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Supporters, Mayor Rally for ‘City of Yes’ Zoning Change as it Enters Public Review Phase

The mayor's signature zoning plan is ready for review by all 59 community board, plus the city's five borough presidents and then each Council member. Advocates are worried it will be watered down.

"Yes," please?

The City Planing Commission declared on Monday that Mayor Adams's signature housing and rezoning initiative, "City of Yes for Housing Opportunity," is ready for prime time, which means a review by all 59 community boards, plus the city's five borough presidents and then each Council member.

Based on its chance for passage unscathed, for now, it should be called "City of Maybe."

"The job is not done," Chelsea Dowell, communications director of Open Plans, said in a statement on Monday, before a rally in support of the mayor's zoning plan as the eight-month review process begins. "The path to enacting this policy is still long and full of potential roadblocks — from community boards, borough presidents and ultimately the City Council."

Mayor Adams and Department of City Planning Commission Chairman Dan Garodnick rallied on Monday.Photo: Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office

Opponents have already objected to the slightly higher building heights that would be enabled under the new zoning initiative — what Mayor Adams calls "a little more housing in every neighborhood."

But Open Plans and other pro-housing groups have been preemptively championing another vital element of City of Yes: The end of a 62-year-old requirement that developers build off-street parking spaces even if potential customers aren't asking for them or the development is so close to transit that the requirement itself is counter-productive to the city's larger sustainability goals.

"New York City currently mandates off-street parking along with new housing even where it's not needed, driving down housing production and driving up rents," the Adams administration said in a synopsis. "The proposal will preserve the option to add parking, but no one will be forced to build unnecessary parking."

As such, it's being hailed by environmentalists, too.

“Transit-oriented development and the removal of parking mandates ... together would allow public transportation to thrive and micro-mobility alternatives to flourish, resulting in a greener, cooler, and safer city,” Julie Tighe, president of the New York League of Conservation Voters, said in a statement issued Monday.

Open Plans [full disclosure: Streetsblog's sister organization] has held several events to highlight the need to eliminate the parking mandate to help encourage the construction of housing, and to reduce its cost. A successful demonstration last year converted two underground parking spaces into a comfy studio apartment. It was documented by Streetfilms:

The 'No Parking' sign

There's nothing radical about the mayor's proposal. There's a large library of studies about the deleterious effect of requiring developers to include a minimum number of off-street parking spaces, including:

  • UCLA study showed that developers pass along the cost of parking spaces at about $1,700 per year per unit — or an additional 17 percent of a unit’s rent. Not only does that hide the cost of parking, but it's an especially unfair burden for carless renters (who typically have lower incomes) who are paying for parking that they do not need or want.
  • In a 2016 study, the Center for Neighborhood Technology found that each parking space in Chicago cost developers $37,000 — a cost that also "discourages developing affordable housing near transit, where the cost of land comes at a premium." An earlier study in San Francisco showed that "single-family houses and condominiums were more than 10 percent more costly if they included off-street parking." And a 2014 study showed that parking requirements reduce the number of units by 13 percent.
  • 2013 study partially written by parking legend Donald Shoup pointed out that "the idea that parking requirements fight traffic congestion contains a contradiction: Parking requirements create room for vehicles, and vehicles cause congestion. Thus a law requiring developers to provide on-site parking indirectly reduces the price of driving and should lead to more driving rather than less." Off-street parking tends to increase vehicle density, and, as a result, "residents’ fear of vehicle density ... spurs opposition to new housing and higher density." In other words, "Increasing the supply of parking makes parking less expensive. ... This in turn makes owning a vehicle artificially cheap, even as it inflates the development cost and purchase price of housing."
  • 2015 Manhattan Institute study said that the parking requirement added about 50 percent of the floor area needed for each 900-square-foot apartment, a huge waste of limited development space. And the creation of off-street parking has "negative externalities," including encouraging car ownership.
  • 2010 study showed that New York "developers tend to build only the bare minimum of parking required by zoning, suggesting that ... developers do not simply build parking out of perceived marked need" but because they are required to do it.

