No Such Thing As Free Parking

This past weekend, the Times posted an op-ed by Alexander Garvin and Nick Peterson titled The High Price of Parking, on the pitfalls of providing mandatory parking in most rehabs and all new developments. The argument really boils down to this: if you build it, they will park. And in the process, they will add more cars to the city. Those cars eventually wind up on the streets (even if they are parked at night), and add to congestion and pollution.

Recently, this was an issue at CB 1’s land use committee. Developers of 55 Hope Street, a turn-of-the-century loft building being converted to apartments, want to waive most of the required parking. Their argument is that it would require a significant expenditure to adapt this 100-year-old building to provide the 46 parking spots required by zoning (essentially, it would require rebuilding the structural system of the basement and part of the first floor to eliminate about half of the structural columns). They are able to provide 11 spots on vacant land on the development site. In addition to the expense required in retrofitting the building for parking, the creation of a parking garage at the raised basement would have a significant impact on this historic building (it has been deemed eligible for the National Register of Historic Places).

Most importantly (and not part of the applicant’s argument for a special permit), the provision of this much parking flies in the face of smart development. As Garvin and Peterson point out, the parking requirements in the zoning resolution are more than 50 years old, and date to a time when the powers that be thought that the car was the future of New York City.

The argument put forth by those who oppose the special permit at 55 Hope is that its already hard enough to find parking on the street. But the provision of off-street parking actually has very little effect on the demand for on-street parking. Look in Manhattan, where there are many off-street garages – all of the on-street parking spaces are still taken. The availability of off-street parking simply increases the overall supply of parking – encouraging more people to have cars – and does nothing to offset the supply of (free) on-street parking. So long as on-street parking is plentiful and free, people will have cars. When free parking becomes difficult, people will start to make rational decisions on the relative merit of owning a car. (In many Brooklyn developments – high end ones at that – provided parking is sitting vacant.)

The real solution is to rethink the parking requirements in the zoning resolution, as Garvin and Peterson argue. I would add that the solution to some of our local parking woes would be to institute resident-only parking during certain hours. But for 55 Hope, a project that is 6 blocks or less from 3 subway stations (on two different lines), it simply doesn’t make sense to require parking that doesn’t work for the building, and won’t significantly impact the number of cars parked on the street (but will impact the number of cars driving on the street).