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PlaNYC 1950: why parking shouldn't be required at apartment projects like Atlantic Yards

Mayor Mike Bloomberg's much-praised PlaNYC 2030 contains a glaring omission, a failure to address the antiquated anti-urban policy that mandates parking attached to new residential developments outside Manhattan, even when such developments, like Atlantic Yards, are justified precisely because they're located near transit hubs.

Last year, several commentators on the Atlantic Yards Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS) questioned the provision of parking--not just interim surface lots, but also the 2570 underground spaces intended for the project's residential component and an additional 1100 underground spaces for the arena.

(Map from Atlantic Yards web site.)

The issue persists

The Empire State Development Corporation (ESDC) dismissed the questions, but the issue won't go away. The provision of parking for residents is another reason why Atlantic Yards doesn't meet the "sustainability test," argued Hunter College planning professor Tom Angotti in the June 2007 Gotham Gazette.

Beyond that, in the past year, a growing number of critics have questioned the city's antiquated policy, the new Department of Transportation (DOT) Commissioner has echoed such questions, and, just yesterday, in an op-ed headlined The High Price of Parking, the issue made it to the New York Times's City section.

Co-author Alex Garvin was identified as "a former member of the City Planning Commission and the author of The American City: What Works, What Doesn’t, but even more importantly, he's been a Bloomberg administration advisor on several projects, including PlaNYC, so he writes (with fellow consultant Nick Peterson) as a real insider.

So real policy change may be on the horizon, though it doesn't seem likely it would affect plans for Atlantic Yards. (Had AY gone through ULURP, the city's land use procedure, would parking have become an issue? Well, it likely wouldn't have been dismissed as easily.)

A backward policy

The op-ed's authors note that the requirement of minimum parking dates back to the auto-optimistic year of 1950; it now adds costs to projects and provides a misguided subsidy:
By forcing developers to provide parking, we are making it easier to drive. In New York, the public transit capital of America, this is disgraceful.

In 1982, faced with a federal requirement to reduce air pollution, the City Planning Commission eliminated such parking requirements in the Manhattan core, though waivers sought by developers who want to include parking are often available. (But consider this: many buildings on the periphery of Manhattan need not include parking, and they're much farther from the subway than would be buildings within Atlantic Yards.)

The authors write:
There are still parts of New York that depend on the car, and in these places, developers will include parking on their own to make sure they can sell or rent what they build. But developers in areas with accessible public transit and available parking should be given the flexibility to adapt accordingly.
(Graphic from PlaNYC)

The expected results: less traffic congestion, less pollution, and more space for development, including affordable housing and "transit-friendly retail and commercial destinations."

Developers subsidizing transit?

In a 4/27/07 essay headlined Parking Over People in Brooklyn, author and Regional Plan Association editor Alex Marshall suggested that not only should the city scrap its minimum parking requirements, it should impose a maximum. Also, he noted, this could be enacted by the city on its own, without negotiating state approval, as with congestion pricing.

(In a follow-up 11/27/07 piece on Streetsblog, headlined Eliminate the Parking Requirement, Marshall went even farther:
What if we required that developers subsidize mass transit the same way we require them to subsidize car use? What if we required property owners and developers to kick in say, $25,000 for every unit of housing they built and give it to New York City Transit as compensation for the riders the new development would generate?)

AY as example

City zoning requires 0.4 spaces per dwelling unit in high-density developments outside Manhattan; multiply the number of projected Atlantic Yards residential units, 6430, by .4, and the result is 2572.

In the earlier piece, Marshall presented AY as a textbook example for a policy change:
Although I am personally critical of many aspects of the Atlantic Yards project in Brooklyn, I was dismayed to read a recent op-ed by the novelist Jennifer Egan in The New York Times who, despite some excellent points, often sounded like the quintessentially suburban citizen as she criticized the project on the grounds that it would bring a rise in population to the borough, and thus more problems with traffic and parking. She apparently failed to see that if the state and city insisted that the project not provide parking, much of these problems would be eliminated.

