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Livable Streets or Tall Buildings? Cities Can Have Both

Chicago's 17-story Monadnock building provides pedestrians with an interesting architectural experience and retail amenities at their eye level, despite being almost 200 feet tall. Photo: ##http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Monadnock_Building#mediaviewer/File:Monadnock_Building_East_Facade.jpg##Wikipedia##

Chicago’s 17-story Monadnock building provides pedestrians with an interesting architectural experience and retail amenities at their eye level, despite being almost 200 feet tall. Photo: Wikipedia

Kaid Benfield’s new blog post on density is getting a lot of buzz over at NRDC’s Switchboard blog. Benfield, a planner/lawyer/professor/writer who co-founded both LEED’s Neighborhood Development rating system and the Smart Growth America coalition, has some serious street cred when it comes to these matters. And on this one, he’s with Danish architect Jan Gehl, who says wonderful places are built at human-scale density — three to six stories.

Benfield’s low- to mid-rise ideal is a great fit for smaller cities and towns trying to become more walkable and less car-dependent. And in most of America, building walkable, mixed-use neighborhoods out of three story buildings would be vastly more dense than the typical low-slung, single-use development pattern that predominates today. But it won’t work everywhere.

With demographers expecting the U.S. population to grow by 100 million people over the next 35 years, we’re going to need to build smarter and more vertical. In some cities, housing is already maxed out and unreasonably expensive. In those places, building up is often the only way to go. Can taller buildings engage people on foot and work at street level? It can be done. Just ask a million and a half humans living in Manhattan, or the 600,000 residents of Vancouver, or the residents of other cities where street life and skyscrapers coexist.

Benfield allows that taller buildings can be designed well for pedestrians, but his enthusiasm is for density-without-height, not how to integrate height into the pedestrian environment. He cites a study by the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s Green Lab that concluded neighborhoods with smaller and older buildings are more successful urban places than those with larger, newer buildings. They tend to have greater densities of both population and businesses and have higher Walk Scores and Transit Scores. And the street life in those older districts tends to continue later into the night. (Again, Manhattan might want to speak up here.)

I get it. I tend to like living in a neighborhood with the “eyes on the street” security and community spirit that comes from front porches and stoops. But there are probably a lot of factors at play in that study by the Trust aside from building size.

Preferences differ and not all neighborhoods are the same. “Eyes on the street” can come from simply having a sidewalk full of people — or from the lower stories of a tall building. Architects and designers who care about the pedestrian environment have figured out how to create streets and public spaces that attract people amid towering skyscrapers. Even the shadowy caverns of Lower Manhattan, built before zoning codes mandated building setbacks, appeal to some people — the area has been undergoing a residential boom for years.

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Are There Any Affordable Cities Left in America?

When you factor in both housing and transportation costs (H+T) as a percent of income, the car-dependent cities in the right column expensive. But are DC, SF, and NYC that much more affordable, even if you count the benefits of transit? Source: Citizens Budget Commission

When you factor in both housing and transportation costs (H+T) as a percent of income, the car-dependent cities in the right column are especially expensive. But are DC, SF, and NYC that much more affordable, even if you count the benefits of transit? Source: Citizens Budget Commission

Are Washington, San Francisco, and New York the most affordable American cities? A new report from the New York-based Citizen’s Budget Commission [PDF], which made the rounds at the Washington Post and CityLab, argues that if you consider the combined costs of housing and transportation, the answer is yes.

But a closer look at the data casts some doubt on that conclusion. Between the high cost of transportation in sprawling regions and the high demand for housing in compact cities with good transit, very few places in America are looking genuinely affordable these days.

The CBC report uses a better measure of affordability than looking at housing costs alone. Transportation is the second biggest household expense for the average American family, and looking at what people spend on housing plus transportation (H+T) can upend common assumptions about which places are affordable and which are not. Regions with cheap housing but few alternatives to car commuting don’t end up scoring so well.

There are some problems with the CBC’s methodology, however. While abundant transit is absolutely essential to keeping household transportation costs down, and it provides a lifeline to low-income residents of major coastal cities, the report still tends to exaggerate overall affordability in these areas.

According to the report, for example, New York City ranks third in affordability among 22 large cities. A “typical household” in New York City, the CBC finds, spends 32 percent of its income on housing and transportation combined. Part of the reason New York comes out looking good, though, is that CBC used a regional measure of income but looked at typical rents only in the city itself. Because the region’s median income is higher than the median income in the city ($62,063 vs. $51,865, respectively, according to 2008-2012 Census data), NYC appears more affordable than it really is.

