Month: May 2010

Background, Commentary

Complete streets need to cross city limits

I heard the horn honk a second time and turned around. There was a man parked in a minivan sitting at the corner. I pointed to myself with a questioning look on my face, and he nodded and beckoned me over. “Want a ride?”

The author in 1989.
The author in 1989.

My mother always told me not to get into cars with strangers, particularly strange men. But I was running late from my job as a cashier at Caldor’s on Ulster Avenue. I was worried about getting to Uptown Kingston in time to catch the bus home. That was the last bus that Sunday evening; if I missed it, my parents would have to drive to Kingston to pick me up.

When “John,” as he introduced himself, took a turn away from Uptown, onto the highway, and sped up, I got a little uneasy. When he said, “So, Angus, have you ever been with a man before?” I definitely got worried.

“Uh, no,” I answered.
“Do you want to have sex with a man?”
“No, sorry.”
“Do you want to have sex with me? If you close your eyes you won’t know it’s not a woman.”
“No, thanks. I just want to go to Searstown.”

Thinking back on it, the sidewalk was pretty desolate on a Sunday evening, the perfect place for gay men who don’t want to be observed. John must have been inviting me to have sex with him, and figured that nobody who didn’t want to have gay sex would get into a minivan with a strange man. When he realized that I had taken his offer of a ride literally, he was understanding about the whole thing. Fortunately, he was a decent guy and he dropped me off in Searstown just like he had said, with a little pat on my knee. I made it to the bus in time.

Of course, there could have been another guy cruising that block of Ulster Avenue who wasn’t as decent as John. That was one of the many commuting dangers I faced during the six months I worked at Caldor’s. I had a car when I took the job, but shortly after that the right front wheel broke. I couldn’t afford to get it fixed (on an entry-level part-time cashier’s wages?), so I had to pay $35 to get it junked. I couldn’t ride my bike, because it was too far to ride the whole thirteen miles back to Woodstock. I took the Trailways bus instead.

The store, and many others like it, was four miles from the Kingston bus station, in the town of Ulster. The Trailways buses never went there, the Kingston city buses don’t go past the city limits, and the Ulster County buses only ran a few times in the middle of the day. Neither of them ran on Sundays. Trailways didn’t allow bicycles that weren’t in boxes, so I couldn’t ride my bike from work to the bus. I walked.

The biggest danger by far, a much bigger danger than a few cruising gay men, was the speeding traffic along Ulster Avenue, especially on the part that is Route 9W. For the two miles in the Town of Ulster, there is only a narrow sidewalk on the west side of the four-lane road, nothing on the east side. The speed limits are high, and the cars are noisy. There are many curb cuts to get to one strip mall or another, and drivers take the turns too fast.

Ulster Avenue is one of three roads that go from Kingston to the shops in Ulster. The other one is East Chester Street, Route 9W, and it’s worse. It has only two lanes, but no sidewalks, and people drive even faster. The third is U.S. Route 209, a limited-access highway.

Sometimes, to get away from the noise and danger of Ulster Avenue, I would walk along the West Shore railroad tracks. Of course, walking on an active rail line is a very dangerous activity as well. I was always careful to listen and to look in front and behind me, but if I had tripped and fallen I could have been unable to escape from a train.

I survived the summer at Caldor’s, but I never took another job in Ulster County again. I didn’t want to buy another car, and I didn’t want to have to deal with getting to the strip malls of the Town of Ulster, where more and more of the county’s jobs are concentrated. Instead, I spent the summers in Binghamton and Chicago, and moved to the city when I finished school.

My sister lives in Uptown Kingston now, but most of the work is in Ulster. The county buses run more frequently these days, but only a few times on Saturdays and not at all on Sundays. So my sister takes taxis a lot of the time, which cut into her wages.

Tonight on the Tri-State blog I read that the City of Kingston has received a grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation to combat childhood obesity through education, complete streets.

It’s true that there are a few difficult spots for walking in the city. One street that really feels uncomfortable to walk on is Washington Avenue north of Schwenk Drive, which leads to most of the city’s motels. The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s project page also describes the difficulty of getting to Kingston Point Park, along streets with no sidewalks.

