Volume 74, Number 31 | December 08 - 14, 2004



Villager photo by Jennifer Bodrow

Sean Sweeney, director of the Soho Alliance, stands on Spring St. in Soho, illustrating how outmoded parking regulations for commercial traffic today only prevent residents from parking.

Parking in Soho is a no-go

By Ronda Kaysen

Even a hammering of cold December rain couldn’t keep these New Yorkers from lining up at 12 p.m. on Monday, and it had nothing to do with holiday shopping. They were hungering for a prized piece of Soho real estate: a free parking spot.

“It’s gotten really crazy,” said Dan, a Soho resident who declined to give his last name. Dan had been sitting in his black Volvo for more than an hour, keeping an eye out for the city’s sanitation workers who clean the block. After the sweepers came through — or if they did not arrive by the 12:30 p.m. street-cleaning deadline — Dan and the line of other drivers waiting for the parking restriction to end would be able to leave their vehicles on the coveted block until Thursday, the next scheduled cleaning day. Dan, with wild black hair and a car cluttered with evidence of his career as a freelance photographer, said parking has always been a headache. But in recent years, the competition for curbside parking has reached a frenzied pitch.

A series of zoning regulations affecting neighborhoods from Chelsea to the Lower East Side, including one regulation passed last year by the City Council that gave way for 16 parking lots in Soho and Noho to be converted to residential buildings, is taking its toll on Downtown’s parking spaces. For Soho in particular, a neighborhood that has transformed from a manufacturing district to a primarily residential one, the squeeze has been especially hard. “Basically anywhere south of 34th St., there is nowhere to park,” said Sean Sweeney, director of the Soho Alliance, a civic group. “Sixteen lots represented at least 80,000 sq. ft. of parking. That represented 1,000 parking spaces… In the surrounding neighborhoods another 1,000 spots have been lost.”

Soho has no metered parking and little alternate-side street parking. Most blocks in the artists’ district are reserved for commercial vehicles during business hours, relegating Soho residents to find parking in neighborhoods with parking troubles of their own. Sweeney often scours for parking on the Lower East Side on Chrystie and Forsyth Sts., arriving at 2:30 a.m., shortly before the late-night parking restrictions lift.

Carl Rosenstein, owner of the Puffin Room gallery on Broome St. and founder of Trees Not Trucks, an environmental group, pays $375 a month to park in a lot on Broome and Crosby Sts. That’s up from $270 a month six months ago. Two or three yeas ago, he paid about $225 a month. The increases, he said, are the direct result of new developments in the area. “[The rate] has gone up $1,700 a year in two or three years and my salary has not gone up by that much, even with Bush’s tax cuts,” he quipped.

Back on Thompson St., two attendants watching the rain from inside the Broome-Thompson Street Garage said spaces were available for the taking at a monthly rate of $421. The cars idling in front of their garage waiting for the street sweepers, they said, did this every week.

“It’s Soho,” said Dan in his Volvo. “It’s not an easy place to park.” Dan used to drive around the neighborhood looking for parking, but has since learned that waiting in one spot was by far the best strategy.

Sweeney has heard tales of residents taking more drastic measures to secure free parking. He heard of North Tribeca and Hudson Sq. residents removing the commercial parking signs only to have the Department of Transportation replace them a week later. Another tactic some drivers use, he said, is to obscure parking signs with black spray paint.

Sweeney keeps a coveted list of undiscovered spots (spots he was reluctant to disclose lest the gems be discovered) that appear to be illegal, but are, in fact, legal parking places.

One Soho resident who spoke with The Villager on the condition of anonymity said he went so far as to enlist a friend fortunate enough to live in a building with underground parking in his quest for affordable space. He changed his driver’s license address to his friend’s address, registered his car under the same address and told the building’s parking attendant that he lived in the building. For $221 a month, he now has a space. But the building management intends to raise the price by $100 a year until it reaches market rate, or about $500 a month plus tax. “I can afford $200 a month, but I cannot afford $500 a month,” he said. “I’ll probably get rid of my car and end up renting.”

Some would argue that giving up one’s car is the best decision a parking-weary driver could make. “On-street parking is simply too cheap in New York City,” said Paul White, executive director of Transportation Alternatives, a transportation advocacy group. “Encourage public transportation. You want people coming [into the city] by walking and biking and taking the train.” White hopes that through stricter parking measures, safety measures for bicycle riders, tolls for inter-borough bridges and improved pedestrian conditions, the city can become a “pedestrian paradise” where pedestrians can move swiftly and safely through the city.

Community Board 2, however, has other plans for alleviating the problem. In November, the board approved to change the signage for 100 parking spots on Mercer St. between Houston and W. Fourth Sts. from commercial to alternate-side street parking. “Providing more parking gives more parking to residents and it helps calm traffic,” said Brad Hoylman, chairperson of the board’s Traffic and Transportation Committee. “It encourages people to drive more slowly and makes it safer for pedestrians.”

Providing more parking will only increase the number of cars in the area, Transportation Alternatives’ White insisted. “There will never be enough parking,” he said. “More parking supply is not part of the solution. The more parking there is, the more people will be inclined to drive.”

Although Hoylman describes the current parking regulations as “archaic,” he agrees with White that the city needs to take a wider view of the problem of traffic in the city. “We do have to balance the needs of parking with the desire to encourage use of mass transit,” he said. Many residents, including Hoylman, do not own cars and would prefer to keep Soho’s streets free of parked cars as much as possible. But the residents with cars need a place to park them. “We’re taking the localized approach since we are a community board concerned with the needs of people in the neighborhood,” he said.

D.O.T. intends to work with the community about parking. “Currently, there are no plans for additional parking,” Tom Cocola, a D.O.T. spokesperson, said in an e-mail. “However, we are working with the community regarding this matter, and welcome their plans and suggestions to resolve this matter.”

White suggested implementing residential permit parking, a measure that has been successful in other cities. The community board has attempted that strategy in the past, according to Arthur Strickler, the board’s district manager. “We spoke about permits many, many, years ago,” Strickler said. “It’s fallen on deaf ears.”

D.O.T. did not comment about residential permits.

In January, Sweeney hopes to introduce to the Traffic and Transportation Committee an alternate street-parking plan for Broome St., and in February, he plans to present one for Grand and Crosby Sts.

With the increase in residential development in the neighborhood and the new zoning policies, the city should provide the neighborhood with more affordable parking, said Rosenstein. “[The city] has created a residential community,” he said. “We suffer with increase in tourism and shoe stores and perfume stores and we don’t get anything for it.”

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