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Manhattan Garage Owners Worry There Won’t Be Enough Cars to Go Around After Congestion Pricing

Now gaining speed, the plan to toll drivers traveling into Manhattan could threaten the existence of several parking facilities south of 60th Street.

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A parking garage on West 58th Street just inside of the proposed congestion pricing zone, Sept. 7, 2022.

Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

Tony Zhang pulled his Porsche 911 into a West 59th Street parking garage where drivers of luxury automobiles pay $606 a month — plus an 18.3% tax — to stash their vehicles.

But with potential new tolls on the horizon, the trip across the Hudson River and into Manhattan could cause Zhang to back out of that garage once and for all.

The 34-year-old New Jersey man told THE CITY that with congestion pricing looming, he is less likely to drive into the city and park his sports coupe in a garage under 1 Columbus Place. 

The high-rise apartment building sits exactly one block inside the so-called congestion zone that runs from 60th Street to the southern tip of Manhattan.

“I’ll probably just take the bus, to be honest, because I’m coming across from Jersey,” Zhang said. “That’s probably the cheapest, also the fastest, because this morning the drive was terrible.”

The long-delayed campaign to toll drivers traveling into Manhattan’s “Central Business District”  is supposed to reduce traffic, cut emissions and raise billions of dollars for mass transit. It could, according to the various tolling scenarios, lower the number of total auto journeys into the congestion zone by up to 10.5%. But it also could threaten multiple parking facilities south of 60th Street.

An environmental assessment the MTA released last month for the proposed “Central Business District Tolling Program” projected that decreased demand for off-street parking in the area immediately south of the congestion zone border “could jeopardize the viability” of some of the 88 garages that house 11,541 parking spaces between 60th and 55th streets.

North of 60th Street, the report noted, there could be increased demand for garages and “upward adjustments in parking fees.” 

Several motorists told THE CITY that congestion pricing could drive them onto mass transit — which is exactly what advocates and MTA officials are hoping for.

“I think what I will do is take public transportation,” said Wilson Peguero, 42, of Bushwick, who pays $50 three times a week to park his Nissan Maxima at a West 58th Street garage while he attends John Jay College of Criminal Justice. “Either I take mass transit or I transfer out of this school.”

Parallel Problems

Rafael Llopiz, president of the Metropolitan Parking Association, a trade group representing close to 800 garages and lots, told THE CITY that implementation of congestion pricing could send “thousands of cars” into the streets directly north of 60th Street to use the 52 parking garages there.

“Between 50th Street to 60th Street, river to river, you’re going to have a massive movement of cars not going below 60th Street, but actually going into the residential neighborhoods,” said Llopiz, also the CEO of City Parking, which operates 145 garages and lots citywide, including close to 80 within the congestion zone.

A West 58th Street parking garage advertises its rates.

Jose Martinez/THE CITY

The environmental assessment outlined seven different scenarios in which vehicles could be tolled from $9 to $23 for entering the congestion zone during peak periods and from $5 to $12 overnight, depending on how the MTA sets up the programs and which groups of drivers receive coveted exclusions.

The six-person Traffic Mobility Review Board will recommend toll rates, along with any discounts of exemptions once congestion pricing is approved by the Federal Highway Administration. The MTA board will determine the final toll structures.

In each of the scenarios, cars, motorcycles and commercial vans would get charged only once per day no matter how many times they crossed into the zone — but caps and exemptions for taxis, livery cabs, buses and trucks vary widely in different schemes.

“It’s still too many options out there and not a lot of clarity on what this charge is going to be,” Llopiz said. “Until we really get an idea of what that number is going to be, I think we’ll have at least a better guess on what [driver] behaviors will be.”

The proposed vehicle tolling program comes as office occupancy rates trickle upward. But Llopiz noted demand for spaces in parking garages has yet to fully recover from the depths of the pandemic in 2020 — when the number of monthly customers had dropped from 82,000 pre-COVID to about 33,000 in August of that year.

“It’s still not ahead of pre-COVID, but very close to it,” he said.

Rethinking Garage Space

Last month’s environmental assessment noted that even if one or more parking facilities were to close south of 60th Street, those sites would soon be put to new uses given their high property values. “Their potential displacement would not create a climate of disinvestment that could lead to adverse effects on neighborhood character,” it read.

Instead, the sites could be ripe for redevelopment.

“There is a real opportunity to look at this space and real estate in a way that serves peoples’ needs and not just multi-ton vehicles that are bad for our safety and environment,” said Cory Epstein, a spokesperson for Transportation Alternatives, a nonprofit group whose NYC 25x25 campaign aims to reclaim a quarter of the city’s street space from cars by 2025.

A garage on West 61st Street just outside of the proposed congestion pricing zone, Sept. 7, 2022.

Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

“The reality is going to be fewer cars,” he said. “We can’t miss the opportunity to update the layout of our streets, prioritize public transit and overhaul our car-centric infrastructure.”

Parking garages could be reinvented, Epstein envisioned, as “micro-delivery hubs” where deliveries could be made by bicycle.

“Some of those surface parking lots or even the indoor garage spaces could be used as storage for certain types of goods,” added Tiffany Ann-Taylor, vice president for transportation at the Regional Plan Association. 

According to the Department of City Planning, the number of parking spaces in Manhattan has steadily declined over several decades as facilities have been redeveloped for other uses. 

In 2015, there were 2,218 licenses for garages and lots, according to the NYC Department of Consumer Affairs and Worker Protection. By 2021, that number had dropped to 1,899.

Llopiz, however, said he’s skeptical about more garages being repurposed.

“I’m not sure what the end user could be at this point,” he said. “Nobody has really come up with anything better than actually just parking.”

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