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Council Members Use Downtown Brooklyn Parking Reform as Bargaining Chip

5:13 PM EST on November 28, 2012

Parking reform for Downtown Brooklyn -- which would take the mild but worthwhile step of cutting the district's mandatory parking minimums in half -- went before a City Council subcommittee on Monday. The fate of the proposal now comes down to council members Tish James and Steve Levin, who represent the area. The two representatives are talking tough and trying to get DCP to do more -- but what they want has little to do with parking policy.

James and Levin want guarantees that repurposed parking garages or future development will include more income-restricted units, a new elementary school, or other community facilities that they say are lacking since more families moved to the neighborhood following a 2004 rezoning. The council members are basically using parking reform as leverage to extract unrelated amenities from the city.

"Council Member James and I would like to see these issues addressed sooner rather than later," Levin said at Monday's Subcommittee on Zoning and Franchises hearing, "and see this as a particular opportunity to have that conversation."

On the affordable housing front, one step that would also make an impact would be to eliminate parking mandates entirely. But neither James nor Levin are asking for the elimination of parking minimums. This despite the fact that James herself acknowledges that parking mandates increase the cost of housing.

The Navy Green development, in her district, received a waiver from the city's existing parking rules, allowing it to keep costs down for tenants and increase the number of affordable units. DCP wants to eliminate all parking requirements for income-restricted developments like Navy Green, a proposal James supports.

At the same time, James is skeptical that market-rate housing consumers would benefit from the same type of reform. "I'm not naïve enough to think that savings will be passed along to buyers or renters," she told Streetsblog. "Most developers are not in the business of benevolence."

But the evidence does not suggest that developers will just pocket the savings from not having to build parking, said Simon McDonnell, a research affiliate at New York University's Furman Center for Real Estate and Urban Policy. "If the market is operating, a reduction in developers' input costs clearly gives them more leeway to offer lower prices," he said, which could put market-rate units within the range of people who can't afford luxury housing but don't qualify for income restricted housing.

Although parking reform is not a panacea, evidence suggests that off-street parking does inflate market-rate housing prices. In San Francisco and downtown Los Angeles, housing with off-street parking is up to 10 percent more expensive than comparable units without parking.

"There's no reason, other than the fact that we've done it for a long time, to make housing developers build parking," said Professor Michael K. Manville of Cornell University, who authored the Los Angeles study. "You're moving a cost of driving into the housing market... It's not a good idea."

When they aren't seeking waivers to the city's parking mandate, most NYC residential developers are building just enough parking to satisfy city requirements and passing the costs on to tenants, according to research from the Furman Center.

For parking reform to have a significant impact on housing prices, Manville said, it will need to cover a sizable section of the city, and not just comprise small measures in targeted areas.

James is open to this argument. "Perhaps if it's done across the city, maybe that would have an impact on the market," she said, adding that DCP has yet to propose such a wide-ranging reform.

A citywide proposal would also face substantial political hurdles, however, while the current proposal could be enacted now and set a precedent for future reforms. "These things often move in small steps," Manville said.

Despite the issues brought up by the council members, DCP's modest parking reform proposal is likely to pass the Council in some form. "I have some concerns," James said. "I'm not opposed."

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