RPA: Make New York More Affordable By Toppling Barriers to Housing Near Regional Rail

By reforming zoning laws that prevent density near regional rail stations, New York's suburbs could house 600,000 more people.

RPA found that 20 percent of regional rail stations outside New York City allow single-family homes to the exclusion of any other housing type. Map: RPA
RPA found that 20 percent of regional rail stations outside New York City allow single-family homes to the exclusion of any other housing type. Map: RPA

Suburban governments can help relieve the New York region’s housing crunch by allowing more compact development near regional rail stops, according to a report released today by the Regional Plan Association [PDF].

While some suburbs have already taken steps to develop areas around rail stations into walkable neighborhoods, local zoning restricts housing and commercial development near transit in much of the region. The land near these rail stations could be used to connect more people to jobs and support housing for more than 600,000 people, says RPA.

RPA surveyed all 328 regional rail stations serving NYC in Connecticut, New York, and New Jersey. Of those, 264 have existing sewage infrastructure to support more intensive development. But construction of multi-family housing four stories or higher is only allowed at 114 stations.

RPA found that at 20 percent of regional rail stations outside New York City only single-family homes are allowed, to the exclusion of all other housing types.

The jurisdictions that are more hostile to transit-oriented development tend to be whiter and wealthier than those that have fewer restrictions. Nassau County takes the cake for stations engulfed by car-centric zoning, with 16 stations in towns where regulations don’t allow multi-family housing.

The land near these stations is going to waste on parking lots and car-centric sprawl. “These 16 stations in Nassau County had a median of 579,000 jobs accessible by transit within a 60 minute commute – almost five times the regional median of 121,000,” the report says.

Low density zoning near transit means higher rents and more congestion in Nassau County. Image: RPA
Low density zoning near transit means higher rents and more congestion. Image: RPA

It will take local zoning reforms to allow for walkable, mixed-use development near the region’s rail stations. State governments also have a role to play, says RPA, by making zoning reform a prerequisite for state assistance with infrastructure near stations, and requiring below-market housing in development near transit.

In towns with rail stations, local transit networks also need upgrades to provide “reliable and affordable” service, according to RPA.

“Strategies in this report rely on a commuter rail network and connecting local transit networks that are safe, well-managed, inexpensive, and adequately funded, so transit remains an attractive option,” the report says.

  • Westchester Revival

    But let’s make sure that the areas near those stations are walkable and bike-friendly, and not overwhelmed with parking spaces. Even supposedly urbanist TOD plans in many downtowns like New Rochelle and Yonkers call for far too much parking. Bike lanes are completely absent, even in flat neighborhoods and along waterfronts. Yonkers’s Alexander Street zone will one day have many tall buildings, yet the plans don’t show any bicycle infrastructure at all. It could be a bicycle paradise, and a future leg of the Hudson River Greenway.

  • Westchester Revival

    “State governments also have a role to play, says RPA, by making zoning reform a prerequisite for state assistance with infrastructure near stations, and requiring below-market housing in development near transit.” Yes! Yes! Yes!

  • Joe R.

    What bothers me here is the fact people who already live in an area think they can dictate through legislation what their neighbors can and can’t do with their property. That’s essentially what zoning is. You’re keeping someone from doing what they wish on property they own. If I want to build a 6-story apartment building on my property to house a bunch of my extended family members I should be able to do so. If I have a very large lot, more than I really need, I should be able to sell part of it to someone who may wish to build a house. If you want to preserve the “character” of your area, whatever that means, then the solution is easy. Buy up your neighbor’s properties so you can keep everything around you as is. Otherwise people should be free to do what they want on their property, provided it doesn’t cause pollution or crime issues.

  • HamTech87

    I agree with the part that current residents of a town shouldn’t be permitted to exclude others. Non-residents should have a seat at the table, and the proposal to have NYS use its leverage is a good one.

  • Vooch
  • Vooch
  • Alon Levy

    I love how that study thinks Southport has top-mark TOD because there are townhouses in what would be walking distance to the train if the streets had sidewalks.

  • Larry Littlefield

    That’s just it. Higher density alone would be a disaster.

    In the 1950s and 1960s, cities tore themselves apart to try to accommodate the automobile, but instead of becoming better cities they were just changed to lousy suburbs. Most never recovered. They don’t want to repeat that mistake.

    If you put multi-family near the train, in the garage with accessory housing format, those working in Manhattan might take the train to work. But they’ll drive everywhere else.

    This post shows the problem.

    https://granolashotgun.com/2017/11/08/give-it-another-century-and-well-see-how-it-goes/

  • kevd

    “people who already live in an area think they can dictate through legislation what their neighbors can and can’t do with their property. That’s essentially what zoning is.”

    “we shouldn’t even allow car parking lots near rail stations.”

    You are aware of the essential inconsistency of those two statements, right?
    Prohibiting parking lots in an area is a kind of zoning, after all.

  • van_vlissingen

    If there is a market for off-street parking the private market should provide it – without zoning dictating parking minimums.
    On street parking is arguably another matter – but even here I think the principles of supply/demand should govern meter prices..

