloney. Also baloney is to have written standards —zoning — that has so many exceptions and waivers that it’s not meaningful. The parking requirement should either be adhered to or not exist. Adding to the layers of absurdity surrounding parking requirements are city and state EIS requirements (C/SEQRA which project demand for parking based only on free parking. That hugely inflates demand.)

  • Jason A

    That picture of “The Argyle” is an offensive middle finger to anyone who walks by it. It’s like the building stood up and turned its back to the street. Shame on all parties responsible for this.

  • Glenn

    That’s a nice map!

  • Larry Littlefield

    “Baloney is to have written standards —zoning — that has so many exceptions and waivers that it’s not meaningful. The parking requirement should either be adhered to or not exist. Adding to the layers of absurdity surrounding parking requirements are city and state EIS requirements (C/SEQRA which project demand for parking based only on free parking. That hugely inflates demand.”

    You have no idea how much baloney is in zoning regulations. There are provisions that basically say homeless shelters can’t exist anywhere, and another hidden one (to avoid running afoul of other constituencies) that say they can.

    The zoning was mostly written by a pre-term limits NYC political culture, when NYC was run by the same sort of politicians we now have in Albany. Something to think about as we head for a post-term limits political culture.

  • Paul Murphy

    Thanks for putting a spotlight on this. These requirements are so idiotic and retrograde. The map is really great too.

  • JK

    You’re absolutely right Larry, the whole code is full of contradictions and de facto real world exceptions. A basic premise of democracy and good public policy is that you should have laws that say what they mean. The code and C/SEQRA both are crying out for total overhauls. The C/SEQRA and EIS part are closely intertwined with zoning because they are way developers show they are complying the zoning for big projects. Mayor Mike would do the public a big service by creating a clear and rational code and enviro review process. (No more projecting mode share and demand based on free and unlimited parking!)

  • Rob B.

    I can’t believe the city is allowing new buildings to be built this way! One of the comforts for parents raising children in the city is the absence of driveway curb cuts and cars crossing the sidewalk. Kids can walk and run relatively freely on the sidewalk, demanding slightly less hovering by parents.

    Brooklyn is so charming because of car-free sidewalks. Fourth Avenue has the subway running under it. Why ruin it with cars and garages?

  • I do not accept the notion that New York City is not governable or plannable. We can have the city we want. I think a 1987 New Yorker would be shocked anyone would be building anything at all in certain neighborhoods. We need more leadership and guts and optimism.

  • Jeffrey Hymen

    Larry and Corey, DCP is finalizing a text amendment to permit car-sharing in accessory parking lots/garages. I suggested this could be an opportunity to reduce the parking requirement. After all, many tenants are theoretically sharing one car and one parking space. DCP told me, however, it is concerned developers might use a car-sharing reduction to build less parking and then at a later point, discontinue the car-sharing. I still think the agency is making a mistake. This is such a baby step.

  • rube goldberg

    Absolutely, NYC’s parking requirements are too high – especially the commercial parking requirements. But there’s another factor that contributes to the over-supply of parking: community opposition. Pick any development project anywhere in the City, the standard, never-fail opposition mantra is traffic and parking: the new development will flood the neighborhood with cars, the critics cry, and if there’s no parking or not enough parking as part of the development, newcomers and outsiders will compete for what curbside parking there is, driving around and around the local streets, further contributing to traffic congestion. I’ve been at community board public hearings everywhere from southern Staten Island to the northern Bronx and it’s always, predictably, the same. Developers thus have learned to head the opposition off at the pass by providing as much parking as they can get – sometimes requesting the waivers mentioned by Larry Littlefield.

    Another contributing factor is the impact thresholds under City Environmental Quality Review (CEQR), which tend to reinforce the Zoning Resolution’s excessive parking requirements.

  • JK

    Rube, I’ll go a step further and say the whole community and environmental land use review process for parking and traffic is broken, and strongly biased towards building huge amounts of parking. Community groups typically base their concerns on the environmental studies required for large developments. But those studies estimate traffic and parking activity on the assumption that future parking will be free. There is no attempt to project demand or mode share based on different parking prices and supplies. This is irrational. No business would estimate demand for a new product based on that product being free. It is farcical.

  • spikex

    Using parking restrictions to try to restrict driving is stupid. If you want to restrict driving, toll the east river bridges (and use it to pay for better public transit) and so on.

  • Ian Turner

    Spikex, with you, but we already decided we’re not willing to toll the bridges.


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