New York's Search for the Right Number of Parking Spaces

Real estate developers in Manhattan want the city to relax its parking maximums

Image
Flickr/-JvL-

Parking maximums are a relative rarity in cities. Most municipalities have parking minimums, which require developers to include a certain amount of off-street parking per unit. Parking maximums do quite the opposite, effectively discouraging people from owning cars. In Portland, for instance, maximums vary based on a development's distance to transit; the closer you get to a bus or rail stop, the fewer parking spaces you're allowed to build.

Recently the planning department of New York City announced it was revising its parking regulations in Manhattan. Parking in New York has been limited in the core since 1982, when the city imposed caps on the number of parking spots created by residential developers. Those rules [PDF] permitted developers to create spots for only 20 percent of new residential units below 60th Street, and for only 35 percent in buildings up to 110th Street on the west and 96th Street on the east, with a total ceiling of 200 spaces per building.

Details of the proposed changes began to surface earlier this fall at Streetsblog, which has absolutely owned the story. Initial signs suggested the city would tighten some of its parking regulations. It would close some loopholes in the maximum parking restrictions. It would eliminate parking minimums for public housing, which many believe impedes affordable development, and replace those with maximums. The proposal would also end the protection of spaces created under old parking minimums, making them eligible for newly renovated uses.

Although the proposal was only preliminary, it didn't take long for the real estate industry to object. In late November, Streetsblog reported that the Real Estate Board of New York was "mobilizing against the parking maximums which have helped to hold Manhattan traffic in check for a generation."

Parking maximums don't harm developers as much as New York's real estate interests may think. According to a recent analysis of parking behavior in San Francisco [PDF], parking maximums are often a benefit to developers. One study found that condos without a parking space sold 41 days quicker than those with a spot. Another found that because often parking sells for less than it costs, a residential unit without a space attached to it yields a greater profit for developers than one with parking.

In support of its desire to increase parking maximums, the real estate lobby in Manhattan points to rising vehicle registrations in the city. The implication here is that maximums haven't done much to limit driving in the core, but that conclusion is a slippery one. According to figures from the planning department [PDF], the number of vehicles in the core is indeed higher than it was in 1982 — but using those numbers to claim maximums don't work is essentially trying to prove the null. It's quite likely that even more vehicles would exist today if not for the maximums. And in the last decade, according to the department, there's been "a significant shift from private vehicles to transit among people traveling into the Manhattan CBD," which is exactly the kind of shift parking maximums hope to achieve.

None of this is to say parking maximums are a perfect policy. They're certainly better for cities than parking minimums, but there's a strong case to be made that parking should all be left up to the market. Still, parking maximums probably shouldn't be the point of contention that New York real estate developers are making them. A recent overview of U.S. parking policies [PDF], published by the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy, suggests that parking maximums, when properly employed, can benefit everyone — not just hard-line urbanists:

Appropriate limits to the number of off-street parking spaces landowners may develop can meet both city and developer interests. The cities gain environmental benefits from preserved open space, limited impervious surfaces, and more attractive and pedestrian-friendly urban design. In addition, the disincentive to single occupant auto use created by limiting parking availability encourages use of alternatives such as public transit, bicycling, walking and carpooling. Consequent reduction in private automobile use may improve mobility by reducing congestion, and improve air quality. When developers and their competitors  each face parking restrictions, they gain from minimizing construction, maintenance and operation costs of typically low-revenue generating land use, and increased FAR and leasable space.

Photo credit: Flickr user -JvL-

About the Author