Planning Commission OKs Paltry Parking Reform for Downtown Brooklyn

The New York City Department of City Planning announced yesterday that the City Planning Commission has approved a measure to reduce Downtown Brooklyn’s onerous parking minimums. But the commission, chaired by Amanda Burden, appears to have wasted an opportunity to improve on the timid reforms.

The City Planning Commission moved ahead with reducing -- but not eliminating -- the Downtown Brooklyn parking minimums that force developers to build entire floors of unwanted parking, like at 29 Flatbush.

The good news is that new developments in Downtown Brooklyn, one of the most transit-rich places in America, will no longer have to include four parking spaces for every 10 residential units, and the mandate for affordable housing to include parking will be eliminated. That should make it easier to supply much-needed housing and lessen the government-mandated incentive to own and drive a car.

The bad news is that the new rules still require two parking spaces for every 10 units of market-rate housing. Instead of letting builders supply parking based on demand or capping the supply of parking to curb traffic, DCP and the planning commission insist on guessing how many people will own cars and compelling developers to build that amount of parking. In DCP’s words, the amendment is an attempt to “match residential requirements to residents’ use.” But as one downtown Brooklyn developer told DCP officials at a June hearing, a 20 percent mandate still compels the construction of more parking than some developers believe residents will use.

At public hearings this summer, Borough President Marty Markowitz, Brooklyn Community Board 2, and a parade of developers all asked for the lower parking minimums to apply retroactively, so that residential parking spots which currently sit empty can be repurposed as retail space, offices, or other uses. The zoning amendment that the planning department linked to in its Twitter announcement yesterday [PDF] does not apply the changes to existing buildings, however. Streetsblog has a request in with DCP to see if the planning commission decided to update the proposal and let developers repurpose their empty parking spaces after all before voting on the amendment.

UPDATE: DCP confirms that the amendment was revised to apply the lower parking minimums retroactively — a welcome improvement. A second revision would let developers site the mandated off-street parking up to half a mile from a new project, up from a quarter mile in the original amendment. This enhances a provision that allows developers to put the mandatory parking in public parking garages.

Next up: Downtown Brooklyn parking reforms will go to the City Council for a vote. Local Council Member Steve Levin has backed the idea of lowering parking minimums for the area and could strengthen the zoning amendment before it becomes law. (We’re waiting to hear back from Levin’s office about his plans.)

Whether or not the City Council improves on it, this tepid proposal from DCP bodes poorly for parking reform elsewhere in New York City. With substantial political support for lower parking minimums in Downtown Brooklyn, this was probably DCP’s best shot to try something a little bit bold and propose eliminating parking minimums entirely. It’s a step that cities from Buffalo to San Francisco — with far fewer transit options than Downtown Brooklyn — haven’t been afraid to take.

Back in March, DCP said that a study of parking reforms for a broad swath of neighborhoods ringing Manhattan was nearly complete. Today there’s still no sign of that study on the agency’s website. Nearly six years after the release of Mayor Bloomberg’s PlaNYC sustainability blueprint and more than a year after the PlaNYC update hinted at the potential for parking reform, the timid Downtown Brooklyn zoning amendment is the agency’s only concrete progress on parking minimums. Time is running out to put together a smarter, more sustainable parking policy on Amanda Burden’s watch.