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Posts from the "Department of City Planning" Category

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How NYC Could Get More Transit Funding From Developers

As the MTA capital plan funding gap has come into focus, there’s been a lot of discussion about how new development can help pay for the transit service it requires. It turns out the city already has a tool that links real estate with transit improvements, but it’s so limited that it’s been used to fund transit upgrades only 10 times in more than three decades. For a more robust model, planners should look to San Francisco.

The iconic "lipstick building" is one of only 10 developments that have taken advantage of the city's "subway bonus" since 1982. Photo: Wally Gobetz/Flickr

The “lipstick building” is one of only 10 developments that have taken advantage of the city’s “subway bonus” since 1982. Photo: Wally Gobetz/Flickr

In 1982, the Department of City Planning created the “subway bonus,” which allows developers to construct buildings up to 20 percent larger than normally allowed. In exchange, the developer must pay for and install subway station improvements requested by the city.

The subway bonus only applies to sites adjacent to a subway station. At first, it only covered qualifying sites in Midtown. The program was expanded in 1984 to more of Manhattan and Downtown Brooklyn; in 1986, a slightly modified subway bonus was created for the Court Square area of Long Island City. In addition, the city requires developers atop future Second Avenue Subway stops to keep a public easement in new development for future station entrances.

Although tools to extract transit improvements from developers pop up sporadically in the city’s zoning code, only 10 projects have used the subway bonus program since it was first created in 1982, according to a DCP report [PDF]. The report also lists two completed projects and one proposal that offered subway improvements using other incentive programs.

Most of these projects brought upgrades like wider platforms, new or expanded walkways between stations, elevator installations, and redesigns to allow more natural light into subway stations, among other changes.

These projects might be familiar to regular subway users. The Lexington-53rd Street station, for example, received upgrades from office towers at 599 Lexington Avenue and the “Lipstick Building” on Third Avenue. In other locations, the developer of Zeckendorf Towers expanded the mezzanine at Union Square, new office buildings brought connections between platforms at the Court Square station, and the Hearst Building added stairs and elevators at the southern end of Columbus Circle.

The city is moving forward with a modified version of the subway bonus on Vanderbilt Avenue, where it is working with developer SL Green to swap increased density for a pedestrian plaza and station improvements beneath Grand Central Terminal.

While this handful of projects over the years have provided beneficial upgrades to the subway system, it’s hard to see them as anything more than spot improvements that occur only if a big new office building happens to be located on top of a subway station. New development a block away from the subway creates just as much demand for transit, but there’s no mechanism in the city’s zoning code to recapture the costs of providing that service. What’s missing is a more comprehensive value capture system.

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DCP Sketches Out Waterfront Transit and Safer Streets for Western Queens

DCP is recommending expanded pedestrian space and redesigned streets at complex intersections like the one of Vernon Boulevard, Main Avenue, and 8th Street.

DCP is recommending expanded pedestrian space and redesigned streets at complex intersections like the crossing of Vernon Boulevard, Main Avenue, and 8th Street.

A new transitway from LaGuardia Airport to Downtown Brooklyn is the most ambitious recommendation in a draft report [PDF] from the Department of City Planning on transportation in Western Queens, which also includes a raft of smaller changes that would make the streets of Astoria and Long Island City safer and more livable.

While the transitway is the report’s leading recommendation, DCP doesn’t go into much detail other than recommending future study of curbside bus lanes or center-running light rail that would hug the East River between Downtown Brooklyn and the Grand Central Parkway before jumping onto the highway to LaGuardia Airport. The report is more specific about changes to existing transit service, recommending a realignment of bus service and bringing back express subway service to Astoria.

The report is mostly devoted to the potential for traffic calming, recommending curb extensions and crosswalks for both Crescent Street and 21st Street, which has been a priority of Transportation Alternatives. At the complex multi-leg intersection of 21st Street and Astoria Boulevard, the authors recommend curb extensions and pedestrian islands, and the intersection of Astoria Boulevard, Main Avenue, and Vernon Boulevard would also get a major redesign with large sidewalk extensions and plazas.

“None of the streets there carry a lot of traffic, but the traffic movements there are just insane,” said Steve Scofield, a TA volunteer who attended a meeting DCP hosted on Monday to present its draft findings. “Clarifying that [intersection] could help everybody.”

In a bit of a surprise, the report suggests installing a pedestrian plaza at Newtown and 30th Avenues in Astoria, a plan that Community Board 1 rejected two years ago in favor of curb extensions. Scofield said one CB 1 member at Monday’s meeting was not happy to see the plaza concept revived by DCP.

