A spiraling corruption scheme has implicated some of New York City’s most powerful people, including the mayor, the former head of the corrections union, and the city’s former top uniformed police officer. A handful of former and active high-level cops have been named unindicted co-conspirators in an upcoming trial. Ex-union chief Norman Seabrook will be retried on bribery charges this summer. Mayor Bill de Blasio, who has not been charged, was castigated by the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York for soliciting campaign contributions “contrary to the intent and spirit of the laws.” And it all began with humble street parking.
The star witness is a real estate developer named Jona S. Rechnitz, who parlayed a knack for networking into what he has described as a vast bribery operation built on close links to the top of the city’s 55,000-person police force. A decade ago, Rechnitz was working at the Manhattan office of AFI Group, a global real estate company, when he noticed one of the firm’s clients had a license plate that said “sheriff.” The plates made it possible for the man to leave his car anywhere along Manhattan’s busy sidewalks without fear of a parking ticket. “When he came to meet me, he would park wherever he wanted,” Rechnitz testified, according to the New York Times, “and that is something I thought was pretty cool.”
The insight inspired him. The young developer learned who had procured the plates, a community liaison to the police and self-described fixer who could use his connections with the department to make parking tickets go away—for a fee. It was the start of a life of Super Bowl tickets, diamond jewelry, and resort vacations in the Dominican Republic lavished on New York’s finest in exchange for favors. Dodging parking tickets was the gateway drug that paved the way for a prostitute dressed as a flight attendant to have sex with police officers on a private jet en route to Las Vegas.
In most American cities, trading up from duping meter maids to buying influence at City Hall would be unfathomable. But in New York, the discrepancy between the cost of most street parking (nothing) and the cost of parking in lots and garages (equivalent to renting an apartment in St. Louis) has opened up an opportunity for arbitrage and abuse. It starts with city policy: Last year, Mayor Bill de Blasio distributed 50,000 new parking placards to teachers and other school workers, bringing the total number of officially exempt vehicles to more than 160,000. Based on the black-market price for parking placards, de Blasio’s gift to the Department of Education could be appraised anywhere between $25 and $130 million.
It’s not news that cities like New York, with some of the highest land prices in the world, have underestimated the value of street space, treating curbside parking as a vestigial perk to be doled out as patronage rather than the very expensive public land that it is. Even the high-end valuation of de Blasio’s new placards is low, because buyers and sellers operate under the (correct) assumption that the misuse of placards will go all but ignored by the NYPD. Hard to put a price on impunity. The busier the streets, the greater the prestige of the mighty parking placard.
Of course, New York is not the only city where on-street parking is approvingly treated as a wild terrain governed by an unwritten code of favors and threats. In Boston, residents battle over “space savers”—beach chairs and ironing boards deployed to reserve spots that have been cleared of snow. Park in a “saved” spot, and you might wake up to find your windshield smashed. In Los Angeles, politicians have requested that parking violations not be enforced to the letter, creating a free-for-all on neighborhood sidewalks. Donald Shoup, the doyen of American parking studies, has argued that this is a good example of the “broken windows” theory of urban disorder, in which “one broken window is a signal that no one cares” and an inducement to further law-breaking. Free parking is a right; paying for it is for the birds. In his book The High Cost of Free Parking, Shoup quotes Seinfeld’s George Constanza: “My father didn’t pay for parking, my mother, my brother, nobody. It’s like going to a prostitute. Why should I pay when, if I apply myself, maybe I can get it for free?”
While the situation in those crowded cities is similar, Shoup wrote to me in an email, “New York is exceptional because the land is so valuable and the parking subsidies are so great.” Last year, the city issued nearly 42,000 summonses to drivers misusing placards. Advocates argue that is just the tip of the iceberg—barely one summons for every four (legal) permit-holders, all year—and police officers have largely been unaffected. Who polices the police? In the case of illegal parking, the answer is transparent: no one.
The city’s system of official permits, sprawling and opaque, is riddled with abuse. (The Department of Transportation releases an internal guide of what is legitimate, but the public has no way to know.) Placard-holders often use their ostensibly limited privileges to leave their cars anywhere they want, including in front of fire hydrants, at bus stops, and in bus lanes. In August, for example, Diana Richardson, a state assemblywoman from Brooklyn, stuck an “Official Business” placard on her dash and parked her car in front of her office in a turning lane marked “No standing anytime.” After she received a ticket, she used her Facebook page to put the 20-year-old traffic agent “on blast” for fining her—the exception proving the rule that such violations usually go unaddressed.