The Atlantic Yards project is set to provide about 4,000 parking spaces, or the equivalent of a 40-story parking garage as big around as the World Trade Center. This includes a controversial "temporary" surface parking lot for about 1000 cars that would be in place for a decade or more. Since these spaces will be used multiple times, that means many thousands of additional cars on the streets of Brooklyn, and an urban fabric that has been torn rather than mended.

Similar arguments could apply to the provision of parking spaces for arena attendees. (In the best-case scenario, much of the interim parking, in multiple lots, would be gone before a decade is out.)

Arguments for change

For months, the argument has been building. As Streetsblog reported in March:
Jeff Zupan of the Regional Plan Association wants to rewrite city zoning restrictions that would put caps on the amount of parking developers can build. The new parking requirements would be based on the availability of mass transit, rather than the somewhat arbitrary minimum levels they are required to meet now.

The Tri-State Transportation Campaign (TSTC), in its 3/2/07 Mobilizing the Region newsletter, observed that other cities are ahead of of New York:
Do sensible urban transportation steps always have to originate somewhere other than NYC? While growth and density increase in the city’s boroughs outside of Manhattan, city government maintains suburban-like parking construction requirements that add to the overall parking supply, encourage car ownership and more driving.

In Seattle, whose Mayor Greg Nickels heads up the U.S. Mayors' Climate Protection Agreement, the city is relaxing parking requirements in transit friendly neighborhoods and restricting the size of surface parking lots to 145 spaces (compare to the 950-space surface lot Forest City Ratner wants to build adjacent to downtown Brooklyn....).

(The TSTC's Jon Orcutt recently joined the city Department of Transportation.)

Argument brewing for two years

Two years ago, the Furman Center for Real Estate and Urban Policy, in its lengthy report, Reducing the Cost of New Housing Construction in New York City: 2005 Update, called for changes in parking policy. In Chapter 7, the authors wrote:
Ironically, the Zoning Resolution generally does not permit parking on-site as part of housing in developments south of 96th Street in Manhattan but requires them everywhere else. The concept is that residents south of 96th Street should not add to the congestion and traffic of the core of Manhattan, given the availability of mass transit. Many other areas with similar congestion and access to mass transit, however, still do require the development of on-site parking....

Requiring parking makes sense in neighborhoods where access to mass transit is limited or difficult such as in certain areas of Staten Island, Queens and Brooklyn. The City, however, should recognize that the future of New York City should not be based upon a suburban model as that will only result in extraordinary increases of congestion. Building more parking will only encourage households to keep cars that they already own and convince others to acquire cars.

Affordable housing & parking

The Furman Center report suggested that the parking requirement hurts affordable housing:
Analysis of parking requirements is even more important as it relates to the development of affordable housing. Limited subsidies are usually the final dollars provided by government agencies to render projects affordable. With the elimination of parking requirements for affordable housing, these marginal dollars could be redirected to assist a greater number of units throughout the City... For other [than senior] housing projects with “governmental assistance,” the Zoning Resolution reduces parking to 25 to 80 percent of normal requirements, but more relief is needed even for these developments.

AY: too much parking?

Hold on--does that mean that Atlantic Yards could have a lesser ratio of parking because it includes affordable housing? Unclear, but the appropriate section of the city Zoning Resolution (Section 25-25) was apparently revised on 10/29/07, well after Atlantic Yards was passed.

The state did not need to follow the Zoning Resolution, of course. But if a smaller ratio of parking might be appropriate because Atlantic Yards includes affordable housing, and the state ignores that, then it might be said that the project would include too much parking.

Who benefits? Well, perhaps parking is a selling point for the planned 4180 market-rate units. Or it sure couldn't hurt the arena.

Even though the ESDC will override several city zoning restrictions, including placement of an arena less than 200 feet from a residential district, they chose not to override city parking requirements, despite being requested to do so.

FEIS comments

The DEIS generated many comments abut parking, and the ESDC gave no quarter in the Response to Comments chapter of the Final Environmental Impact Statement:
Comment 12-95: The project proposes building 4,000 parking spaces for the project. How many of these will be for the permanent use of permanent residents and how many will be set aside for Nets arena game attendees? Any new residential building should coincide with 40 percent of those residences having assigned parking spots.