The plan also recommends pedestrian-activated flashing traffic signals on Vernon Boulevard, where crosswalks are currently up to 2,000 feet apart. At the southern end of Vernon Boulevard near Jackson Avenue, DCP suggests expanding the existing “greenstreet” to add more pedestrian space and crosswalks. A second option for that location would create a large plaza and protected bike lane.

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To Make Atlantic Ave Safer, Advocates Want to Hear All About Its Problems

Efforts to improve safety along Atlantic Avenue are moving ahead as advocates gain support and the Department of City Planning continues its study of the dangerous arterial street.

Residents point out dangerous locations on Atlantic Avenue at a meeting hosted by Transportation Alternatives on Saturday. Photo: Mia Moffett

Brooklyn CB 8 transportation committee co-chair Dr. Frederick Monderson points out dangerous locations near Atlantic Avenue at a meeting hosted by Transportation Alternatives on Saturday. Photo: Mia Moffett

Each year, about 140 pedestrians and cyclists are seriously injured or killed on Atlantic Avenue, according to Transportation Alternatives. The Tri-State Transportation Campaign ranked Atlantic the third-most dangerous street for walking in Brooklyn [PDF], and a poll commissioned last September by TA found that likely Brooklyn voters named Atlantic the worst street for pedestrians in the entire borough [PDF].

With the de Blasio administration’s Vision Zero agenda in mind, the Department of City Planning kicked off its transportation study of Atlantic Avenue in June.

DCP has already met with the transportation committees of community boards 2, 3, and 8, which cover the study area between Vanderbilt and Ralph Avenues. Last month, the agency told the CB 2 transportation committee the study should wrap in the spring, with preliminary results scheduled for release in February.

In the meantime, volunteers with TA are asking residents what they want improved along Atlantic. On Saturday, about 30 people attended a presentation [PDF] and walk TA hosted on Atlantic between Classon Avenue and Albany Avenue.

“There’s a misconception that Atlantic Avenue isn’t used by people who aren’t in cars. When you get out there and you’re walking around, you see you’re actually not the only one,” said TA volunteer Mela Ottaiano. Although the city made Atlantic the first 25 mph arterial slow zone before the new speed limit is expanded citywide, it remains a high-speed road. ”We all know those cars are speeding, because you can hear it,” Ottaiano said. ”It was really eye-opening for a lot of people.”

“There are thousands of people that live on the side streets, and they are crossing Atlantic every day,” said Dave “Paco” Abraham, another TA volunteer. In addition to speeding, the group found insufficient lighting, difficult-to-navigate walkways at New York Avenue, and cars parked on the sidewalk.

Members of Community Boards 2 and 8 joined the walk, but there was no one from CB 3. “We reached out to CB 3 to attend the walk. I did not hear back from them,” said TA Brooklyn organizer Luke Ohlson. “We would’ve loved for them to come.”

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Planning For Growth and Safer Streets at Bronx Metro-North Stations

Once the MTA’s East Side Access project is finally complete, a few additional upgrades will allow Metro-North’s New Haven Line trains to stop at new stations in the East Bronx and cross the Hell Gate Bridge before heading to Penn Station. The Bronx is also expected to grow faster than any other borough in the coming years. With both factors in mind, the Department of City Planning has released a new report on the potential for transit-oriented development at Metro-North stations in the Bronx.

The study examined the development opportunities and street safety needs aroudn eight existing and proposed Metro-North stations. Image: DCP

The study examined development opportunities and street safety needs around eight existing and proposed Metro-North stations. Image: DCP

The study examines not only potential development but also how to improve access to train stations in neighborhoods divided by highways, rail lines, hills, and superblocks.

The plan focuses on eight Metro-North stations: University Heights and Morris Heights on the Hudson Line; Williams Bridge, Fordham, Tremont, and Melrose on the Harlem Line; and Morris Park and Parkchester/Van Nest on the proposed Hell Gate Line.

“The reason we chose these stations is because they had the greatest capacity for growth,” DCP project manager Shawn Brede told the City Planning Commission during a presentation last week. The borough is projected to have the fastest growth rate in the city, with nearly 200,000 additional residents by 2040, a 14 percent increase over today.

DCP hopes to focus much of that growth in transit-accessible areas, and shifts already underway in the borough’s commuting patterns show why Metro-North stations could be especially important. “The Bronx has the largest reverse commute [population] in the nation, and likely the fastest-growing,” said Carol Samol, director of DCP’s Bronx office. Nearly one in ten working Bronx residents commutes north of the city, according to Census data cited by DCP, and the highest concentration of jobs is along the New Haven Line.

