New York City’s Parking Odyssey: A Play in Several Acts

Image Credit: DCP.

Image Credit: DCP.

Traffic congestion in 2013 stems in large part from how the City has allocated street space among motorists, pedestrians, bicyclists, CitiBike stations, pedicabs, and horse-drawn carriages. While changes to address street space allocations can be anticipated, the logic and purpose of the allocations have changed over time.

Act I – Suffocation on the Streets

Facing public streets “choked” with cars, the City in 1950 amended the 1916 Zoning Resolution to require developers of residential buildings to provide off-street parking. In approving this controversial amendment, City Planning Commission Chairman Jerry Finkelstein silenced opponents of the proposal, noting: “The policy of this Commission is and will continue to be: Get parked cars off the City’s streets. . . . We wouldn’t have the congestion today in Manhattan and Brooklyn, if this amendment had been made law 25 years ago.”

The 1961 Zoning Resolution maintained the concept of keeping parked cars off of the City’s streets. A minimum number of off-street parking spaces were mandated for new multiple dwellings depending on the number of units in the building. In addition, parking garages with less than 150 spaces were permitted in most areas on an as-of-right basis.

Act II – A Breath of Fresh Air?

In response to the federal Clean Air Act, and under pressure to demonstrate how it would comply with carbon monoxide and other air quality standards, the City in 1982 adopted sweeping new zoning rules to manage off-street parking in the area below West 110th Street and East 96th Street in Manhattan (the Manhattan Core).

Enacted in conjunction with the 1982 Midtown Zoning, these new regulations eliminated the requirement for parking in residential buildings and made the provision of parking optional at the developer’s choice. A distinction was drawn between “accessory parking,” which was primarily for the use of the occupants of and visitors to a particular building, and “public parking,” which could be used on a transient basis by any member of the public. Strict limits on the number of permitted accessory parking spaces were imposed and public parking facilities required a special permit.

The City’s rationale behind the 1982 amendments was that, over time, a reduction in the number of available parking spaces would result in fewer vehicle trips within and to Manhattan, thereby reducing air pollution. The City assumed that most people, when faced with the inconvenience and expense of finding a parking space, would switch over to mass transit.

Act III – Shifting Lanes

A 2011 comprehensive parking study of the Manhattan Core undertaken by City Planning showed that the total off-street parking supply below 60th Street decreased from approximately 127,000 public parking spaces in 1978 to 102,000 spaces in 2010. This decrease was primarily as a result of the redevelopment of public parking facilities into other uses.

The study also revealed a new trend in automobile and parking usage in the City. Manhattan-bound commuters and other visitors exhibited a trend toward using mass transit over cars more than in 1982, whereas higher-income (i.e., car owning) residents in formerly peripheral neighborhoods such as Tribeca and the Far West Side began increasingly using public parking facilities.

As a result of the shrinking supply and changing usage of public parking, many accessory garages became de facto public parking garages, readily accepting transient parkers, catering especially to residents looking for a parking space close to home. The illegal use of accessory parking spaces for public garages was extremely difficult to enforce.

In response, the City recently enacted the Manhattan Core Parking Text Amendment. Rather than create a controversial new rule or a sweeping policy change, the amendment conforms the zoning rules to reality by allowing public parking in accessory residential garages, subject to a right of recapture by building residents if there are insufficient spaces in the garage to meet their needs.

Act IV – The New Congestion

The 1982 restrictions on off-street parking, together with emission standards, the price of gasoline, and improved mass transit cumulatively allowed the City to meet the Clean Air Act standards. Now, with automobile-generated air pollution under control, an emerging planning issue is the conflict between uses of the streets.

The Zoning Resolution already addresses, on a limited basis, some aspects of this conflict, for example, by mandating pedestrian circulation improvements for major projects in Midtown, the Hudson Yards, and Lower Manhattan. In addition, the Resolution requires that projects adjacent to subway entrances located on the sidewalk relocate those entrances to within the property line.

The newest concept for improving pedestrian conditions in Midtown, while encouraging growth, is found in the proposed East Midtown Rezoning, which is currently undergoing ULURP review. Under this proposal, the City could sell additional floor area to developers in exchange for cash payments to a District Improvement Fund, which would in turn devote the funds to pedestrian improvements. The wisdom of this approach is questionable. If density can be sold for pedestrian improvements, then it can be sold for any improvements that government cannot or does not want to pay for. This approach should be viewed with caution.

Howard Goldman is a partner at GoldmanHarris LLC, a New York City land use firm. Eugene Travers is an associate at the firm.

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