Could New York’s empty parking spaces be turned into affordable housing?

Welcome to your new apartment. Image: Radcliffe Dacanay at Flickr, reused under creative commons.

An area of 250 square feet may not sound like much – but if you’re a New Yorker, it’s potentially huge. The average studio apartment comes in at just 450 square feet, so an extra 250 would amount to a whole 55% more space. It’s an extra bedroom. It’s even, according to the city’s former mayor Michael Bloomberg, big enough to house your very own “micro-unit” apartment. In a city where space is at a premium, even an area the size of a parking space could come in handy.

That’s the thinking, at least, behind a new report by a trio of architects calling themselves 9x18. As “architect-fellows” at the Institute for Public Architecture, Nathan Rich, Sagi Golan and Miriam Peterson set out to analyse the effects of New York’s current parking requirements, and figure out whether changing them could free up space for affordable housing. (Their group’s name represents the average dimensions of a New York parking space, though they use the larger 250 square feet in their study.)

Current NYC regulations stipulate that one parking space should be built for every three housing units. As a result, there is now around 20 million square feet of parking on sites owned by the NYC Housing Association alone. The researchers concluded that this was a little excessive, at least for public housing projects, since 88 per cent of recent developments were built within half a mile of a subway stop, and only 19 per cent of New York’s vehicle owners park their cars in off-street parking near their homes anyway.

So the architects have come up a series of ideas for how to re-use what they see as wasted space. They want to take disused parking lots and repurpose them as community spaces, filled with living spaces, studying areas, bike share hubs or mini parks. They put together designs showing all the ways a 250 square foot space could be used. Here’s one now:

These plans, claim 9x18, could actually make the city money. Each New York parking slot can cost over $50,000 to construct (which seems like quite a lot). But, in NYC, 250 square foot living space can easily sell for over $100,000: by repurposing the space, the city could make a substantial profit on its original investment.

The report makes other recommendations, too. It calls on the city to use a “more sophisticated formula” to decide parking requirements: that would mean basing the number of spaces accompanying new developments on factors such as proximity to public transport and household income, rather than just dividing the number of housing units by three.  New parking could also be housed in jazzy multi-story car parks like the one below, rather than using up the flat space around housing developments.

At the moment, the designs are still just designs, but 9x18 recently presented their ideas to a group of New York urban planners including Jeffrey Shumaker, the city’s chief urban designer. The planners seemed keen: Architizer reported that Shumaker, on seeing the report, joked: “This is all ours now, right? I can just take this back to the office?” Parking lot housing really could become a reality.


CityMetric is now City Monitor! Come see us at our new home

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CityMetric is now City Monitor, a name that reflects both a ramping up of our ambitions as well as our membership in a network of like-minded publications from New Statesman Media Group. Our new site is now live in beta, so please visit us there going forward. Here’s what CityMetric readers should know about this exciting transition.  

Regular CityMetric readers may have already noticed a few changes around here since the spring. CityMetric’s beloved founding editor, Jonn Elledge, has moved on to some new adventures, and a new team has formed to take the site into the future. It’s led by yours truly – I’m Sommer Mathis, the editor-in-chief of City Monitor. Hello!

My background includes having served as the founding editor of CityLab, editor-in-chief of Atlas Obscura, and editor-in-chief of DCist, a local news publication in the District of Columbia. I’ve been reporting on and writing about cities in one way or another for the past 15 years. To me, there is no more important story in the world right now than how cities are changing and adapting to an increasingly challenging global landscape. The majority of the world’s population lives in cities, and if we’re ever going to be able to tackle the most pressing issues currently facing our planet – the climate emergency, rising inequality, the Covid-19 pandemic ­­­– cities are going to have to lead the way.

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As for CityMetric, some of its archives have already been moved over to the new website, and the rest will follow not long after. If you’re looking for a favourite piece from CityMetric’s past, for a time you’ll still be able to find it here, but before long the whole archive will move over to City Monitor.

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Sommer Mathis is editor-in-chief of City Monitor.