While many Bronxites are commuting to suburban jobs, making it from Metro-North to work often isn’t easy. “When people are going up to these job centers, they get off the train and they can’t make that last mile,” Brede said at last week’s presentation. Planners in Westchester and Connecticut are working on projects funded by the same federal planning grant from the Department of Housing and Urban Development to address these and other issues.

In addition to reverse commutes, the report looks at growing job centers within the Bronx that lack sufficient transit. The area around the proposed Metro-North station at Morris Park is a good example. “It doesn’t have a lot of transit access right now. The majority of people coming in are typically driving to this area,” Brede said.

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A Proposal for Incremental Parking Reform in NYC

There is more than 400 Image: 9x18 [PDF]

Surface parking consumes more than 467 acres of NYCHA property citywide. Map: 9×18 [PDF]

In most of New York City, zoning requirements compel new development to include a certain amount of parking. These mandates make housing more expensive while causing more traffic and pollution, but the Department of City Planning took only the most timid steps to reform them during the Bloomberg administration, and the de Blasio administration isn’t shaping up much differently. Now a small team of architects and urban designers has a strategy to make progress on parking reform, and while it’s not exactly bold, it may appeal to the conflict-averse DCP.

Spurred by Mayor de Blasio’s housing agenda, the Institute for Public Architecture kicked off an initiative on public housing in March, awarding fellowships to six architects and designers. Sagi Golan, an urban designer at the Department of City Planning (who received the fellowship as an individual and not a DCP employee) teamed up with architects Miriam Peterson and Nathan Rich, who lead design firm Peterson Rich Office and wanted to study how the city can build affordable housing on under-used sites.

They began working together in June under the name “9×18,” referring to the average size of a parking spot. The team has already presented to a panel of critics, including top DCP staff, and hope to get the ear of other city agencies.

The de Blasio administration has not made parking reform a top priority, but it has promised to catalog city-owned properties that are ripe for development and singled out parking lots as one possibility. While leaders including City Council Member Margaret Chin support the concept, the politics of replacing parking with housing can get tricky. Last year, for example, the Bloomberg administration shelved its proposal to develop apartments on parking lots at public housing in Manhattan after residents objected.

The 9×18 team picked up where that plan left off by examining surface parking at NYCHA properties citywide.

There are more than 20.3 million square feet, or 467 acres, of surface parking at NYCHA properties across the city, according to the 9×18 team. ”More often than not, the surface parking areas serve as a physical barrier between the NYCHA campuses and their surrounding communities,” the team wrote. This land could be put to better use by providing more affordable housing or much-needed community services.

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Can Atlantic Ave Become a Great Street? DCP Will Study the Possibilities

The Department of City Planning has launched a study of Atlantic Avenue between Vanderbilt and Ralph Avenues. The study area stretches two blocks in either direction. Image: DCP

The Department of City Planning has launched a study of Atlantic Avenue between Vanderbilt and Ralph Avenues. The study area stretches two blocks in either direction. Image: DCP

Atlantic Avenue is one of the most prominent streets in Brooklyn, but it’s also one of the most dangerous. The major thoroughfare, paralleled by the LIRR and a subway line just two blocks away, remains a barrier between neighborhoods, plagued by speeding traffic and lined with auto body shops. Can it become an urban street that welcomes people instead of repelling them? The Department of City Planning is going to look at the possibilities along 2.4 miles of Atlantic Avenue.

DOT made Atlantic the first arterial slow zone in the city to receive a 25 mph speed limit, and volunteers with Transportation Alternatives have adopted it as one of their advocacy priorities. Borough President Eric Adams imagines a completely revamped Atlantic Avenue with new development and pedestrian-friendly streets. “In ten years’ time we want to see a completely different Atlantic Avenue,” he told Streetsblog in April.

That effort is getting an assist from the Department of City Planning’s transportation division, which launched a study of Atlantic between Vanderbilt Avenue and Ralph Avenue. While it doesn’t cover the entire stretch to East New York and into Queens, these 2.4 miles includes key sections of Clinton Hill, Bedford-Stuyvesant, and Crown Heights.

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Weisbrod and Kimball Tie Their Own Hands on Parking Reform

Reducing the amount of parking in new development promises to make housing more affordable and curb traffic congestion, but it hasn’t gained much traction in Bill de Blasio’s first months at City Hall, despite the mayor’s ambitious promises to ease the housing crunch. Today, two top city officials explained why, unlike their counterparts in more car-dependent cities, New York’s leaders are suggesting only the meekest changes to off-street parking policy.