Another issue, flagged by Michael Lewyn at his CNU blog, is that by looking at average rents, which in some cities include many rent-stabilized units, the calculation doesn’t necessarily capture what someone searching for shelter is likely to pay. If you’re trying to find an apartment in New York now, getting a place for the average rent would probably be extremely difficult.

What really stands out in the CBC report isn’t that New York, San Francisco, and DC are affordable — it’s that car-dependent areas that may have cheap housing turn out to be so expensive once you factor in transportation.

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Chin Urges Council Colleagues to Turn Parking Into Affordable Housing

Last month, Manhattan City Council Member Margaret Chin asked the de Blasio administration to prioritize affordable housing over car storage by replacing a city-owned parking garage in her district with new apartments. Acknowledging that the decision might be politically difficult, last week Chin urged her City Council colleagues to follow her lead if they want to tackle the city’s affordability problem.

Margaret Chin wants affordable housing instead of parking. Will her City Council colleagues join her? Photo: NYC Council

Margaret Chin wants affordable housing instead of parking. Will her City Council colleagues join her? Photo: NYC Council

From Chin’s op-ed in Our Town:

I understand why there’s sometimes resistance — from officials or local stakeholders — to certain proposals for new housing on city-owned lots that currently exist as parking garages or open space. It’s true that many of these lots already serve some purpose within our communities, and it can be difficult to commit to giving up a public resource in order to make way for housing. [...]

There’s almost always going to be some argument against giving up one of these city-owned lots. Some people might say, “Don’t take away my parking!” Others might say, “Don’t take away my green space!”

They all generally lead back to the same question: “Can’t you just find a different place for housing?”

But if we’re really serious about completing the mayor’s plan in a decade, the fact is that all of us — council members, community boards, residents — must make affordable housing a priority in our districts.

Earlier this year, Chin’s office identified three city-owned lots in her district that might be suitable for new housing and asked the City Council’s land use division to estimate how many new units could be built under current zoning [PDF 1, 2]. They found that a vacant lot used by a nearby business could accommodate 129 new units. Chin’s office says HPD has committed to developing the property, with a request for proposals due out soon.

There were also two parking lots that could be replaced with housing: A Department of Education lot at the corner of Eldridge and Stanton Streets could house 37 families instead of approximately 30 cars, and the site of a DOT-owned public garage could offer 89 housing units instead of 356 discounted parking spaces. (Chin staffers say they have not yet heard anything back from DOT about that site, which is undergoing a $5.8 million renovation.)

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Chin Asks de Blasio to Choose Affordable Housing Over Cheap Parking

Council Member Margaret Chin has set up a simple choice for Mayor Bill de Blasio: Which is the higher priority, affordable housing or cheap parking?

DOT owns 39 parking lots and garages in all five boroughs. Many of them could be affordable housing sites, if Mayor de Blasio follows through on his plan. Image: DOT

DOT owns 39 parking lots and garages in all five boroughs. Many of them could be affordable housing, if Mayor de Blasio decides to prioritize housing over car storage. Image: DOT

In a letter to Transportation Commissioner Polly Trottenberg first reported by the Wall Street Journal [PDF], Chin urged the de Blasio administration to redevelop the city-owned parking garage on Ludlow Street in the Lower East Side, calling it a “great opportunity for the development of affordable housing” in an area with “an urgent need for more.”

According to an analysis by the City Council’s land use division, it could accommodate 89 housing units under current zoning.

Chin’s request comes two months after de Blasio released his affordable housing plan, which singled out municipal parking lots as a type of city-owned property ripe for affordable housing development.

The Department of Housing Preservation and Development is charged with coming up with a list of suitable city-owned properties. Last month, an HPD spokesperson said the effort was in the early stages and it was still reaching out to other agencies. The department offered a similar line today.

After an event in May, I asked Trottenberg whether DOT would get out of the parking lot business to help the mayor achieve the his affordable housing goals. “It’s too soon to say,” she said. “I can’t pre-judge that now.” Trottenberg would only say that DOT is “ready to do whatever we can to help,” including creating an inventory of its developable properties.

DOT has not replied to questions today about Chin’s proposal to redevelop the Ludlow Street garage, but did tell the Journal that it “serves a significant community need for parking” and is undergoing a $5.8 million renovation.

The garage is is one of 39 DOT-managed garages and lots, accounting for more than 8,100 spaces citywide. Many of those municipal lots offer cheap parking well below the going rate. The Ludlow Street garage, for example, charges $4.50 for the first hour and $2 for each additional hour. Nearby garages start at $10 for the first hour.

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Proposal to Turn Car Storage Into Human Housing Hits Brooklyn CB6 Tonight

This garage and its curb cuts could be transformed into housing, retail, and uninterrupted space for walking.