Response 12-95: As discussed in the FEIS, with full build-out the proposed project would include approximately 3,670 parking spaces in six on-site parking garages. Approximately 1,100 of these spaces would be available to accommodate demand from Nets game at the arena, and the remaining 2,570 spaces would be used primarily to accommodate demand from the project’s residential and commercial components.

Reducing supply

The TSTC and also Brooklyn resident Shabnam Merchant (who works for Develop Don't Destroy Brooklyn) suggested that the amount of parking should be reduced. The TSTC observed that parking demand is not static, but rather fluctuates depending on supply, price, and transportation options.

However, the ESDC had calculated the number of new residents and arena attendees, then estimated parking needs, a questionable methodology.

The TSTC commented:
This is an outdated method of planning transportation systems: predicting demand, and providing the necessary supply, without questioning how to influence the demand in the direction of a desired outcome. The Final EIS should use a more appropriate approach for a dense project over a transit hub by using a supply side method. The developer should decide how much excess traffic capacity there is on local roads, decide how many new cars the street system can handle, and then provide parking only for the number of cars, using appropriate HOV [High Occupancy Vehicle requirements] and other assumptions. The developer and ESDC have not done this, since the project, by 2016, is anticipated to have serious adverse impacts on 63 intersections of 93 studied in one or more peak hours.

The TSTC then observed that there could be more efforts to discourage auto use and that the project could provide fewer parking spaces.

Supply and demand

The FEIS summarized those remarks:
Comment 12-102: The developer should revisit parking supply and demand to provide less than 3,800 new parking spaces. Local zoning requirements should be changed to set maximum, rather than minimum, parking space requirements.

Response 12-102: The number of parking spaces that would be developed under the proposed project has been reduced to 3,670 in the FEIS as part of a reduction in the development program. The parking capacity proposed for the project site is based on the projected needs of its residential, commercial and arena components, and the availability of parking at off-site facilities. Reducing the amount of on-site parking would potentially result in a deficit of off-street parking capacity in the vicinity of the project site and increased demand for on-street parking spaces. Changing local zoning requirements with respect to parking is beyond the purview of the proposed project.

However, the ESDC could have considered that reducing provision of parking might reduce demand. Also, while the ESDC could not change zoning requirements in the area, it could override them at the project site.

Why not an override?

Not only the TSTC but also the Park Slope Civic Council suggested a zoning override:
Comment 12-109: Since the ESDC is already overriding numerous local zoning rules, it could certainly override minimum parking requirements in favor of maximum parking requirements.

The ESDC's response was terse:
Response 12-109: As discussed in the DEIS, the proposed project provides adequate parking.

That's conclusory; the issue isn't whether the project provides adequate parking, it's whether it provides too much parking given the issue of sustainability.

It again highlights how Atlantic Yards is an inadequate effort at city-making, as the Regional Plan Association has pointed out.

Checking the FEIS

Chapter 12, Traffic and Parking, explains that the state agency is using zoning calculations for its projections:
Between 2006 and 2010, new development projected to occur within ½ mile of the arena site is expected to be predominantly residential in nature. It is therefore assumed that the parking demand from these developments would be accommodated in accessory parking facilities typically required by zoning for residential developments in this area of Brooklyn (see Table C-3 in Appendix C).

Table C-3 states:
(1) Assumes 0.4 accessory spaces per dwelling unit provided to accommodate residential parking demand.

Where it comes from

According to the city zoning handbook, high-density residential development requires 0.4 spaces per dwelling unit. However, that requirement is waived in a substantial area, the "Manhattan Core, except within Special Hudson Yards District."

And what's the Manhattan Core? Much of Manhattan, including areas near the rivers that are not exactly close to the subway:
The Manhattan Core extends from the southern tip of Manhattan at Battery Park to West 110th Street on the West Side and East 96th Street on the East Side. It is the area covered by Manhattan Community Districts 1 through 8.

It all might change

The issue seems ripe for another look. A Streetsblog Q&A in June with new (and notably transit-friendly) DOT Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan contained this exchange:

SB: The Hudson Yards rezoning on the west side of Manhattan requires developers to include over 20,000 new parking spaces. We recently did a story about this on the blog that generated a lot of response. People don't understand how these parking requirements fit with the Mayor's long-term sustainability and traffic reduction goals of PlaNYC.

