Developers, CB 2: Let’s Repurpose Downtown Brooklyn’s Empty Parking

Parking reform in Downtown Brooklyn doesn’t go far enough, said developers at a public hearing last night, and the land use committee of Brooklyn Community Board 2 agreed. They want reduced parking requirements to apply not only to new buildings, as proposed by the Department of City Planning, but also to existing buildings and developments under construction. This would allow developers to convert empty floors of parking into retail, housing, or office space.

Construction is currently underway on 29 Flatbush Avenue, which was required to include multiple floors of parking that the developer did not want to build.

The DCP proposal is a step forward for Downtown Brooklyn but could go much farther: It would cut the current parking minimums in half, and eliminate them for affordable housing. Though parking politics in New York City is often hotly contested, not a single member of the public appeared at last night’s hearing to testify against the changes or to push for the continued oversupply of parking spaces.

Instead, representatives of Brooklyn’s real estate industry came to describe how the requirements, which currently mandate the construction of four parking spaces for every 10 market-rate residences, are raising rents for everyone in the area. “We have parking in the basement, the ground level, the second floor and the third floor, at great expense,” said Drew Spitler, whose company is building a 327-unit apartment building at 29 Flatbush Avenue. “We went to great pain to build the parking, because of the current requirements.”

Rather than request the outright elimination of parking mandates, the developers asked to make the reduction in Downtown Brooklyn parking requirements retroactive, allowing them to repurpose existing parking. “You could use the third or fourth level of parking for new industries that are coming into Downtown Brooklyn, retail, housing, you name it,” said Tom Conoscenti, the executive director of planning and administration for the Downtown Brooklyn Partnership. “Activate these spaces.”

Indirectly, making parking reform retroactive could also allow future developments to be built without parking, despite the continued existence of parking minimums. Existing buildings could rent out no-longer-required spaces to satisfy the parking requirements for new projects going up nearby, confirmed Purnima Kapur, director of DCP’s Brooklyn office.

The call for retroactively reducing parking requirements was echoed by representatives from Two Trees Management Company, Forest City Ratner, 388 Bridge and The Hub. Between all of their Downtown Brooklyn projects, hundreds of parking spaces could be repurposed.

Members of the CB 2 land use committee embraced the idea of freeing up unused parking spaces for other purposes. Sophie Truslow compared it to her own efforts to convert a small garage in her own building to an extra bedroom. “As an extra bedroom you can make more money,” she said. “I’m pleased to say our culture still thinks human bodies are worth more than cars.”

If Downtown Brooklyn parking reform were made retroactive, hundreds of parking spaces in the garages marked in red could be repurposed as new commercial or residential space. Image: DCP

Board Chair John Dew wondered whether the freed-up parking space could then be used to park placarded city agency cars, which currently clog Downtown Brooklyn streets.

Developers also noted, indirectly, that even the 20 percent parking requirement would be too high for some projects. A spokesperson for The Hub, a new development at Schermerhorn and Flatbush, said that while 20 percent car ownership sounded right for Downtown Brooklyn overall, his project will have a lower rate. “We will have young renters who are transient people,” he said. “That number will skew even lower.”

Not every board member supported the idea of reducing parking minimums. One board member from Clinton Hill suggested a smaller reduction, to 30 percent, might be more appropriate. “I’m just going off of my neighborhood and how difficult it is for me to find a spot on the street because there aren’t enough garages off the street,” she said.

And the proposal couldn’t pass the committee without an additional measure to incentivize the creation of affordable housing. DCP’s proposal eliminates parking requirements for affordable housing entirely, which should reduce the cost of building such projects and allow more units to be created. But the committee wanted to use parking reform as a lever to go further, by allowing developers to build less parking for their market-rate projects only if they included a certain amount of affordable housing in the project as well.

A motion to approve DCP’s proposal and recommend that it be made retroactive failed in a 4-9 vote. Amended to apply only to projects with an affordable component, the same motion carried by a vote of 9-2.

Either the City Planning Commission or City Council can formally amend DCP’s proposal to make the parking reform retroactive.