Trading Parking Lots for Affordable Housing ‘9 x 18’ Plan Ties Development Rules to Public Benefits (New York Times)

BY MICHAEL KIMMELMAN PUBLISHED ON SEPT. 14, 2014 – 

What is the solution to affordable housing in New York?

One number has been repeated over and over — 200,000 subsidized units, to be built or preserved over a decade. Mayor Bill de Blasio promised it, but has yet to explain how he’ll get there.

Here are two other numbers: 9 x 18. In square feet, that’s 162, smaller than the most micro micro-apartment.

It is the size of a typical parking space. That lowly slice of asphalt has prompted three young architects — Miriam Peterson, Sagi Golan and Nathan Rich, fellows at the Institute for Public Architecture — to come up with what could be an innovative way to ease the housing crisis.

I’m intrigued by their proposal, “9 x 18,” because it’s about more than apartment buildings plopped onto vacant land. It considers how parking spaces — mandated in outmoded zoning regulations, prolific at public housing sites — might be leveraged into something more ambitious, something that encourages a mix of housing in active neighborhoods with accessible transit, public services and lively streets. In effect, the proposal trades asphalt for housing and amenities.

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BEFORE Current parking at a superblock-size East Harlem housing development.CreditPeterson Rich Office/Sagi Golan

And even if “9 x 18” isn’t perfect or foolproof — especially when it comes to finances — at least it is concerned with more than hitting some arbitrary number.

After all, the New York City Housing Authority, albeit with a wealth of federal money, did build nearly 200,000 subsidized apartments in the two decades after World War II. But that was hardly an unqualified success: Too many of those apartments ended up in projects on the far edges of the city, without shops or grocery stores, surrounded by vast parking lots that acted like moats, thwarting street life and cutting off residents from the rest of the neighborhood. Many of the projects are crumbling today. The housing authority is broke.

The “9 x 18” proposal capitalizes on an outdated and onerous zoning mandate that requires private developers to build parking spaces for new apartments in certain parts of the city.

The regulation clashes with Vision Zero, the mayor’s new pedestrian safety initiative. It’s also bad for traffic and the environment. And it forces developers to spend what a study by the Furman Center at New York University estimates is up to $50,000 per parking space, money inevitably charged to consumers, increasing housing costs. The mandate should be abolished, but dropping it would clearly force city officials to collide with car-owning voters, especially those poorly served by mass transit.

Instead, the “9 x 18” plan turns the zoning requirement into a kind of commodity.

It calls for a new regulation that would tie the number of required parking spaces to the number and size of apartments, their affordability and proximity to mass transit. That last part — which promotes density and discourages cars around transit hubs — is critical. It’s a policy the city should have adopted long ago.

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AFTER The same site could include a parking garage and multiuse development.CreditPeterson Rich Office/Sagi Golan

The plan would also give developers the option of paying into a fund to reduce their parking requirement further. The fund would go toward constructing mixed-use parking structures on housing authority lots: covered garages with shops and services at street level, play areas for children at the top, which consolidates parking for the neighborhood and frees up space on authority lots for more development.

That might include day care and senior centers, supermarkets, libraries and offices topped by mixed-income housing. The services and amenities would cater to housing authority tenants and attract people from the surrounding community, knitting them together.

We are talking about citywide reform. If you add up all the street-level parking spaces on housing authority lots around town, you get more than 20.3 million square feet, well over half the size of Central Park. Mayors, of course, have known for ages about this public property gold mine. When the Bloomberg administration belatedly proposed letting private developers build market-rate towers on some of this public land to raise money for the housing authority, residents went ballistic.

That was no surprise; taking public property from poor tenants and handing it to private developers sounded like just another sop to the rich. Officials barely consulted residents. The approach was top down and half-baked.

By contrast, “9 x 18” would embrace housing authority tenants, who would negotiate with officials regarding where and how their building and grounds might be changed and improved. More than 400,000 New Yorkers live in the authority’s 334 public housing projects, and meaningful improvements to subsidized housing across the city needs to take their welfare into account.

The “9 x 18” scheme is not altogether new. Several years ago, the city’s Planning Department reduced the parking requirement at the Linden and Boulevard Houses in Brooklyn, which freed up room for senior housing. Many of the new residents had lived in large apartments in those projects, so those apartments went to new families, creating a nice domino effect. Other similar efforts are in the works.

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Parking spaces have similar dimensions to the standard unit sizes of affordable housing in New York City. CreditPeterson Rich Office/Sagi Golan

 

But “9 x 18” faces steep financial challenges. Profit margins for subsidized housing are notoriously slender. Developers theoretically could make money from the shops and market-rate apartments, and they would pay less into the parking garage fund than the parking mandate now costs them. That said, it’s one thing to propose adding retail and some market-rate apartments on a lot in Manhattan, another in less affluent boroughs.

And will leases for new developments really throw off enough cash to repair the housing authority’s boilers, roofs and windows? Aside from getting these numbers to balance out, the other hurdle to realizing the architects’ plan is ensuring housing authority tenants get a fair shake.

The goals are right, though: Prod developers to spend money not on parking but on subsidized housing and neighborhood improvements; promote equitable and diverse development in areas that could and should be denser; and involve the residents of subsidized projects.

Of course, many public housing projects don’t need to be filled in, they need repairs. And more than a few residents may want open space and their current parking spots. In the “9 x 18” proposal, some residents would lose one or both. They might be compensated in novel ways. Mr. Golan noted that tenants who, say, run small businesses out of their homes might bargain for offices in the new multiuse developments.

“This needs to be a collaborative approach,” he stressed.

That suits the mayor’s agenda. His administration wants to think big and work from the ground up, housing-wise. Time is wasting.

By one estimate, the city has a net loss of 38,000 subsidized apartments every year, so even 200,000 in a decade would barely stem the decline.

The “9 x 18” plan is rough, but a start.

FIND THE ORIGINAL AT: http://www.nytimes.com/2014/09/15/arts/design/9-x-18-plan-ties-development-rules-to-public-benefits.html

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