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Baby, You Can Park My Car

In a city where people are willing to wait in line for a chance to pay a quarter-of-a-million dollars for a personal parking space, it should come as no surprise that New Yorkers’ once-inalienable right to free on-street parking may soon go the way of the Automat.

During the month of January, seven public hearings will be held across the city to discuss an idea that has been batted about for years but is suddenly on the front burner: charging residents a fee to park on city streets near their residence.

Residential parking permits, already a popular reality from Boston to Berkeley and dozens of cities in between, are something that would affect the quality of life in co-ops and condos in every corner of New York City. The permits are a timely topic at the moment because they’re directly related to Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s hotly contested proposal to institute “congestion pricing,” a toll for all vehicles ($8 for cars, $21 for trucks) entering Manhattan below 86th Street during weekday working hours.

Of the 127 environmental initiatives in the mayor’s PlaNYC 2030, congestion pricing has generated more passion – pro and con – than all the others combined. It has also pushed the mayor to consider issuing residential parking permits – at least in such neighborhoods as Brooklyn Heights and Long Island City, Queens, where residents fear their streets will become de facto parking lots for commuters trying to get as close as possible to Manhattan without paying a toll.

For proponents, residential parking permits are an idea whose time came long ago. For opponents, it’s just one more way of dividing the city between the haves and the have-nots – well-to-do middle and lower Manhattan versus less-affluent Harlem and the outer boroughs. And there are plenty of people between these two extremes. The New York Times recently editorialized in favor of residential parking permits, saying, “It’s time to end the free parking. This is New York, not Monopoly.”

Proponents have suggested charging anywhere from $25 to $200 a year for a permit, which would enable residents, both renters and owners, to park in specially designated areas near their residence. An outspoken proponent is David Yassky, a city councilman from Brooklyn who notes that the idea of permits came into play during debates over a downtown Brooklyn rezoning plan back in 2004.

“We are in favor of resident-permit parking because the traffic mitigation that would occur...would both improve neighborhood character and would be beneficial to the environment: fewer cars would circle looking for parking,” Yassky says. “The permit parking program would not guarantee a parking spot to everyone with a permit. All this would do would be to keep neighborhoods clear of unnecessary traffic.”

Unnecessary traffic, it turns out, is no small thing. A recent study, commissioned by an activist group called Transportation Alternatives, noted that during peak business hours nearly half of the drivers in the commercial heart of Park Slope, Brooklyn, are hunting for parking spaces.

Sue Wolfe, president of the Boerum Hill Association in Brooklyn, cites this incessant “cruising” as a major reason for introducing parking permits in the heart of Brooklyn, regardless of the fate of congestion pricing.

“These neighborhoods have such a problem with people circling the block, looking for a place to park, causing pollution and traffic jams,” Wolfe says, referring to Boerum Hill, Brooklyn Heights, Fort Greene, Clinton Hill, and Carroll Gardens. “Parking permits would be a much fairer way of dealing with neighborhood parking problems, and it would encourage outsiders to take public transit.”

“Granted,” adds Councilman Yassky, “we have only proposed this pilot program for a few selected neighborhoods, but I wager that if it were successful, then other neighborhoods would want it.”

Not the residents of Harlem, if State Senator Bill Perkins can be believed. “The mayor tried to jam this down our throats,” Perkins says of the linked proposals for congestion pricing and Residential Parking Permits. “This so-called solution could turn out to be contributing to the problem because, as it was designed, there was no way to avoid the area above 86th Street from becoming a parking lot and having even more congestion.”

Positioned between these two extremes of all-out support and all-out opposition is John Liu, chairman of the City Council’s transportation committee, who represents Flushing and other neighborhoods in northeast Queens. Liu argues that residential parking permits should be issued citywide, not just in a few selected neighborhoods that abut the congestion pricing zone.

“What I’ve been critical of,” says Liu, “is the Bloomberg Administration’s newfound thinking. After proposing congestion pricing, they want to have residential parking permits in certain neighborhoods. That sounds great, but it’s completely unworkable.”

Something far more critical to the success of congestion pricing, Liu argues, is the immediate improvement of mass transit, especially express bus service into Manhattan from outlying areas such as Flushing. The state must pass enabling legislation before the city can move forward with congestion pricing. A joint city-state commission is scheduled to issue a report in late January on the feasibility of congestion pricing, which, according to Bloomberg’s calculations, would generate $400 million in annual revenue. That money would be plowed into improvements to mass transit, theoretically alleviating the crush of cars and trucks clogging Manhattan’s streets. An added benefit, according to PlaNYC, is that commute times would decrease.

The federal government has gotten into the act, promising $354 million in aid, primarily to improve mass transit if the city-state commission approves congestion pricing by March of 2008.

But many contend that residential parking permits should be issued regardless of what happens to Bloomberg’s dream of congestion pricing. Jo Anne Simon, a Brooklyn Democrat who plans to run for City Council in 2009, is among these supporters.

“We’re already crowded out [of on-street parking] because of the glut of commuters parking here,” says Simon, who lives in Boerum Hill. “The fact is it’s harder to leave home if you have to pick up a sick child, and it’s harder for the plumber [to find parking] if he has to visit. A survey of three Brooklyn neighborhoods last year showed that 95 percent of residents said it was needed. That’s overwhelming support. This is not something to be leery of.”

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