Meanwhile, multiple cities that have reduced or eliminated parking requirements have great on-the-ground experiences:

  • In urban centers and and transit-oriented locations in Seattle, developers built 40 percent less parking than would otherwise have been required, which resulted in 18,000 fewer parking spaces and savings of $537 million in direct construction costs over five years, which, according to a 2020 study, "likely benefited both housing developers and consumers alike."
  • After Buffalo repealed minimum parking requirements citywide, developers built less parking and were freed up "to transform parking lots to 'higher uses,'" according to a 2021 study.
  • Preliminary info from Minneapolis, which scrapped parking minimums last year, showed that "projects began offering rents below the market’s established levels. New studio apartments, which typically went for $1,200 per month, were being offered for less than $1,000 per month.”

Adams administration officials have said that a single underground parking space adds $67,500 to a developer's construction costs — and that in parts of the city currently zoned as "R6," there is a 50-percent parking requirement once 11 or more units are built. So instead of building the legally allowed 14 or 16 units, some developers stop at 10 to avoid having to build six to eight parking spots. As a result, city residents lose out on up to six units of housing, as documented in this City Planning one-sheet:

Here's one page of a supporting document for City of Yes.Graphic: Department of City Planning

What's the problem?

There's some misguided fear that City of Yes eliminates parking — it does not eliminate parking, but merely allows developers to shun parking if they don't think their customers want it.

For instance, under current rules, developers of buildings that are 100 percent below market rate are already exempt from parking mandates. But the builders at 2560 Boston Road still put in 117 spaces, according to city officials. And a large complex at 2945 Bruckner Blvd. would have required at least 179 parking spaces, yet the building has 309.

Meanwhile, in areas close to transit, developers often seek waivers to avoid building parking. At 280 Bergen St. in Boerum Hill, current rules would have required 110 spaces, yet developer Michael Keller built none, thanks to the waiver.

"Eliminating parking mandates is a popular, commonsense policy that will significantly improve affordability, sustainability, and livability and bring an end to the era of prioritizing cars over every other need or interest — all while still allowing flexibility to create parking where there is demand for it," Open Plans said in a statement.

Click through to read the entire thread.

The group says that more than two-thirds of New Yorkers support doing away with parking mandates. But car culture is difficult to surmount. In 1961, when parking mandates were inserted into the zoning code, car ownership was lower per capita than it is now (there was roughly one car for every seven residents in 1960 and one car for every 5.5 residents now).

But elected officials anticipated that more New Yorkers would buy more cars, and thought that requiring off-street parking would limit congestion on the street, where overnight parking had recently been allowed.

In reality, it has incentivized car use and flooded streets with more traffic.

In 1960, there were roughly 1,144,890 cars in the five boroughs, according to the census. By the 2020 census, that number rose almost 40 percent to 1,585,241, even as the population rose only 12.2 percent.

And car owners have strong advocates on community boards and in low-rise neighborhoods. At a meeting to oppose a pair of 13-story towers that would replace a dry-cleaning factory, a member of a group called Housing Not Highrises protested when one opponent of the plan pointed out the landowner was not only seeking a zoning change, but also a waiver from parking mandates. As a result, a development of more than 300 units would have no off-street parking.

Without a zoning change and a parking waiver, there would be fewer than one-third the number of housing units — none of them below-market-rate — and more than 60 parking spaces.

It appeared that several attendees weren't upset that there would be fewer housing units created; they were upset that if no parking is built, the newcomers would be competing with them for "their" street spaces.

That's why Open Plans is sounding the alarm.

"There are many chances along the way for the [City of Yes] to be watered down," the group said. "Borough presidents and City Council members may succumb to pressure from obstructionist community boards intent on preserving car-centric policies. ... When it comes to community boards, these voices tend to be the loudest in the room — giving them the ear of City Council members, who will vote on the text amendment this fall.

"[But] these reforms will create lasting, positive change in their districts and ensuring local officials approve City of Yes despite vocal opposition from a small minority of New Yorkers," the group said. "No City Council member can credibly claim to be a champion of improving sustainability, housing affordability, and livability in New York City without supporting the end of parking mandates."

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