Just a reminder that today at 6 p.m., Brooklyn Community Board 6 will hold a public hearing about the conversion of a 230-car garage on Union Street into a mixed-use building with housing and retail.

While traffic on Union Street is bound to improve without all that car storage generating car trips, some nearby residents are mobilizing against the project by feeding fears of neighborhood-scale carmaggedon. The opponents even got the Park Slope Food Coop to help drum up turnout against the conversion.

Approval for this project ultimately rests with the Board of Standards and Appeals, not the Community Board, but if you believe that it’s better to use scarce city land to house people instead of cars, it will help to speak up at the meeting today.

Here’s where to go:

Prospect Park YMCA
357 9th Street, 7th Floor
(between 5th/6th Avenues)

6:00 p.m.

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Pew Survey: Liberals Want Walkability, Conservatives Want a Big Lawn

Image: Pew Research Center

Image: Pew Research Center

Americans are increasingly sorted along ideological lines. There is less diversity of opinion among the people we associate with, in the media we consume, and even where we want to live. That’s according to a new report from Pew Research Center studying political polarization in the United States.

Image: Pew Research Center

Image: Pew Research Center

Perhaps most interestingly, the report found stark differences in preference for city versus rural living among people from different sides of the political aisle. People identified as the most consistently liberal were far more likely to say they prefer living in walkable place, while the most conservative people overwhelmingly said they preferred to live in a rural area or a small town.

The dynamic reinforces Nate Silver’s observation after the 2012 elections: “if a place has sidewalks, it votes Democratic. Otherwise, it votes Republican.”

Among those who identified as most conservative, 75 percent reported they’d prefer to live in a place where “the houses are larger and farther apart, but schools, stores and restaurants are several miles away.” Only 22 percent said they’re prefer to live in a place where “the houses are smaller and closer to each other, but schools, stores and restaurants are within walking distance.”

The situation was reversed for the most liberal class of respondents. Among this group, 77 percent said they preferred a smaller house, closer to neighborhood amenities. Only 22 percent would opt for the larger, more isolated house, Pew found. The proportions were roughly reversed for conservatives.

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Sooner or Later, the Brooklyn-Queens Waterfront Needs Better Transit

New condos in Long Island City are part of the first wave of changes sweeping the Brooklyn-Queens waterfront. Photo: Joe Mabel/Wikimedia Commons

The Brooklyn and Queens waterfront is in the midst of a grand transformation that’s only just begun. Newly built Brooklyn Bridge Park is already firmly established as one of the city’s most stunning public spaces. The Brooklyn Navy Yard now hosts glitzy fashion shows by international designers like Alexander Wang and Dior. Long Island City’s waterfront is a wall of glassy new condos. Many more changes are coming.

As this transformation takes place, new travel patterns are emerging, and for the better part of the last ten years, planners have floated the prospect of a new transit line along the waterfront to accommodate residential development and job growth. Most recently, architecture critic Michael Kimmelman suggested in the New York Times that the city build a streetcar along the waterfront, prompting Alicia Glen, the city’s deputy mayor for economic development, to Tweet: ”Love big ideas.”

Others were critical, noting that a streetcar represents a huge investment that could be better spent on other transportation priorities: using buses to connect residents with the subway, or beefing up service on the city’s busiest bus routes. Writing for Next City, Stephen Smith noted: “You cannot effectively connect waterfront neighborhoods in Brooklyn and Queens to both each other and the subway.” Smith also pointed out that the waterfront neighborhoods, for all their development, have relatively low population and job densities.

To plan for the future of the waterfront, however, we have to give some thought to transit. I agree that the cost of a light rail line is unnecessary (and streetcars make little sense regardless of the expense), but the city will need to forge stronger transportation links to meet the area’s full potential. The rationale for transit improvements is about the waterfront’s ultimate potential for new housing and jobs, rather than the existing conditions.

The city should begin by strengthening bicycle connections and by improving bus service with the goal of a one-seat ride from Astoria to Downtown Brooklyn. Both modes could certainly connect new residents and workers with the subway: The F train at Jay Street and the 7 train at Vernon Boulevard-Jackson Avenue are both within reach.

But a subway connection is not the main point. A successful vision for the Brooklyn-Queens waterfront is necessarily oriented away from Manhattan and instead looks to stitch the waterfront communities together. Otherwise, new residential developments will be effectively cut off from each other and from new job centers in DUMBO, the Navy Yard, Williamsburg, and Long Island City.

