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With free parking scarce in pandemic-scarred NYC, drivers seek alternatives  

Karczma Polish Restaurant is seen in Brooklyn's Greenpoint

Karczma Polish Restaurant is seen in Brooklyn's Greenpoint neighborhood, where a structure for outdoor dining has replaced spaces for street parking.  Credit: Jeff Bachner

Street parking is becoming more scarce in New York City, with roughly 10,000 spots and counting transformed to welcome restaurant patrons eating outside during the coronavirus pandemic.

The transformation will be permanent, even post-pandemic, Mayor Bill de Blasio has said — pleasing urbanists who hope the program portends fewer automobiles on the roadways, nudges more people onto public transportation and helps fashion New York City into a place more like Paris or Copenhagen.

With fewer places to temporarily store their vehicles on public property, Long Islanders and others driving into the city are making alternate arrangements — switching to the Long Island Rail Road and other mass transit; paying to park in a garage or lot; or just scrounging around for the remaining supply of on-street spots.

"Stressful and tight, because everybody’s trying to get to the same spot" is how Maria Ardito, 42, of Farmingdale, described navigating Manhattan streets now dotted with restaurant setups — hutches, tables, tents, and even greenhouses and domed bubbles.

Before the pandemic, it was "no problem" to find a spot during jaunts with her daughter to Broadway, to dine out, to check out the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree.

"Now, you can’t find anything," Ardito said.

During a drive into Manhattan during the pandemic to visit her daughter, Julianna Kasper, 18, at New York University, Ardito circled around before settling on a garage.

"The traffic was horrendous because of the narrowing of the streets," she said, "because of the restaurants expanding out."

Interjected Kasper: "It’s easier to take the train and hop on the subway."

The Open Streets: Restaurants program debuted in July, part of a larger citywide effort to give more outdoor space to New Yorkers cooped up during the pandemic.

The program, which also includes a sidewalk-service option, has been a rare consolation prize for some of New York City’s nearly 24,000 restaurants, devastated by plummeting patronage and a state ban, for much of the pandemic, on indoor dining. Indoor air circulation, especially when diners are unmasked during the meal, has been shown to be one of the chief ways the virus can be transmitted. In September, the state comptroller warned that as many as half of restaurants citywide could be forced to close due to the pandemic.

Asked last month what he’d say to suburbanites who drive into the city, de Blasio said the program has been "a tremendous boost to the spirits of people in the city and giving them a lot of good outdoor options" — which also helped save jobs and businesses. Thus, he said, the program would be permanent.

"If that means there’s less parking available, I think that’s a perfectly fair trade-off," he said. "We will sacrifice some parking to provide all those positive benefits to the people in New York City."

The 10,000 spots converted for restaurant use represent only a fraction of the city's 3 million parking spots, said de Blasio spokesman Mitch Schwartz.

Those spots are spread out throughout the five boroughs, and more than half of restaurants participating in the Open Streets program and using the roadways are in Manhattan, according to figures posted to the city’s data portal.

And the 3 million total covers the city's overall inventory, not just spots available to the general public. It also consists of restricted spots such as those for diplomats, for example, according to Department of Transportation spokesman Scott Gastel.

Kota Nomura, 24, of Jericho, said his family has given up on trying to find parking anymore in the city.

On a trip in October with his brother and mother to an Italian restaurant in the East Village, his mother followed a new routine: reserving parking in advance at a paid garage.

"She doesn’t think she’d find a spot to begin with," he said of his mother. "It didn’t really bother us, though."

Brent Toderian, Vancouver’s former chief planner, said it’s crucial that as cities give less priority to automobiles — and encourage other modes of getting around — mass transit needs to be meaningfully funded.

But will suburbanites stay away?

"The ‘will suburbanites come if there’s less parking’ has always been largely a red herring in cities like NYC," he wrote in a message. "Manhattan is not an urban place that can or should try to satisfy the preferences of suburban car commuters. Great urban places don’t try to be great for driving — they try to be great for people of all types."

Meera Joshi, a former commissioner of the city Taxi and Limousine Commission for most of the de Blasio administration and now New York general manager for the consultants Sam Schwartz, said the Open Streets program smooths future conversions for non-auto use — both bureaucratically and in the public imagination.

"The idea of giving up parking spots is not going to be quite as fraught in the future," Joshi said.

And citing the experiences of other cities like Paris, which has progressively eschewed automobiles, Joshi said commuters would switch to other ways of getting into and around the city when car use is disincentivized.

"We are so appreciative now of all of the cultural richness the city has to offer after being deprived of it for so long that I think the number of people that will say, ‘I love my car more than I love the cultural diversity of New York City,' hopefully, is very slim," Joshi said.

Maria Ardito and Julianna Kasper, the mother and daughter from Farmingdale, said there are still those who will choose to stay home, particularly during the pandemic.

The two made that observation on New Year’s Day from Penn Station, where they were waiting for the LIRR back east, having taken the train into Manhattan to check out the "Friends NYC Pop-Up" in SoHo.

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