Jamaica, Queens upzoning was great, but don’t forget the parking minimums

In Next American City, Aaron Barker discusses the failure of NYC’s massive rezoning in the highly transit-dependent black and immigrant neighborhood of Jamaica, Queens:

One of the centerpieces of [NYC's] initiative to house an expected 1 million new arrivals in the coming decades was the Jamaica Plan. Covering 365 square blocks surrounding a major rail hub in Queens, it was the largest rezone in the city’s history, projected to bring 9,600 jobs and 3 million square feet of new commercial space to the area.

Even though it’s been over three years since the resolution passed, almost none of the expected 5,100 units of new residential construction have materialized. In fact, the only real activity has been at MODA, a 350 unit, mixed-income rental complex that opened this summer.

He then poses the question: “Can redevelopment on a meaningful scale really only occur in already sought-after areas?”

While it’s true that Jamaica did undergo a tremendous upzoning, there was one element missing: Minimum parking requirement reform. From what I can tell from NYC’s zoning maps and code (which are notoriously difficult to understand), there was barely any let-up at all in the Special Downtown Jamaica District (zoning district “DJ”), despite the NY Metro Chapter of the American Planning Association asking the city planners to eliminate the minimums (.pdf). Streetsblog actually wrote about this tendency to upzone without lifting parking minimums a year ago.

Now, I don’t have any specific knowledge of Jamaica – I’ve only actually been to Queens once. But based on this study that we featured a few weeks ago, developers in NYC in general (and actually the study focuses on sites in Queens) only build as much parking as the zoning code mandates, implying that it is a binding constraint on development. So before we declare that zoning isn’t enough to revitalize poor neighborhoods, let’s actually make sure that we’ve done all we can to alleviate the zoning burden on developers. This may have been the biggest rezoning in the city’s recent history, but given how strict the rules were to begin with, maybe it wasn’t enough.

  • Benjamin Hemric

    I grew up in Jamaica, within walking distance of “downtown,” and over the years I’ve gone back somewhat regularly in order to go to the terrific main branch of the Queens Public Library that is located there. (I was just there last week.)

    Some quick comments:

    1) Regarding new construction

    While it makes sense to me that minimum parking requirements can stifle new construction, I wonder how “major” a factor that is here in this market (but also see more below, though).

    For one thing, downtown Jamaica has hardly had much in the way of market rate (unsubsidized in one way or another) construction since the great NYC real estate boom of the mid-1960s! In the boom years (when the rest of NYC was also experiencing what might be called a New York World’s Fair induced building boom), a number of Manhattan-style “luxury” apartment houses were built in the area (oftentimes replacing small, Archie Bunker-type, detached single-family homes or one-story commercial structures) . But, then, the post-WWII flight to the suburbs finally hit NYC, and the area seemed to stagnate in terms of market-rate construction.

    During the most recent housing boom, it seems to me that a number of Archie Bunker type single-family homes were replaced by boxy, modern day two- and three-family homes (the kind decried on the “Queens Cr*p” website that I linked to a few weeks ago) and some rather nice mid-rise condos, etc. (I’m not sure about this, I’d have to do more research, but I think I read somewhere that these mid-rise condos have received some form of government assistance.) And a nice, moderate “high-rise,” market rate (I suppose) hotel was built on the edge of downtown. (I forget the name of the hotel, but you can read some interesting reviews of it on one of those internet hotel rating sites. The hotel is on Hillside Ave., near 164th St.)

    In any case, though, a three-year time period seems insufficient to make much of a judgment one way or another.

    2) Zoning

    I am not sure what the zoning for the area has been over the years — and hope to look into it some time — but I suspect that the area has been “downzoned,” at least somewhere along the way, and that the current upzoning might allow for “less” than the zoning for the area once did. For one thing, the luxury high rises built in the mid-1960s, while not sky-high by Manhattan standards, were nevertheless pretty substantial. (By the way, as far as I know, the original NYC 1916 zoning ordinance did not directly regulate density — it seems to me that any density regulation was actually a by product of other regulations, like height and setback regulations.)

