Parking Oversupply in Center Square and Hudson/Park, Albany

In a paper presented at the annual meetings of the Transportation Review Board, and neatly summarized by Eric Jaffe at CityLab, Rachel Weinberger and Joshua Karlin-Resnick of planning consulting firm Nelson/Nygaard demonstrate in quantitative fashion what observers of the urban condition have long known–that complaints of “there’s no parking!” are generally exaggerated, and most mixed-use areas are actually systematically oversupplied with parking when all parking in the area is considered. To quote from the abstract,

Defining sufficient supply as that which would leave 15 percent of spaces open, we find that parking is oversupplied by 65% on average. Differences in oversupply are not systematically explained by commute mode share, region, type of place, or any other dimension we were able to identify. Indeed, oversupply in places that have identified parking shortages averages 45%. The finding suggests that parking is often oversupplied to such an extent that it is non-binding on travel decisions and has become unmoored from the typical relationship between supply and demand.

To many urbanist observers, that American parking policy has led to irrational excess and inefficient decision-making is hardly a surprise; there are few planning issues more emotional for the lay stakeholder than parking, and it’s a realm where pressure from the people often triumphs over demonstrable good policy (though, to be fair, the economics of parking can seem counter-intuitive to a layperson). I’m already on record as a fan of Nelson/Nygaard’s work on parking given their terrific (albeit entirely ignored by the relevant policymakers) work on Albany’s Park South urban renewal boondoggle, so I thought I’d offer a few words here in support of this paper’s observations.

My neighborhood in downtown Albany, Center Square (technically, I live in Hudson/Park, since we’re a few doors down from the border between neighborhood associations, but people generally refer to the whole area as Center Square), is known, as far as a neighborhood in Albany can be, for its difficult parking situation. It’s a dense, mixed-use neighborhood; the housing stock is primarily 1-4 unit rowhouses, with a few larger buildings mixed in. Center Square is also home to Albany’s premier college bar and arts scene, Lark Street, and a number of other businesses, some of them mixed in with the residential blocks.

Recently, after a 25-year fight with state employees unions, the neighborhood gained permit parking, a status that was confirmed and extended by the state legislature in the last hours of its session last year (yes, despite strong “home rule” principles, New York cities have to get legislative approval for such things). I’ve only been here a year and a half, but I hear that the permit system–active only during daylight hours–has significantly improved the curbside parking situation during the day. At night is a different matter; the parking spots fill up both with neighborhood residents returning from work and with visitors experiencing the area’s nightlife.

Zone A of Albany's permit parking system.

Zone A of Albany’s permit parking system

Center Square is definitely one of the few areas in Albany (and really, in all of Upstate) where it’s possible to live car-free; my partner G and I own a car because G’s state job is near-impossible to reach by transit. I haven’t been able to find definite data on rates of car ownership in Albany, but I suspect that one-car-per-household is fairly typical in Center Square, with families with children owning more, and more than a few students and other people on the lower end of the income spectrum carless by choice or necessity. The Times-Union article linked to above noted that there were about 5,300 permit applications in the first year of the program, for about 2,750 spots, but that in the second year of the program that had fallen to about 2,600 applications. I suspect the latter number is closer to the real demand from residents (the city also issues permits to local business owners), and that many of the initial applications may have come from state workers hopeful they could get in somehow. There are, for the record, roughly 8,630 people living in the three census tracts that make up Zone A in the permit system.

