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Wednesday, March 17, 2010

People want cars

"Mathematically we need more than 2,000 spaces ... people who live in Flushing want cars." There is this entrenched belief that people will own cars whether or not there is space for them, and that if the space is not provided they will park in other places. It has been well demonstrated that providing parking encourages people to own and use cars, but this is largely ignored by these business and community leaders.

Yes, there are clearly some people who want cars. But there are a fair number of people who don't, or can't. And it's not as if there aren't alternatives: This isn't suburban Phoenix we're talking about here: This is Flushing, New York, in Queens County, not more than a couple of miles from Manhattan, NYC. Subways, the Long Island Rail Road, etc.

Sometimes, I think the whole debate could benefit from a little market segmentation. Those extra parking spaces aren't exactly free. $40,000 per space for parking underneath the building. If you asked me "Would you like your home to have a covered parking space?", I would certainly say yes. But were you to ask me "Would you be willing to pay $6,000 a year?", I would certainly say no.

The best product is clearly one a wide variety of people are going to buy. And limiting yourself to a smaller market doesn't help the developer any. It's tempting to say "Let the market decide!" But the city itself has some skin the game: The transit system. You've got a multi-billion dollar legacy system--the city needs it, and there is no way it could ever be shut-down or replaced without disastrous impact to New York City. So there is an incentive for the city to induce people to ride the system--not just return at the fare box, but also essential political backing. You provide more parking, more people drive. More peopled driving means more people agitating for wider roads, and fewer people riding transit.

It's tempting to allow this single project to go forward. But there are two issues: Aggregation and precedent. This one decision means comparably little, but dozens of similar decisions would result in significant impact. The other is precedent. The city imposed a regulation, and someone is contesting it. If the city council punts on this, they have to do the same for every other developer, or other developers will be able to accuse them of having been 'arbitrary and capricious' in the application of the law, a clear violation of the Constitution's equal protection clause. I can't imagine this is the first project to be affected by parking minima, just the first in Flushing to fight it.

Flushing needs to stick by it's guns, which is a hard thing in bad economic times. If the developer goes away, there will be hard feeling in the business community. Innovative solutions are needed. The parking minima regulation is going to outlast this challenge, it cannot be subject to compromise. But that doesn't mean other issues couldn't be.