    3) Parking Minimums

    In terms of the issue of parking minimums, downtown Jamaica does present a very interesting case study. On the way to the library from the subway, one can see (or could see) one house where the owner, desperate for parking, turned his front and side yards (the house is on the corner, if I remember correctly) into concrete parking pads. (When originally built, these were small grass lawns.)

    Newly built two- or three-family homes, diagonally across the street, have no yards whatsoever: the sidewalk and the front and side yards (of the corner structure) are all parking pads. Plus, if I remember correctly, the “backyard” is also totally concrete and leads to protected parking beneath the houses. (There is a slight decrease in grade, I believe.)

    Across from the newly-built two- and three-family homes is a row of rather handsome early 20th century rowhouses. If I remember correctly, these houses have no garages (and don’t have much in the way of back yards either).

    If I remember correctly, such conversion of lawn into parking pads and the construction of no-lawn two- and three-family houses has prompted the Department of City Planning to essentially increase its minimum parking requirements for the area and/or tighten rules forbidding parking pads, etc.

    4) The strategies for urban redevelopment issue

    From a quick read of the Aaron Baker article, “Beyond Rezoning: Strategies for Urban Redevelopment,” I think the basic question the author seems to be asking is a good one — what strategies are needed so that areas that are less than prime will thrive once more (as downtown Jamaica once did). As I believe I mentioned — or alluded to — in a comment a few weeks ago, also about downtown Jamaica, I think it would help if people really read (and thought about) what Jane Jacobs had to say in “Death and Life of Great American Cities” about successful and unsuccessful city districts.

    For one thing, downtown Jamaica seems to me to be a prime example of an area that suffers from blocks that are much, much too long. (Even as a kid, I thought these blocks were too long.) So it’s kind of disheartening to see that two recent development (both built, I believe, with some kind of government assistance) were built in the middle of overly long blocks, but they did not provide for new streets to be cut through. (Although, if I remember correctly, one of them seems to include a slight — but inadequate in my opinion — nod to Jacobs via a narrow through-block pedestrian walkway. The other project actually blocks off a dead-end street that should have, in my opinion, been cut through the block.)

    Benjamin Hemric
    Wed., February 9, 2011, 8:33 p.m.

    P.S. — I hope people will not mind if any future posts of mine in this thread, if there are any, are done as independent comments (ie.., outside the nesting feature).

    P.P.S. — Since I don’t know anything about Usenet or Slashdot, it’s unclear to me how people posting individual posts in a thread (rather than in a nest) impacts those who use Usenet or Slashdot. I would assume that it just limits the easy availability of each of the individual comments, but that it doesn’t actually “disadvantage” the posters of other comments. In other words, I would assume that those who are interested in reading all the posts in a thread could easily do so by visiting the “Market Urbanism” website in the “regular way” — finding the website via a search engine, clicking on the site, and then clicking on a post to read all the comments.

    Would be interested in knowing more but, at least for the moment, will still avoid using the nesting feature of Disqus.

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  • Benjamin Hemric

    P.P.P.S. — While it’s hard to tell, but it seems like the photo illustrating the orginal article is one that is looking across Jamaica Avenue (the “main” street of Jamaica) to the entrance of 164th Street (what was once, perhaps, the area’s main upscale shopping street).

    Stephen Smith, in particular (as a fan of “elevateds”), might be interested in knowing that this stretch of Jamaica Avenue USED TO have an elevated “subway” line. It was torn down in the late 1970s I believe. As I understand it, local businessmen thought that this would help the area. Since this is the same elevated that used to drive me crazy with its noise when I would go shopping — I would duck into stores every once in a while just to get away from the horrendous noise — I can sympathize a bit. But it still seems to me that as an effort at revitalization this was a mistake. The “el” was “replaced” by a new branching off of an existing subway line (that also serviced the area along another major street, Hillside Avenue), and the new branch makes a sharp detour to the south before it gets to this part of the Jamaica Avenue, which is the main part of downtown Jamaica.

    Also, this part of 164th was the main “glamour” side shopping street, so it seems to me, with a rather nifty late art moderne-ish Macy’s (with, then, innovative, parking on the roof) and some upscale shops. In a misguided (in my opinion) attempt to “revitalize” the area in the late 1970s (?), 164th St. was pedestrianized and made into a “pedestrian mall.”