City Planning Commission Chair Carl Weisbrod and EDC President Kyle Kimball. Photos: DCP and EDC

City Planning Commission Chair Carl Weisbrod and EDC President Kyle Kimball. Photos: DCP and EDC

The mayor’s housing plan recommends lower parking requirements for affordable housing near transit, senior housing, and commercial development that also includes residential units. At a Municipal Art Society forum this morning, Planning Director Carl Weisbrod highlighted these reforms as one of the ways the mayor’s housing plan aims to reduce the cost of construction — but only in places where car ownership is very low.

“Other areas have to be examined more carefully,” Weisbrod said after the event. “What we’re looking at is how we can appropriately reduce the cost of construction while not having a significant — or any — impact on the quality of life in neighborhoods.”

This outlook matches the philosophy of DCP’s nascent parking plan for “inner ring” neighborhoods, which lists “maintaining an adequate supply of residential parking for people who choose to own a vehicle” among its ”quality of life” goals. The result: DCP tries to tailor the city’s parking regulations to local car ownership rates, rather than using parking policy as a tool to make housing more affordable and reduce traffic.

DCP isn’t the only place where the tail wags the parking policy dog. If anything, things are worse at the Economic Development Corporation.

EDC President Kyle Kimball said he follows Streetsblog and that while he supports our policy angle, he takes issue with how we’ve reported about EDC projects. “[EDC] never had a policy of incentivizing parking as an economic development strategy,” he said. “Actually, at the end of the day it ends up costing the city. Developers don’t want to build parking, either.”

Yet EDC’s projects often include massive amounts of parking. At Yankee Stadium, EDC arranged public financing for 9,000 mostly-empty parking spaces whose operator defaulted on tax-exempt bonds. “The Bronx parking situation was one where they put in the right amount of parking at the time, given what they thought and what the Yankees were willing to pay for,” Kimball said of the subsidized project.

To hear Kimball tell it, the parking was done in by an over-performing train station. “There has turned out to be more commuting from that Metro-North station than the EIS anticipated,” he said. “So do I think it was a mistake to build the parking? No. Do I think the EIS could have been done differently? Yes.”

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DCP Flubs Research on How Off-Street Parking Affects Traffic

In its latest parking report, the Department of City Planning claimed that residential off-street parking is not linked to increased driving, contradicting previous research. In response, the parking policy experts who produced that research are reprimanding the agency for jumping to conclusions based on insufficient evidence. The flub by DCP could have big consequences, because it undermines part of the rationale for eliminating parking mandates.

A majority of car owners in "inner ring" neighborhoods park for free on the street. Image: DCP

About half of “inner ring” off-street parkers use a space away from their home. Image: DCP

At the end of last year, DCP released a report setting the stage for changes to off-street parking regulations in the “inner ring” — areas of Upper Manhattan, the Bronx, Brooklyn, and Queens that have good subway access.

“The report has many valuable findings,” NYU parking policy expert Zhan Guo said in an email, “but this particular one and the associated policy conclusion does not make any sense.”

Car ownership in the inner ring is below the citywide average: 65 percent of inner ring households are car-free, and 28 percent own one car, compared to citywide levels of 54 and 32 percent, respectively.

People who do own cars in the inner ring are most likely to park them on the street for free: 59 percent said they used on-street parking, mostly near their place of residence, while 39 percent used off-street parking.

On-street and off-street parkers used their cars for similar purposes, with on-street parkers slightly more likely to have used their vehicles in the past seven days for virtually all types of trips, from errands to visiting family and friends. Notably, on- and off-street parkers differed significantly on commuting to work: On-street parkers were 50 percent more likely than off-street parkers to drive to work, with nearly half of people who stored their cars on the street saying they drove to work in the past seven days.

DCP said its data does “not support the hypothesis that Inner Ring households with an off-street parking space use their cars more frequently for journey-to-work trips than households that park on-street.” At first blush, this contrasts with research from NYU’s Guo, published in 2013, and parking policy expert Rachel Weinberger, published in 2008 and 2012, showing that availability of at-home off-street parking in New York City neighborhoods increases the likelihood that a car owner will drive for a range of trips, including journeys to work.

A closer look shows that DCP’s data does not give any reason to question existing research. There are two key reasons why. “The destinations matter,” Weinberger said. “It also makes a difference where your off-street spot is.”

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De Blasio Appoints Carl Weisbrod to Head Up the Planning Department

Mayor Bill de Blasio has named Carl Weisbrod to lead the Department of City Planning. Weisbrod, who co-chaired de Blasio’s transition team and has deep experience in city government, now commands a post with tremendous power to shape the quality of New York City’s built environment. Of particular interest for the city’s transportation and housing future will be how vigorously Weisbrod pursues reform of NYC’s parking minimums, which Amanda Burden, the previous planning commissioner, barely touched.