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De Blasio Housing Plan Meekly Suggests Parking Reform

Parking policy is one area where the de Blasio housing plan doesn’t go all out to achieve greater affordability. Photo: Office of the Mayor

There’s a deep connection between parking policy and housing affordability. The more space New York devotes to car storage, the less space is available to house people. And yet, 50 year old laws mandating the construction of parking in new residential development persist in most of the city, driving up construction costs and hampering the supply of housing.

The housing plan released by the de Blasio administration Tuesday could have announced one simple but major step to align parking policy with the city’s affordability goals: the end of parking minimums. Instead, the plan is strangely passive about parking reform, even though it plainly states that parking mandates contribute to the high cost of housing in the city.

Aiming to add 80,000 subsidized units and 100,000 market rate units to the city’s housing supply in 10 years, de Blasio has laid out more ambitious housing targets than Michael Bloomberg did before him — though not by much. An across-the-board elimination of parking mandates is the kind of measure you’d want to see from an administration that has basically pledged to use every lever at its disposal to keep rent increases in check. It would lower the cost of construction, and it could be used as a tool to extract more subsidized housing units from developers when they build new projects.

But the plan released Tuesday only says City Hall will “re-examine parking requirements.” And the specific parking minimums the plan puts in play won’t touch all development.

The good news is that the plan calls for housing development to be coordinated with transit and street safety improvements, and it does put parking reforms on the table in three respects. It proposes lower parking mandates in subsidized housing near transit, in commercial development that can also support housing, and in housing for seniors.

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Tulsa’s First Open Streets Event Reimagines Notorious Parking Crater

Photo: Zach Stoycoff, Tulsa Chamber of Commerce

Tulsa, Oklahoma, held its first open streets event over the weekend. Photos: Zach Stoycoff, Tulsa Chamber of Commerce

Typically, no one goes to the southern end of downtown Tulsa to socialize. This part of town has been so overrun with parking lots that Streetsblog readers crowned it the worst “parking crater” in the country in our first Parking Madness competition last year.

But last Sunday, thousands of people gathered smack in the middle of all that parking for an event called “Street Cred,” with the aim of transforming the area. Lifeless parking lots were remade as active spaces: an outdoor movie theater, a food truck court, and a disk golf course.

About 2,500 people biked and walked through an 18-block area during the event. It was the city’s first open streets event, organized by Tulsa’s Young Professionals group, which is affiliated with the Tulsa Regional Chamber of Commerce.

Young Professionals Executive Director Shagah Zakerion said a young couple who opened a coffee shop inspired her group to hold the event in this location. The couple mentioned Streetsblog’s Golden Crater award.

“We looked at that award as a wakeup call,” said Zakerion. ”For Oklahoma it’s kind of a new concept that streets are made for people. We really need to develop these areas for people and not just cars.”

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Will de Blasio’s Affordable Housing Plan Take on NYC’s Parking Mandates?

With a plan due by May 1, the clock is ticking for Mayor Bill de Blasio’s housing team to come up with a plan to improve housing affordability. Department of Housing Preservation and Development Commissioner Vicki Been, who authored reports on the city’s regressive parking mandates before joining the administration, is at the center of the team producing the plan. But it’s still not clear that the final product will consider the elimination of parking requirements as a strategy to create more affordable housing.

Will the city give developers a break on parking in exchange for more affordable housing? Photo: Graham Coreil-Allen/Flickr

Will the city reduce parking mandates in exchange for more affordable housing? Photo: Graham Coreil-Allen/Flickr

Parking mandates, which apply almost everywhere in NYC outside the Manhattan core, are a key piece of the larger affordability puzzle. The city and housing advocates have long recognized that parking requirements contribute to the high cost of new housing.

The Department of City Planning, acknowledging that low-income households have low car ownership rates, has eliminated parking requirements for affordable housing in zoning reforms for the Manhattan core and downtown Brooklyn. The department has also suggested eliminating affordable housing parking requirements as part of reforms for “inner ring” neighborhoods in Manhattan, the Bronx, Brooklyn, and Queens.

Affordable housing advocates cheered this approach. “We see parking as a major drag on affordable housing projects,” said Alexandra Hanson, policy director at the New York State Association for Affordable Housing, the trade association representing developers of affordable housing. “It’s a requirement that isn’t really serving the residents or the community.”

Other advocates want a guarantee that lower parking requirements will lead directly to more below-market housing. Moses Gates, of the Association for Neighborhood Housing and Development, a coalition of non-profit affordable housing advocates and developers, said the city should link any reduction in parking requirements to the creation of more affordable units.

“If we’re going to change the parking rules to make it easier to build,” he said, “that should be explicitly tied to the creation of affordable housing.”

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