In real life, it’s generally not that hard to find a spot even at night. I’m rarely able to find a spot on my block when returning after about 8 PM, but I’ve only had to walk more than a block once or twice since moving in. The nighttime parking situation is annoying, but not a major lifestyle problem. But here’s the thing: the 2,750 on-street spots to which the permit system applies, as Weinberger and Karlin-Resnick remind us, are far from the only parking spots available to residents of the neighborhood. There are numerous spots available in Washington Park (a popular retreat during snow emergencies, when one side of each block is closed), and dozens of homes and buildings with one or two spots in a garage or small lot. There are also, and more significantly, numerous garages and surface lots for off-street parking in the neighborhood, some of them attached to specific institutions, some aimed at state workers who park and walk to work in the Plaza or other state office buildings. To get a sense of just how many there are, I did a quick sketch of polygons over the ones apparent from the air in Google Earth, covering what most people consider to be the core of Center Square and Hudson/Park (i.e., not all of Zone A):

CS parking 2

I don’t have the time to go out and do an actual count of the spaces that all of these lots add to the neighborhood’s overall parking supply, but I’d estimate that, conservatively, it’s a supply of at least an additional 500-800 spots. The most prominent lot–the one at the corner of Swan and Hamilton that takes up most of a block–has, according to Parkopedia, 173 spaces; the garage on Lancaster between Dove and Lark adds another 125.

But here’s the catch: because parking in the neighborhood functions for two very different markets–for residents and for daytime workers–most of these off-street lots contribute little relief to the on-street parking situation. The lots intended for state workers (such as the two cited above) set their rates to exploit desperate commuters, and as a result are almost entirely empty at night. Both the Hamilton/Swan lot and the Lancaster garage set night/weekend rates around $90/month; low relative to major-city rates, certainly, but absurdly high in a place like Albany. The result is that–naturally–the major off-street parking resources are almost empty at night, and contribute neither relief to circling parkers nor revenue to their owners. The other lots–those belonging to churches, the neighborhood’s numerous policy and lobbying groups, and the like–are also typically empty at night.

In other words, there is plenty of parking in Center Square. The perception of a shortage is just that–unmoored from an reality of demand or supply, just as Weinberg and Karlin-Resnick would have us believe. The situation in Center Square is perhaps more complex than the norm because of the dual markets functioning in the neighborhood, but it’s not that hard to get a grasp on. I’m not sure if reducing the “parking crunch” is even desirable–and given the area’s walkability and transit-friendliness, it may not be–but it’s eminently possible with a little bit of coordination. The perception of a parking shortage in Center Square is driven by the same factors that drive parking oversupply in other areas–zoning assigning parking requirements by institution rather than by context or need, lack of coordination among business and institutions, and reluctance of residents to pay for parking.  The solution, if indeed one is needed, is in fact quite simple:

Get everyone (the owners of the garages and lots, local institutions, and private homeowners willing to rent out their excess parking spots) in a room to coordinate a neighborhood-wide rate for off-street parking.

If everyone could just get in a room to talk–that coordination thing again–the garage owners could find themselves with more revenue from local residents parking in their lots overnight, local homeowners with extra spots could have a little extra cash in their pockets, and everyone would find it a little easier to park. Such a solution would also, presumably, obviate the need for new developments in the area to add even more parking. I imagine such a rate would fall in the vicinity of $40-$50/month, which, though it might not be affordable to all neighborhood residents, should be attractive to enough of them to make an impact. It’s a solution that would be easy enough to implement. But then, since when has American parking policy taken the easy or common-sense way out?

Existing Parking Under-Utilized? Add More! The Story of Albany’s Park South Redevelopment

A couple of months ago I wrote a post about the parking crater that dominates the area around Albany Medical Center. Blaming the sacrifice of so much potentially valuable urban land to parking lots, I wrote a paragraph I’m now quite proud of:

What makes the Park South project even more galling is the presence of so much other essentially empty land around AMC and its sister institutions. If anyone were able to unite land-use planning for all of the parcels now used as parking, AMC could avoid ripping out old buildings in Park South and share with the other institutions an enormous parking structure (if it’s even needed!) that’s nowhere near residential areas. Instead, it appears that the city has declined to force the various institutions in the area to cooperate, and instead allowed institutionally individualized, and therefore wasteful, land-use plans to go into action.

