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Park Avenue? Yeah, right

NEW YORK, N.Y. / GERALDINE BAUM

June 07, 2004|GERALDINE BAUM

Sometimes, parking in a New York garage is like being in a cult. I am a New Yorker. I will pay anything, do anything to park here. After a while, it gets hard to deprogram.

Randi Epstein had one of those experiences not long ago that made her determined to get normal. It happened in an underground parking garage. She was in her car. She couldn't get out. Epstein was paying $400 a month to park in a small underground garage near her brownstone on the Upper West Side. Maneuvering her SUV down the narrow ramp to her assigned spot took forever. Epstein worried constantly that she'd scrape another car, slam into a pillar or rip the mirrors off her car while going around a corner to her spot.

Then one day she parked so tightly between the walls and other cars that she got stuck in the car with her four children and several bags of groceries. First she edged forward enough to open the driver's side. Then she climbed all the way to the back of the car and dragged each grocery bag to the front. The kids, ranging from 4 to 10, had to fend for themselves, climbing to the front and shimmying out of the driver's side.

After that, Epstein was in a constant parking panic. Still, she was reluctant to give up her prized spot. She'd gone through a lot to get it. Unlike other garages, this one issued clickers, the kind normal people use in the suburbs to open their garage doors. Customers were also allowed to park their own cars. There was no attendant demanding huge tips at Christmas, no claim check to keep track of, no need to call half an hour in advance to get the car out in time to make a dinner reservation across town. But above all that, Epstein admits, what made the garage most desirable was that it was tougher to get into than private preschools in the city.

For two years she was on a waiting list. She'd call religiously to see if anything had come available and was always told there was no room. Then one afternoon she was walking down her block with her attractive nanny, Sonya, when the doorman from the building next to the garage stopped them so he could flirt. Feeling like middle-aged wallpaper, Epstein just stood there; at some point she brought up availability at the garage. Smiling at Sonya, the doorman said, "No problem. I'll take care of it." The next day Epstein had a spot: "I felt like I'd won the lottery."

But after her monthly rate went up $100, she realized she was better off at one of the big neighborhood garages than trying to slip her Lexus into a space better suited to her kids' two-wheelers. Now she hands her keys to an attendant and lets him take her car away to God-knows-where: "You don't want to think about where they take it, you just pray you get it back without a dent." In many garages, attendants offer to sell you pads, sort of like big diapers, to put over the front and back bumpers. The pads go for about $100 a pair.

In some places, they'd call this extortion. In Manhattan, it's business.

Shrinking possibilities

Finding a reasonably priced parking garage, in fact, becomes a bigger nightmare every year. One problem is that there are just fewer garages in the city. Since 1999, 400 parking garages in Manhattan have been torn down to make way for new apartment buildings, according to a report in Crain's New York Business. And because the city limits the number of spots in new buildings, this new construction not only wiped out parking facilities, it also raised the demand for garage space, which in turn allowed garage owners to jack up the prices.

While a lot of New Yorkers like to joke that their car has its own apartment -- if you consider the monthly rent to park -- real estate here is just too valuable to waste on storing cars when it can be exploited to house deep-pocketed humans. City officials don't much care about car owners; they've made it clear in a dozen ways through zoning and traffic regulations that they simply don't want more cars in the city.

When local ABC anchor Bill Ritter moved to New York from Los Angeles a decade ago, he said he experienced sticker shock on many fronts: He couldn't believe the price of co-op apartments and the additional 3.5% additional income tax. But the biggest shock was the cost of parking. "The one thing that I can tell my family and friends in California that will guarantee that their mouths drop open is how much I pay to park my car," he said. "It's more than the mortgage on my last few L.A. [homes]." Even so, his immaculate Volvo has emerged from his parking garage covered in pigeon droppings -- and the garage is indoors.

Most garages here are several stories tall and several levels deep. Then the cars are stacked on every level on mini metal elevators. People pay a premium to park on the first floor so they can avoid the elevators and parking attendants who like to go screeching around corners.

One wealthy man pays $100 extra a month for the privilege of parking his 1950s Jaguar sports car himself.

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