Honestly, though, most of the streets of Kingston are pretty good for walking and bicycling. Tri-State’s Nadine Lemmon points out that Broadway is four lanes, but it’s got sidewalks on both sides and there are parallel side streets. The intersections could definitely be more pedestrian-friendly, but I’ve seen much worse. Most of the streets without sidewalks are small streets with little or no car traffic.

The biggest challenge to safe walking and cycling in Kingston is in getting to the commercial heart of Kingston, which has actually not been in the City of Kingston since 1975 or so. It’s in the Town of Ulster. Caldor’s is now a Jo-Ann’s Fabrics, but there’s the Hudson Valley Mall, a Wal-Mart, a Barnes and Noble, a Lowe’s, and lots of other stores. A large proportion of the area’s jobs are at these stores, but there are also jobs at the old IBM plant nearby, which now hosts a data processing center for Bank of America.

It’s been clear to me for a long time that the development in the Town of Ulster has been a way for people to get around whatever rules (and taxes) existed in the City of Kingston. They didn’t have to build sidewalks or run buses, just a couple nice highways was all the infrastructure that IBM needed to suck all the workers out of Kingston, and all the stores needed to suck the shoppers out. But the city limit is a legal fiction. These stores and offices see a lot more shoppers than the stores and offices on Wall Street in Uptown, and have a greater claim to being part of the Kingston metropolitan area.

It’s nice to get kids to parks and schools, but I can say from personal experience that teenagers from all over Ulster County want to go to those shops, and Kingston teens are no exception. Maybe some are more sophisticated and want to go shopping in Poughkeepsie or even New York City, but most are headed to the mall.

I can kind of understand that government institutions are bound by the city limits. That’s why the Kingston city buses don’t go to the mall, although if I had ever been mayor I would have tried to figure out some way to send them there. What is more puzzling is that the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation also seems bound by those same city limits. The RWJF is a nationwide organization, and they work with pairs of counties like Nash and Edgecombe Counties in North Carolina. Why not pair up the City of Kingston and the Town of Ulster, and get them to work as a unit to solve a problem that affects them as a unit?

This Healthy Kids program will probably do some good for the children and teenagers of Kingston. But as long as it lets itself be confined by artificial boundaries it will fail to serve these children well. Because when they get old enough they will want to go to the mall. They may try walking on Ulster Avenue, and be the recipients of unwanted sexual attention. Walking or cycling, they may put their lives at risk on Ulster Avenue. They will probably give up, and depend on their families and friends. If they get enough money, they’ll buy their own cars one day. But they will not use active transportation on their way to and from the malls, and they’ll wind up waddling around Kings Plaza.

What the walking population of Kingston really needs, most of all, is reliable, frequent, round-trip transit to the malls, all day, seven days a week. The next thing is to make either Ulster Avenue or East Chester Street into a complete street that is safe to walk and bicycle, a street that attracts pedestrian-oriented development and a positive street life to drive away sexual activities. But it’s not going to happen as long as the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation thinks that its mission ends at the city limits.

Background, zoning

Commercial zoning in the latest draft proposal

Jimmy Van Bramer’s staff got an updated version of the zoning proposal, dated May 19, and passed the maps on to Christian Murray, who posted them on his Sunnyside Post blog.

The main differences I could find between the February maps that I posted previously and these May maps all relate to commercial zoning along Greenpoint and Roosevelt Avenues.

To understand this, you need to know about commercial overlays. These are zoning districts that are established along avenues for retail businesses serving the neighborhood. They only extend 100-200 feet back from the street. The districts that start with C1- are meant to be 1-2 story buildings, and the ones that start with C2- are a bit higher, and the ones starting with C4- are significantly higher. The second number indicates parking minima, where the ones that end in -1 require lots of parking, those that end in -2 a bit more, and so on.

These avenues currently (PDF) have a commercial overlay C1-2 from 41st to 44th Streets and from 59th to 65th Street, and C2-2 from 50th to 58th and from 65th to the BQE. There is also a district (not an overlay) from 47th Avenue to half a block north of Queens Boulevard and from 44th through 48th Streets that is zoned C4-2.