I went on to argue that Albany should be encouraging redevelopment of those vast parking lots as a real, walkable urban neighborhood. I stand by that assertion, but in this post I want to focus more on the questions I raised in the above paragraph. The impetus is the release of a City of Albany-commissioned report on parking and transportation demand management (PTDM) in the area, focusing in particular on Albany Med’s plans for urban-renewing a large swath of the adjacent Park South neighborhood.

Let’s begin with the question of whether the planned Park South garage (now planned for almost 1,000 spaces) is even necessary. Without saying so explicitly, report contractors Nelson/Nygaard, a prominent planning and transportation consulting firm, say pretty firmly that the demand just doesn’t exist. Looking at the area within five minute’s walking time of the proposed project area, the consultants measured existing parking capacity and utilization thus:

PTDM Report, p. 9

PTDM Report, p. 9

Even at the peak time of 11:00 AM, there were more than 1,500 empty spaces within a 5-minute walk of the Park South project area. And that’s not including the AMC-owned “satellite” lots, which are located less than a ten-minute walk away (there’s also a shuttle bus). Those hold almost another 1,500 cars, and, according to the TDM report, always have excess capacity. As for added demand from the new office and residential buildings proposed for the Park South project, even the most conservative assumptions, derived from the Institute of Transportation Engineers (ITE)’s suburban-style standards, assume at most 822 new spaces would be needed (and remember, the developer and AMC are planning nearly 1,000).

The clear implication is that if one looks at the AMC/Park South neighborhood as a whole, rather than just considering the institutional resources and perceived needs of AMC itself, the added parking from a massive new garage in the Park South project would be entirely unnecessary; any added parking demand could be easily satisfied by existing excess capacity. Even if, as predicted by ITE guidelines, 822 more cars magically materialized as a result of the Park South development at 11 AM every morning, parking occupancy in the area would still be just 88%–within industry accepted standards of 85-90%. If the satellite lots are included (as they should be), the figure would be even lower, though exact numbers seem unavailable. Of course, if proper measures are taken, new demand won’t come close to 822 new cars every day, according to Nelson/Nygaard’s report: “If the development has a TDM program (as recommended below), the parking demand would be about 515 parking spaces (plus valet), which would translate to a supply of about 640 spaces – about 280 less than proposed. This assumes a 20% internal capture rate and a 15% TDM program reduction.” These smaller numbers, obviously, would be even more easily accommodated by existing parking in the area.

Alas, looking at the AMC area as a whole, rather than as atomized parts, has clearly long been the bane of Albany’s land-use and parking policy. In my previous blog post, I used a capture of a segment from Albany’s handy-dandy institutional land-use ownership map to demonstrate the fragmentation of land ownership, and therefore coordination, in the area:

AMC ownership

Ouch, right? Predictably (via the TDM report), this fragmentation leads to total lack of coordination in parking, with different parking lots in the area owned by several different institutions, and no attempts at cooperation:

parking_fragmentation

When the companies involved in the redevelopment project assert that the project is infeasible without adding the garage, they’re considering the issue only from the perspective of the resources available to AMC, not to the area as a whole. And that’s the kind of mistake that can be disastrous for a city.

The policy implications of the TDM study, then, are pretty darn clear. When neighborhood context (and not the kind that implies “everything in the neighborhood must look alike”) is taken into account, there is more than enough parking supply in the neighborhood to meet peak current and any expected future demand, even if the Park South project is fully built out. The massive parking garage planned for Myrtle Avenue is completely unnecessary, and reflects the worst pathologies of midcentury American urban design: atomized institutional self-interest, accommodation of perceived rather than actual parking demand, no attempts to conceive of alternative ways of accommodating growth in transportation demand.

That being said, “don’t build the garage” isn’t a full policy response.

The primary challenge to parking management in the AMC area is the fragmentation of land-use policy and lack of cooperation between the area’s resident institutions. The City of Albany should establish a commission or task force to regulate transportation management in the area, with representatives from each of the major institutions in the area (AMC, CDPC, the VA Hospital, Sage College, Albany Law—I’m sure I’m missing some), the city planning department, and neighborhood residents. This body should be given power over (if not actual ownership of) ALL of the parking resources in the area, with a mandate to streamline and unify management and control.

