DCP Advances Promising Manhattan Parking Reforms, Fixes Flawed Study

When plans to reform parking policies in the Manhattan core leaked out of the Department of City Planning last fall, the documents presented a riddle. The proposed changes were solid reforms to successful policies, closing loopholes in the existing parking caps and rationalizing the current system. The draft study which accompanied the reforms, however, seemed to play fast and loose with the facts while arguing for the city to allow parking to eat up more of Manhattan’s valuable space. One hand didn’t seem to know what the other was doing, and with New York’s powerful real estate industry lobbying against the parking maximums, parking reform was in a precarious position.

At the end of the year, though, DCP released the final version of its Manhattan core parking study. The internal conflicts seem to have been resolved, and the results are far more encouraging. The sloppy and misleading analysis is gone and the positive reforms remain.

Assuming that DCP continues on its current path — and that the City Council eventually agrees — Manhattan’s precedent-setting-but-decades-old parking regulations are on track to be updated for the 21st century. Specific language for the new regulations is due in the next few months, according to DCP.

In the final version of its Manhattan core study, DCP says unequivocally that the 30-year-old system of parking maximums has been successful, an endorsement nowhere to be found in the earlier draft.

“The Manhattan Core parking regulations have proved to be compatible with population and job growth and a thriving Central Business District,” the authors write. “In almost three decades since the Manhattan Core regulations were enacted, the Manhattan Core has added population and jobs and has strengthened its position as the vital heart of a world city. Travel into the CBD has shifted toward transit and away from private vehicles.” Those trends aren’t all the result of parking maximums, of course, but the regulations have helped shape the areas below West 110th Street and East 96th Street.

The reforms, which at this point are only described in broad strokes, appear to be the same as those summarized by law firm Kramer Levin last year. One of the last remaining parking minimums in the Manhattan core, which perversely covers affordable housing, is slated to be eliminated. DCP notes that the requirement to build parking “places additional cost burdens on affordable housing developments,” a lesson that will hopefully carry over once the department turns its attention to parking regulations in the rest of the city.

The reforms include a number of other beneficial changes. They would eliminate an incentive to build above-ground parking. Developers seeking to build more parking than allowed as-of-right will face tougher oversight under the revised rules, including new requirements that garages be designed for pedestrian safety. Large-scale developments, perhaps like the parking-stuffed Riverside Center project, will receive comprehensive assessments of the need for parking.

In perhaps the most sweeping change, the distinction between accessory parking, intended only for residents of a given development, and public parking would be eliminated. All parking would be open to everyone — what’s known as a “shared parking” model — which experts hailed as far more appropriate to a dense urban environment.

The details of all these changes are still forthcoming. That means there is still an opportunity for the city’s formidable real estate lobby to weaken these proposals or overturn the city’s strict parking controls. The Real Estate Board of New York is pushing for the maximums to be raised, allowing developers to build more parking in Manhattan. There isn’t any mention of that in DCP’s proposal so far, however.

Revisions to the study send a positive signal that DCP is going to stay strong in support of its parking regulations. The final version corrects mistakes in earlier drafts highlighted by Streetsblog and parking reform advocates, making the study far more accurate, useful, and supportive of the parking requirements.

No longer does the study look at changes in car ownership for the entire island of Manhattan, much of which is covered by high parking minimums, to make the case that the maximums have failed. Similarly, DCP took the advice of environmental planner Dan Gutman, who said that looking at rush-hour traffic volumes instead of 24-hour traffic volumes would more clearly show the effect — and benefits — of parking maximums. DCP clearly heard the criticisms of the draft and addressed them.

Perhaps most importantly, DCP now admits that parking maximums reduce automobile ownership. The department notes that residents of the Manhattan core own fewer vehicles than residents of the rest of New York City, controlling for income, in part because parking is so scarce and expensive. The high price of parking, in turn, is in part attributed to parking maximums. In other words, parking maximums reduce car ownership. That logical conclusion is the opposite of what DCP’s draft implicitly argued.

In its study, DCP concludes that “the 1982 Manhattan Core parking regulations have been successful and do not require fundamental changes.” Those changes they are proposing are beneficial reforms. Slowly, the Department of City Planning and its director Amanda Burden are moving toward parking reform. Once the Manhattan core changes are complete, DCP is expected to try to reduce the high parking minimums that govern development in the “inner ring” of neighborhoods around the Manhattan core: an issue with higher stakes and trickier politics.