  • Charles Siegel

    “The land near these rail stations could be used to connect more people
    to jobs and support housing for more than 600,000 people, says RPA.”

    At what density? They could build much more housing with a 50-story height limit than with a 5-story height limit. What height limit does this estimate of 600,000 assume?

  • Joe R.

    The difference is in one case you’re telling a private entity (the property owner) what they can and can’t do with their land. In the other, the property owner is generally the transit agency.

    Also, I never said anybody should have a carte blanche to do anything on their property: Otherwise people should be free to do what they want on their property, provided it doesn’t cause pollution or crime issues.

    A parking lot definitely causes lots of added pollution.

  • kevd

    “so, we shouldn’t even allow car parking lots near rail stations”

    no reference to transit agency ownership in that statement.

    I agree that parking lots should be replaced with dense walkability near most stations (a few park an rides ain’t the worst thing on earth, if they are the exception to the rule).
    But you know how we prevent private land owners from building too much parking?
    Zoning.
    You’re not really opposed to all zoning, you’re just opposed to bad zoning (as am I).

  • kevd

    yeah, agreed.
    Joe was saying we “shouldn’t even allow parking near rail stations” while also decrying zoning.
    If you want to prevent private sector parking near rail stations, you
    do it through zoning.

  • ortcutt

    “We assumed most of the rail stations in the region (200 out of the 349) would be “Village Center” type developments, indicative of the usual scale of development around suburban transit hubs in the region.”

    This suggests the sort of 5-6 story residential developments you commonly see around some suburban stations. I don’t see anything wrong with a 50-story building, but I doubt the economics would support it in most locations.

  • ortcutt

    So, everyone should be able to do what they want with their land, but car parking lots near rail stations should be outlawed? I’m trying to get my head around that contradiction.

  • Joe R.

    Well, if I seem opposed to all zoning maybe it’s because 95% or more of existing zoning is indeed bad zoning. Parking minimums, preventing subdividing huge lots, disallowing mixed uses, separating residential, commercial, and educational areas by miles of empty space, and so forth. Good zoning would simply prohibit things which are proven to be harmful, especially car dependency. I get the point of some zoning, in that nobody wants a whore house next door, but far too much present day zoning seems expressly designed to either foster automobile dependency and/or to prevent people from being more self-sufficient (i.e. mom and pop stores) in order to stop competition with the big retail chains. End result is of course lifeless suburbs and bland cities with the same chain stores everywhere.

  • Joe R.

    All parking should be off-street. Since off-street parking is inherently more expensive, that would tend to limit the supply. It would also free up the curbside lanes for something else. Curbside parking creates congestion, it looks ugly as fuck, it creates hazards when cars park and unpark. Better to just ban the practice. Let private industry provide off-street parking anywhere car owners are willing to pay enough for the private entity to make a profit doing so. My guess is you’ll have hardly any parking in places with high land values. This would effectively be a defacto ban on cars from these areas as you wouldn’t have any place to park them.

  • bolwerk

    Parking lots near stations are probably caused more by mandates than by permissiveness. A rational landowner probably wouldn’t his/her land near a train station to be parking. (Though s/he might want someone else’s land to be a parking lot!)

  • bolwerk

    Better idea: build housing near regional rail, but also build commerce near regional rail. That way people can live and work without cars. Their regional rail stations might even attract ridership to them, not just from them.

  • kevd

    yes, but joes statement that we “shouldn’t even allow car parking” describes a legal or zoning restriction, not market forces.

  • Alon Levy

    If you put high-rise apartment buildings on top of the train and put a supermarket and other neighborhood-level retail within walking distance, they’ll take the train. But the RPA never studied that typology.

  • Alon Levy

    I don’t agree that all parking should be off-street. On-street parking serves a purpose on many streets, for example most of the streets in New York (the city, not the suburbs): those streets are often too wide for their current level of car and pedestrian traffic without parking, and could even get dangerously fast without parking to buffer pedestrians from moving cars. On Queens Boulevard my understanding is that livable streets activists supported all-day on-street parking just as a buffer.

  • Alon Levy

    I think in some of the favored-quarter suburbs, especially those with office demand (e.g. Stamford), there is a market for 50-story buildings. There almost certainly is such demand in the Silicon Valley suburbs on top of Caltrain, and probably also in all manners of New York suburbs, in parts of Fairfield County, along the Hudson Line (the views are magnificent), on the North Shore of Long Island, and in some of the richer suburbs in New Jersey.

  • ortcutt

    Sure, some places would support it, but they were pointing out that you can add a lot of housing units with the sort of mid-rise apartment buildings that were and are often built in suburban locations.

  • Joe R.

    You could just as well use planters, or even use that space for microhomes or storage containers. The latter two would actually fill a real need in this city. All three would be way more aesthetically pleasing than rows of ugly parked cars. Or long term just move the sidewalks and building frontages over 10 feet to use the space vacated by parked cars.

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