The savings from not building the garage stand to be considerable, and should be able to fund a kick-ass TDM program for years to come. At national average costs of around $15,000/space, the cost for the proposed parking garage is probably approaching $15 million, a significant chunk of the overall $110 million project cost. The TDM study mentions that the developers and AMC have agreed to a $70,000/year Memorandum of Understanding with local transit authority CDTA, with one possible way of spending that money being for the agency to operate 2 additional buses on Route 13 (the primary route serving the hospital) at peak hours, enough to increase frequency significantly. Imagine what CDTA could do with payments of, say, half a million dollars a year to increase service on all of the routes serving Park South and AMC (see below for more transit analysis). Devoting some of the costs that could be saved by canceling or considerably reducing the size of the garage to transit and other alternative modes seems like a win for everyone.

That the Park South project has gone as far as it has without examination of these fundamental points about parking and transportation demand is a signal of the kind of desperation that economically depressed, fiscally desperate cities can sometimes show. Albany can do better. It’s time to stop wasting valuable taxable land and inviting more cars into Albany.

A Few Additional Points

  • The report makes at least one assumption that is likely to be politically controversial: it counts on-street parking spots on many streets in Park South that are currently mandated for residential permit parking as available resources. Given that the biggest parking problems residential neighborhoods in downtown Albany currently face are at night, and the vast majority of AMC demand seems to be gone by 4 PM, one imagines that residents in the area might be willing to trade their permit protections for the garage not being built, thus adding the spaces on their streets to the overall supply. Alternatively, AMC and the city could work out a deal where AMC workers could pay for on-street permit passes; many small businesses in the adjacent Center Square neighborhood own parking permits, and the point of Albany’s permit parking program is to keep out state workers in the Empire State Plaza anyhow.
  • The report mentions that as of 2008, only 2% of AMC employees took transit to work, a shockingly low number for a medical center in an urban area (though that number has probably gone up since the establishment of Route 100, connecting the city’s poor South End to AMC). Truth be told, AMC isn’t in the best location for transit; it’s around a mile from the city’s biggest transit hub near the corner of Lark and Central, just far enough to be inconvenient.  The report recommends re-routing the only “trunk” route (it still doesn’t run very frequently) serving the area, the 13, away from Holland Avenue to serve all of New Scotland; this seems like a good idea. Increasing the frequency of the #114, which currently runs twice an hour, and straightening it out so it runs down the length of Western and Madison seems like a good idea as well. According to the map (by zip code) provided in the report, which local blog-of-record All Over Albany correctly emphasized as one of the most interesting parts of the entire report, the heaviest concentrations of AMC employees are in neighborhoods centered on Western Avenue, which currently does not have an all-day direct bus link to AMC; re-routing the 114 from Washington to Western would provide this link.  Via Park South councilwoman Leah Golby, who has doggedly fought for transparency and good urbanism in the redevelopment process, it appears that AMC is preparing to enter into a Universal Access Agreement with the CDTA, which was also one of the report’s recommendations; that’s a good first step.
  • Report consultants Nelson/Nygaard also call out AMC for, essentially, not providing remotely adequate facilities for employees biking to work. That seems like a no-brainer, but it’s sadly typical of the unthinking attitude most Albany institutions seem to take towards biking (and I say this as someone who has never learned to ride a bike).  AMC is just two blocks from Albany’s first proposed road diet, which would provide the city’s first real bike lanes; it’s an obvious connection.
  • As I said on Twitter, Nelson/Nygaard deserve huge props for an unstinting, well-researched, and above all honest study, as do the members of the Albany Common Council who pushed for it. At a certain point, Albany has to start looking out for itself rather than submitting to the (often 40 years out of date) viewpoints of the institutions that call the city home. Hopefully—just maybe–this is a turning point.