JSK: In Copenhagen I was joined by City Planning Commissioner Amanda Burden. We spent a lot of time talking about the success of cities like Portland and Chicago that have revised their zoning codes with lower parking ratios and how that has led, in a lot of instances, to a renaissance for pedestrian space and transit without any apparent downside.

Perhaps it will change, but the state override of city policy suggests it won't apply to Atlantic Yards. It's another reason AY is increasingly seen as a poster child for what not to do.


  1. Great post! The ESDC and the EDC seem to generally be behind the times on this one, and Doctoroff, for all his environmental lip service, has not accomplished any change in parking policy.

    In addition to all the unnecessary Atlantic Yards parking, there's also the ill-conceived and unpopular Duffield Street project and the BAM "cultural district" garage. There are similar antiquated parking schemes at Yankee Stadium and that place where the Mets will play, and in the plans for Hunters Point South and Willets Point.

    In his suggestion for decking the Sunnyside Yards several years ago, Garvin himself pointed out - with apparent satisfaction - that the difference in elevation between ground level and the most likely deck level would allow almost unlimited space for parking garages. For decades, Queens Community Board 1 has listed as its primary transportation goal the creation of a new parking facility on a deck over the Grand Central Parkway. Any increase in parking in Western Queens would be a bad idea, but these proposals would be an unmitigated traffic disaster if they were ever implemented.

    This issue is probably one of the most significant envirnomental issues facing our city today. Thanks for highlighting it.

  2. Two things I wanted to add:

    Last month the Center for an Urban Future released a report about attracting suburban shoppers to NYC neighborhoods. One of their big recommendations is adding more parking so that the suburbanites can drive comfortably to shop in the city. Essentially, they are telling the neighborhoods to give up their urban future for this potential econcomic stimulus.

    The planned Silvercup West project - and in fact most of the projects in Queens West - have way too much parking. Go to any planning meeting in Queens and you'll hear politicians and planners crowing about how much parking they're building.

    Thanks again.

  3. Note the opportunity with respect to the special Hudson Yards District. The Hudson Yards District together with the whole area around it is currently planned to be developed at a very high density far surpassing that of the current surrounding areas of midtown Manhattan. Just the 26.2 acres of the proposed Hudson Yards is supposed to contain about 12 million square feet, the maximum permitted under the zoning, and a small fraction of what is planned for the area (the Times editorial mentioned below seems to have a mistake in the acreage mentioned). Yet, the City is skimping on plans for mass transit in the area as yesterday’s editorial in the Times criticized:

    “Do Right by the No. 7 Extension”

    As the Times editorial lays out, the City is planning an extension of the No. 7 subway line, but the city is panning only one stop at the end of the 1.5 mile extension. Right now it is not willing to fund building necessary for a second stop along the at 10th Avenue and 41st Street. At the unprecedented densities planned the second stop is surely the thing to do. The argument is not even whether the second stop should be built but whether a shell for its eventual construction should be built which would cost $450 million. The city is talking about a compromise where it would pay for half of this amount hoping the MTA would come up with the balance.

    So as noted in the AYR post, according to the city zoning handbook, the high-density residential development requirement of 0.4 spaces per dwelling unit typically waived in Manhattan Core is NOT being waived in the Special Hudson Yards District where, based on the proposed greater density it should also be waived. The only argument not to waive it is if adequate mass transportation was weirdly not provided to this extra dense area.

    Solutions? So what if:
    1. As discussed in the post, the parking requirement was waived and instead contributions were advanced toward funding the subway stop.
    2. The City Council simply recaptured the boondoggle funds from Atlantic Yards so that they could be applied to this worthy mass transit project instead- Then rather than being a shortage of subway funds there would be a surplus. And it would make sense to be putting more density where new mass transit is being built rather than tapping into lines near Atlantic Yards that are recognized as overburdened and where there are no plans to build extra capacity. The West Side also has an advantage in that more people can walk to work from there both because it is proposed to be more mixed use and because of its location.
    3. And if the MTA were allowed to rebid Atlantic Yards it would collect more money from a new developer (rather than being forced to continue to subsidize Ratner). That could well be enough to meet the half share of the $450 Million the City is requesting of it.


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