Carl Weisbrod

In a statement, the mayor’s office said Weisbrod will be charged with “using all the tools at the city’s disposal to lift up working New Yorkers, keep neighborhoods affordable, and create stronger, more resilient communities.”

Weisbrod is an insider whose resume includes spearheading Times Square revitalization efforts under Ed Koch and starting up the NYC Economic Development Corporation under David Dinkins. More recently, as head of Trinity Church’s downtown real estate arm, he helped create the Hudson Square BID. Weisbrod is currently a partner with real estate consulting firm HR&A Advisors.

While EDC has developed a well-earned reputation for patronage and parking subsidies, especially in parts of town outside the Manhattan core, Weisbrod built his career mainly in places where the walking environment couldn’t be ignored. He seems to have a good feel, at least by association, for what makes city streets work. The Hudson Square BID, for instance, has been a major proponent of pedestrian safety and public space improvements the last few years.

Still, Weisbrod doesn’t bring quite the same clear-cut policy chops as some other contenders. One of the most important reforms the planning department can spearhead is the elimination of parking mandates that drive up the cost of housing and generate traffic. Anna Hayes Levin, a member of the City Planning Commission who early in the transition was rumored to be in the running for the position, fought against the 17,500 parking spaces called for in the city’s initial plan for Hudson Yards when she was a member of Community Board 4. (Advocates successfully sued the city and a cap of 6,100 spaces was implemented instead.) And Vicki Been, the director of NYU’s Furman Center for Real Estate and Urban Policy who was reportedly a finalist for the spot, authored the definitive report about how parking minimums making housing in New York less affordable.

Weisbrod’s insider perspective could be an asset if the administration decides to stop building suburban levels of parking as part of most city-subsidized redevelopment projects. Many of the projects that build parking-saturated development on city land are driven by masters of finance, and Weisbrod speaks their language.

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DCP Releases Timid Parking Reform Study for the Boroughs

A report from the Department of City Planning issued during the final days of the Bloomberg administration is a trove of data about parking, but a look behind the pretty maps reveals a department that remains focused on dictating the supply of parking spaces and reluctant to use its power to reduce traffic and improve housing affordability. Mayor de Blasio and his to-be-announced city planning commissioner will have to fix this backwards approach to turn parking reform into an effective tool for the administration’s affordability agenda.

After targeting Downtown Brooklyn and the Manhattan Core, DCP is looking at parking in the “inner ring.” Map: DCP

Under Amanda Burden, the Department of City Planning acknowledged the negative impact of parking mandates on environmental and affordability goals, then ignored many of those concerns when it came time to setting actual parking policy. Instead, the Bloomberg administration preferred to tinker with decades-old parking mandates in a few locations while preserving them across most of the five boroughs, using the promise of off-street parking as a bargaining chip to quell residents skittish about new development.

Absent a course correction from the de Blasio administration, this broken approach to parking could continue on auto-pilot. Timid half-measures that DCP made in the Manhattan core and Downtown Brooklyn appear set to spread to adjacent neighborhoods in the “inner ring” covering much of the Bronx, Queens, Brooklyn and upper Manhattan.

In a report released last month examining parking in those neighborhoods, DCP set the stage for future policy changes by casting itself as the arbiter of parking demand. The report discusses how to adjust parking requirements to match that demand, rather than using policy as a tool to reduce traffic and drive down the cost of housing for all New Yorkers.

There is one bright spot in the report: the recommendations for income-restricted affordable housing. “Parking facilities are often expensive to construct and affect the cost of constructing residential buildings,” says the report, noting that the median cost of structured parking in New York City is the highest in the country at $21,000 per space — sometimes spiking as high as $50,000 per space. “Excessive parking requirements could hinder housing production, making housing less affordable,” it says. But instead of applying this logic to all new housing, the report focuses narrowly on subsidized units.

“Affordable housing is more susceptible than market-rate housing to the cost implications of requiring accessory parking,” the report says, noting that low-income residents are less likely to own cars and less able to pay for parking. “Updating requirements for affordable housing to better match the needs of its residents can reduce construction costs and enable more affordable units to be built.”

This issue plays out constantly in the city. In Harlem right now, a developer is looking to reduce costs by building fewer parking spaces than required, and some community board members want the savings to go toward providing more affordable housing units, according to DNAinfo. But the implications for affordable housing aren’t limited to subsidized units. If the city eliminated all parking requirements, more resources could be devoted to building homes and apartments, not car storage, and housing overall would become more affordable.

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