Given the obvious power and value of these placards, counterfeits are good money. In October, Manhattan D.A. Cyrus Vance Jr. arraigned 30 people for using fake placards manufactured by a cottage industry of counterfeiters. (No connection to the Rechnitz investigations except: parking.) One of the men was “accused of using a fake placard while he was attending the city’s academy for new correction officers,” and several had gone so far as to send copies of their fake placards to the New York City Department of Finance to get out of paying parking tickets. It can be hard for ticket enforcers to know whether, for example, there even is such a thing as a Queens task force within the police force of the city’s department of sanitation—and whether one of its members is entitled to park in a commercial loading zone in Brooklyn, as happened last week. (I still haven’t gotten a straight answer.)
Walk the streets of New York, and you begin to feel like spending $1,200 for a fake placard—while a bargain compared to market monthly parking prices in Manhattan, which could cost $5,000 a year—isn’t even necessary. Drivers have adopted a range of hacks, including bending the edge of their license plates to obscure the numbers, to which police turn a blind eye. More prominent are the countless items of dashboard police paraphernalia offered up like votive candles. Their message: “Hey, I’m one of you.” In November, an illegally parked Chevy Suburban stocked the dash with an NYPD patch, NYPD and FDNY hats, “get out of jail free” cards from two police unions, a photo of the pope, and a gift-shop license plate that read “9-11-01.” (The largest NYPD union has cut back on its “get out of jail free” cards, which were being sold on eBay.)
An anonymous Twitter account called “Placard Abuse” has been cataloging these fakes for years. A fluorescent yellow vest? Good enough to park on a pedestrian path. A firefighter’s placard from the City of Yonkers, north of the Bronx County line? Sure, leave your car in Washington Heights. A book of tickets from 2010? Take the turn lane. Official ministerial business for the Ministerial Consulate of the Universal Life Church? Whatever.
“It frustrates me to no end,” says Sam Schwartz, an engineer who served as city transportation commissioner in the 1980s. The distribution of tens of thousands of legal permits to teachers, he said, is particularly egregious since the curbs in front of schools are supposed to be clear so that drivers in the street have a clear view of kids on the sidewalk. Schwartz recalled his time at the DOT as a full-fledged crackdown: “One of the best-attended meetings was when I addressed the United Nations and took away their parking permits. The Israelis and the Arabs were getting along; Iraq and Iran pouring coffee for each other. All united in attacking me.” Things have spiraled out of control since, Schwartz said, in part because the NYPD—not the city—now has jurisdiction over enforcement and is so evidently reluctant to ticket its own.
The simmer of low-level corruption at the police department is only part of the story, though. The inability of cities to understand the real value of curb space—and especially that it could be used for anything (parklets! Retail space!), not just personal car storage—continues to impede their ability to enact good policies. In Chicago, citizens belatedly learned just how valuable the curb could be after shortsighted officials under then-Mayor Richard M. Daley sold off a 75-year lease on the city’s parking meters to Morgan Stanley for a one-time, $1.2 billion fee. A report later found the city had undervalued the meters by at least $974 million. But that was only the beginning: The city has since found that it must compensate the bank every time a meter goes out of commission, which makes it expensive for the city to install bike lanes, bus lanes, or even hold a parade.
That is even more true in New York, where Manhattan traffic has slowed to the pace of molasses, prompting a widespread push for a toll on all incoming drivers. Manhattan streets are undoubtedly crowded, and the failure of the congestion pricing push is more proof politicians are reluctant to price street space at its true value. But they’re also mismanaged. Lanes allotted for buses and emergency vehicles are routinely used as NYPD parking spaces. (The cycle is vicious: The buses continue to shed ridership as cars impede their right of way.) Delivery zones intended to cut down on double-parked trucks are full of cars with borrowed placards. As New York tries, however half-heartedly, to nudge its streets toward global, big-city best practices, it is hamstrung by a massive, tacit non-enforcement agreement.
All this in a city where not even 1 in 3 people drive to work.