The Department of City Planning opens the door on parking policy

Parking in Manhattan is a controversial subject. The Department of City Planning weighed in on the topic when, in December 2011, it released a study of parking within Manhattan’s core business districts. City Planning reported that there are fewer off-street parking spaces than there were years ago. In 1978 the Manhattan core had 127,000 off-street public parking spaces; in 2010 there were only 103,000.

The reduction in spaces resulted in part from environmental policies that I was involved with as a lawyer with the Natural Resources Defense Council. In 1975 the City was not in compliance with the federal carbon monoxide standards, and I served as co-counsel in a Clean Air Act litigation against the City. The Beame Administration in 1977 settled the case by limiting the right to construct off-street garages, and by removing parking meters from midtown, actions which led to the City’s 1982 parking rules. Under these rules acres of surface lots disappeared, as for example, along Sixth Avenue in the twenties.

In 1977 the environmental aims of the parking rules were to reduce carbon monoxide from vehicles and support public transit. In its current report, City Planning has instead identified residential parking as a critical need. Because air quality has improved, the City should consider other parking needs even more broadly than the report suggests. These needs include the usefulness of surface parking lots as a method to facilitate land assembly for future development, particularly in the midtown core. Surface lots are banned and/or require a special permit. Bus parking is another unmet need. Tour buses now park on City streets and nightly shuttle long distances to New Jersey for overnight parking. Trucks likewise are without sufficient parking.

With less polluting cars on the road and more residential development in Manhattan, the City has begun to re-think its parking policies with respect to economics, mobility and convenience. It need not be strait-jacketed by the Clean Air Act as it was in 1982. It would be a shame if the current study does not result in changes in parking policy to meet other City needs in addition to the convenience of Manhattan auto drivers.

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