How a Revolutionary Idea Could Transform New York City’s Parking Lots Into Affordable Housing

A new proposal shows that thinking small—nine feet by 19 feet, to be exact—is key to tackling one of Gotham’s most pressing issues.

(Photo: Stefan Georgi/Flickr)

Sponsored bySponsored by IBM
Dec 8, 2014· 2 MIN READ
Regular TakePart contributor Holly Eagleson writes about social issues, culture, lifestyle, and food for Redbook, Marie Claire, Glamour, and others.

New York City is ground zero for legendary debates, from baseball to the best slice of pizza, but none is more urgent than the discourse around the Big Apple’s affordable housing crisis.

Two-thirds of New Yorkers believe that housing affordability is “bad and getting worse.” No surprise, considering construction of $100 million apartments is on the rise, and “poor doors” increasingly separate middle-income residents from luxury renters in the same building. Mayor Bill de Blasio is asking the city to build or preserve 200,000 affordable housing units in the next 10 years. How that will happen when the New York City Housing Authority is facing a $77 million deficit isn’t clear, but one organization is offering a solution that was sitting right under its nose.

The NYC-based Institute for Public Architecture called on creative young minds to generate solutions for affordable housing. One of the most intriguing ideas came from institute fellows Sagi Golan, Miriam Peterson, and Nathan Rich in their ingenious “9x18” proposal. It points out the abundance of parking lots on the New York City Housing Authority’s sites—totaling more than 20.3 million square feet—as a woefully underused city resource.

The surfeit of spots is the result of minimum parking requirements, which mandate that developers construct a certain amount of off-street parking for new residential units.

The “9x18” project (which refers to the dimensions of a standard parking spot) suggests that rather than linking parking minimums to the total number of units in a development, they should be linked to the affordability and size of future apartments. It would also bank parking in centralized hubs called PiYNs (“Park in Your Neighborhood”). Each structure would have design guidelines that include amenities such as parks, libraries, shared office space, retail, and community centers. Think of it as the inverse of a Joni Mitchell lyric: To create paradise, shake up a parking lot.

To examine the feasibility of their plan, urban designer Golan and architects Rich and Peterson lasered in on a cluster of NYCHA buildings in East Harlem. It’s a neighborhood in proximity to public transportation and one where 84 percent of households don’t own cars, according to the Department of City Planning. Even so, NYCHA sites in the area boast 600,000 square feet of surface-level parking.

Consolidating those spots could free up more space for the development of new housing—one micro-housing unit can fit in two parking spots—and also reintegrate buildings into the city environment. “If you look at the way parking lots manifest on these sites, they really act as moats between the NYCHA sites and surrounding streets,” says Rich. To wit, when the team asked residents where they live, many identified themselves in relation to their housing development, not their neighborhood.

Though about half of all New York City residences are within a 10-minute walk of a subway or a rail station, that’s not true of all public housing. Parking is sacrosanct in outer-borough sites that are a mile or more from the nearest subway and shops.

But the trio behind “9x18” may have a way to address that too. A survey of household travel in the most densely populated areas of New York City found that 84 percent of people who own a car use it for household errands, whereas only 42 percent use it to get to work. PiYNs would require putting grocery stores and pharmacies at street level, which may discourage car ownership among much of the population.

Reducing parking minimums also presents a potential economic boon to residents of future developments. The price tag for one parking space in NYC can reach upward of $50,000, translating into higher rent for all apartment dwellers regardless of whether they own cars.

The “9x18” proposal will face hurdles before becoming a reality. First, if private developers are involved, new residences couldn’t be composed entirely of affordable housing, as the profit margin for developers is slim. NYCHA would also need to build consensus among residents before any plan could pass the city’s omnipotent community boards.

To that end, Golan, Peterson, and Rich have crowdsourced the funds necessary for community outreach among NYCHA building residents. “Considering residents’ needs is an essential component, and it’s an empowering moment for them in the process,” Rich says.

Whatever its outcome, the project is proof that creative solutions come from thinking outside a sclerotic bureaucracy. “Design is an important tool for addressing how to repair NYCHA campuses in the way that they relate to their surroundings,” says Peterson. “Ultimately, it will take some clever and innovative solutions to make it successful.”