    Benjamin Hemric
    Wed., Feb. 9, 2011, 9:10 p.m.

  • Benjamin Hemric

    For those interested in a more detailed look at the locations mentioned in my previous comments, through the miracle of modern technology one can easily see photos of some of these locations via Google maps. Just type in the street location (which I will provide) and then drag and drop the image of the little man onto the location you want to see:

    168th Street and 88th Avenue –
    This is the intersection with a) the single-family detached home with the parking pads instead of grass, b) the newly built two- and three-family homes with parking pads instead of grass (or sidewalks!), and c) the nice early 20th century row houses with no on-site parking (as far as I can tell — one can’t get a good look at the rear yards, I don’t think. Unfortunately there seem no photos of 168th Street between 88th Avenue and Hillside Avenue, so you can’t see much more than this intersection.)

    165th Street and Hillside Avenue –
    You can see the hotel, which is a Ramada Inn, under construction. Also nice images of the high-rise “luxury” apartment houses built, along for instance Hillside Avenue, during the 1960s or so.

    165th St. and Jamaica Avenue –
    This shows the same intersection that is shown in the photo accompanying the original article.

    165th St. and 89th Avenue –
    This shows what was once a glamorous, art moderne Macy’s with rooftop parking. (It’s now a budget mini-mall.)

    For those who haven’t used this feature of Google Maps before, I should point out that you can usually move up and down the street, and move the view up (to the sky, to see the tops of buildings) and down (to the pavement) by pressing the appropriate buttons.

    Also, here’s a link to very interesting TripAdvisor reviews of the Ramada Hotel at 164-40 Hillside Avenue, Jamaica, New York. Interesting to read in the reviews how the area is perceived by people who are from various parts of the nation and the world.

    Here’s the link:

    http://www.tripadvisor.com/Hotel_Review-g47962-d1174893-Reviews-Ramada_Queens-Jamaica_New_York.html

    Benjamin Hemric
    Wed., February 9, 2010, 11:24 p.m.

    P.S. — I hope people will not mind if any future posts of mine in this thread, if there are any, are done as independent comments (ie.., outside the nesting feature).

  • Benjamin Hemric

    For those interested in a more detailed look at the locations mentioned in my previous comments, through the miracle of modern technology one can easily see photos of some of these locations via Google maps. Just type in the street location (which I will provide) and then drag and drop the image of the little man onto the location you want to see:

    168th Street and 88th Avenue –
    This is the intersection with a) the single-family detached home with the parking pads instead of grass, b) the newly built two- and three-family homes with parking pads instead of grass (or sidewalks!), and c) the nice early 20th century row houses with no on-site parking (as far as I can tell — one can’t get a good look at the rear yards, I don’t think. Unfortunately there seem no photos of 168th Street between 88th Avenue and Hillside Avenue, so you can’t see much more than this intersection.)

    165th Street and Hillside Avenue –
    You can see the hotel, which is a Ramada Inn, under construction. Also nice images of the high-rise “luxury” apartment houses built, along for instance Hillside Avenue, during the 1960s or so.

    165th St. and Jamaica Avenue –
    This shows the same intersection that is shown in the photo accompanying the original article.

    165th St. and 89th Avenue –
    This shows what was once a glamorous, art moderne Macy’s with rooftop parking. (It’s now a budget mini-mall.)

    For those who haven’t used this feature of Google Maps before, I should point out that you can usually move up and down the street, and move the view up (to the sky, to see the tops of buildings) and down (to the pavement) by pressing the appropriate buttons.

    Also, here’s a link to very interesting TripAdvisor reviews of the Ramada Hotel at 164-40 Hillside Avenue, Jamaica, New York. Interesting to read in the reviews how the area is perceived by people who are from various parts of the nation and the world.

    Here’s the link:

    http://www.tripadvisor.com/Hotel_Review-g47962-d1174893-Reviews-Ramada_Queens-Jamaica_New_York.html

    Benjamin Hemric
    Wed., February 9, 2010, 11:24 p.m.

    P.S. — I hope people will not mind if any future posts of mine in this thread, if there are any, are done as independent comments (ie.., outside the nesting feature).

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