The February revision of the proposal (PDF) would have changed the overlay from 41st to 44th to C1-3, the overlay from 52nd through 59th and from 65th to the BQE to C2-4, and the overlay from 59th through 65th to C1-4. The area from 47th Avenue to just north of Queens Boulevard was split into a C4-5X zone along Queens Boulevard and a C4-4A zone along Greenpoint and 47th Avenues.

The May 19 draft that Christian posted does away with the commercial zone along Queens Boulevard. Now the area south of the Boulevard is a solid R6A district with a C1-4 overlay along Greenpoint Avenue. That C1-4 overlay continues along Roosevelt Avenue, pretty much all the way to 65th Street.

Overall, I think this change is good. In C1-4 districts, parking requirements are waived unless at least 40 spaces are required. For a supermarket or other retail store, it would have to be at least 40,000 square feet (two-thirds the size of the Stop and Shop on 48th Street) to require any parking at all. That’s an improvement over the C1-3 district, which would require 25 parking spaces to be built for a supermarket over 7500 square feet. Ideally, I would prefer C1-5 which has almost no parking requirement at all, but I’d much rather work to get the R4 and R4-1 districts upgraded to R5B. I might prefer more commercial density, but I’m focusing on parking in this discussion.

I’m planning to attend the meeting this Wednesday from 6:30 to 8:30 at Sunnyside Community Services. If you’re planning to go and want to coordinate with me, send me an email or leave a comment!

Background, zoning

Zoning revisions in Sunnyside and Woodside

The Department of City Planning has initiated a process to rezone Sunnyside and part of Woodside. They have their agenda, developers have their agenda, and various residents and business owners have theirs.

Here’s my agenda: I think Sunnyside and Woodside have too much off-street parking. Off-street parking encourages people to own cars, and to drive, as shown in this PDF. That’s bad for the neighborhood. Worse is that new buildings are required to have parking that’s really not necessary. The result is that all the new apartment buildings have garages and curb cuts, messing up the pedestrian experience and encouraging people to own cars in the neighborhood.

Business owners in Sunnyside and Woodside should also be in favor of reducing parking minimums. None of them have much customer parking, so most customers arrive by foot. Neighborhood residents who own cars are often tempted to drive to competing businesses outside the neighborhood with more parking. Thus, it is in the interest of business owners to keep residential parking low.

The best thing would be if we could scrap all parking minimums, bringing Sunnyside and Woodside into the same category as Long Island City and most of Manhattan, but as far as I can tell that requires a change to the zoning resolution, which would need approval by the full Council and is thus outside the scope of these hearings.

The next best thing is to push the zoning towards zones with lower parking minimums, and resist pressure in the other direction. We should also keep in mind waivers for small numbers of spaces required under parking minimums. If someone wants a zone with a particular height, I would like to encourage them to go for the subtype with the least parking required, as follows:

  • R4/R4A/R4B or less (100%) -> R5B (66%, waive up to 1 per lot). R4B (100%, but allowing waiver) is an improvement, but would still give us lots of curb cuts.
  • R5/R5A (100%) -> R5B or R5D (66%, waive up to 1 per lot)
  • R6 (70%, waive up to 5) -> R6A or R6B (50%, waive up to 5)
  • R7-1 or R7B (60%, waive up to 5) -> any other R7 category (50%, waive up to 15)
  • R8B -> any other R8 category

The good news is that the City Planning proposal already has mostly low-parking-requirement zones: R5B, R5D, R6A and R7A. There are some areas that have too-high parking requirements in the proposal: three zones in Woodside that are R4-1, and two in Sunnyside (47th Street and Sunnyside Towers) that are R4. These should be R5B. Sunnyhills and the Phipps Gardens would remain R4 under the proposal, which doesn’t make any sense; they should be R7-2.

I hope you will agree with me about the need to keep parking minimums low and waivers high. If you do, please go to meetings and support this agenda. If you have another agenda (changing the density, for example), you may be able to get my support if you also argue for a lower parking minimum.

To help you make up your own minds, here are documents and maps about the proposed Sunnyside and Woodside rezoning, courtesy of Thomas Smith and Penny Lee at the Department of City Planning: