Cities Start to Roll Back Dumb Parking Regs, Neighbors Freak Out

by drewnilsen

We’re starting to see a paradigm shift with parking policy, but that change – which isn’t really about parking, it’s about the entire fabric of our urban landscape – will face a lot of pushback from forces averse to change.

More cities are considering rolling back their minimum parking requirements (MPRs), and this bodes well for the future of public transit, walkability, affordable housing, and less sprawl.

Cities and suburbs alike regulate a minimum amount of parking required of a business or development. There’s usually a complicated calculus based on the type of business or residence, part of the city, etc. And that sounds reasonable, right?

Not necessarily. First of all, it can be prohibitive for rezoned or historic properties to meet MPRs, thereby resulting in the property not being utilized. A proposal by the Austin City Council aims to target this problem by doubling the minimum size a building must be before it has to offer parking, in part so that more historic buildings can be used.

Moreover, many MPRs are predicated on an antiquated notion of car ownership that exceeds current conditions. The increased popularity of Washington, DC as a place for young urbanists less likely to own a car – coupled with car- and bike-sharing services – means that fewer residents own cars.

“If you were to say, certainly ten years ago, but even five years ago that we would have in this city and 50 percent of folks go to work without a car and that 40 percent of the households do not have a car, they would have had you committed,” said a George Washington urban planning professor.

Yet, many residential developments – even ones in cities clearly targeted to an “urban” demographic – are still subject to MPRs that demand one parking space per bedroom. Many MPRs for businesses are calculated based on as much as 85% of peak capacity, resulting in an excess of parking that sits empty most of the time.

The implications of MPRs on architecture are spelled out well in this Atlantic Cities article about a novel new approach in Boston. The designer must reduce amenities to residents (common space, balconies, courtyards) or public greenspace, and replace it with parking. Or, s/he can bury the spots underground – at a much steeper cost that’s passed on to residents (whether they drive or not). Or, s/he can provide more land for parking, not only increasing costs, but also perpetuating sprawl and marring the landscape with another parking lot that could be better used as a business, more housing, a park.

The added cost is not negligible, either. DC planners noted that “the regulations have a real cost. A designated parking space can add as much as $50,000 to the price of a residential unit.” That added cost is folded into renters’ housing costs, as well, whether they drive or not.

MPRs have a ripple effect on everyone. They mean that development sprawls out farther, and the environment is covered by unsightly and impervious cover that absorbs heat and adds to polluted runoff.

It’s worth noting that the absence of MPRs doesn’t mean that developers won’t build parking; it just removes the regulation that requires them to. For many residences and businesses – especially in more car-dependent cities – the market will demand the provision of parking.

Unfortunately, developers who propose less parking often face pushback from neighbors who fear that their residential streets will be overrun by cars (this is especially curious in neighborhoods that have garages and driveways). A new mixed-use project in Tenleytown, a leafy enclave in far northwest DC, has faced opposition from neighbors – despite the fact that DC is an increasingly urban, non-car-dependent city and the likely residents of the new complex will own far fewer cars than they would have even a few years ago.

While I think that Tenleytown residents’ NIMBYism is unwarranted and anachronistic, that response is pretty standard across the country. The Boston developer cited above has proposed a creative solution. He’s trying to assuage Allston neighbors’ concerns and get zoning approval to build a parking-free complex – provide that residents sign away their rights to own a car. It’s an interesting idea, and if it works, it could circumvent NIMBY opposition and clear the path to more dense, smart development nationwide.

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