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Would Removing Parking Requirements Revitalize Virginia Cities?

Richmond and other cities are looking to amend zoning codes for new housing and business developments, hoping that looser parking requirements will allow greater investment in housing, retail and greenspace.

an apartment building under construction in Richmond's trendy Scott's Addition neighborhood
An apartment building under construction in Richmond’s trendy Scott’s Addition neighborhood.
(Wyatt Gordon/ For the Virginia Mercury)
Until recently, the tallest building in Scott’s Addition — Richmond’s fastest-growing, “transit-oriented” neighborhood — was a multi-story parking deck. 

Despite the area’s transit-oriented development zoning designed to discourage car-dependence in favor of the nearby Pulse bus rapid transit route, local law still requires multi-family buildings with more than 16 units to provide parking. The nearly complete 550-space garage may seem like a success to those who visit the district via car, but at most just 100 spaces will be available to the public. Whether those who move into the development’s two towers will even want the “free” parking that comes with their monthly rents of $1,425 – $2,050 is another question.

Similar stories of housing developers and business owners being required by city ordinance to provide expensive parking that their residents and customers may not even need prompted 1st District City Councilmember Andreas Addison to call for a rethink of Richmond’s minimum parking requirements this summer. Thanks to his resolution, which passed the City Council, municipal officials are currently working on an amendment to Richmond’s zoning code that would eliminate parking requirements — if approved by the Planning Commission and a second vote by the council.

“People see the language of the resolution and worry I’m getting rid of parking,” said Addison, “But eliminating parking minimums just means we’re not putting a burden on business owners and developers to provide and build more parking than they actually need. Parking minimums are a big barrier to housing affordability and people choosing other modes of mobility. Eliminating those outdated calculations on how much parking establishments need gets us closer to a market for shared parking that works better for everybody.”

The Astrology of Parking

A quick dive into Richmond’s zoning code reveals the arbitrary and absurd nature of the city’s parking requirements. Anyone interested in opening a kindergarten or nursery school, for example, in the River City must be prepared to provide “one [parking space] per 10 seats in [the] main auditorium or one per classroom, whichever is greater.” The gym in Scott’s Addition which Addison runs is required to provide patrons with 12 parking spaces or face a non-compliance fine from the city; the popular restaurant next door isn’t bound to offer any parking to its customers.

“Parking minimums are a house of cards,” said Donald Shoup, a UCLA professor and author of the definitive book on parking. “They’re all just copied from other cities’ parking requirements. Whenever I give a talk, I ask the local planners why any particular parking requirement isn’t higher or lower, and they cannot justify it. There is no science to parking requirements; it’s closer to astrology. The biggest reason they exist is to prevent complaints from people who think they have a right to park for free on the street.”

The idea that a new building should provide enough parking to meet the demand it creates sounds reasonable at first; however, most minimum parking requirements are designed to satisfy the expected peak demand for parking. The problem with using peak demand to set the minimum amount of parking legally required is that so much space (and the land and money needed to provide that space) goes to waste. Supermarket parking lots, for example, are built to accommodate the holiday rushes. The rest of the year many suburban supermarket parking lots can be little more than an empty sea of asphalt.

Calculating the cost of all that wasted space can prove shocking. “Parking lots require 330 square feet per parking spot including all the space needed for driveways and access aisles,” explained Shoup. “The median parking requirement for fast food joints is 10 parking spaces per 1,000 square feet of restaurant. That means if you have 10 parking spaces, that is 3,300 square feet of parking for just 1,000 square feet of restaurant.”

Faced with a finite supply of land, cities such as Richmond and its 62 square miles thus sacrifice the creation of new housing, retail and greenspaces in favor of free private vehicle storage for those who may not even live within city bounds. With the high price of parking in mind, Addison recently introduced an ordinance that would rezone the southern half of Broad Street in his district to TOD-1. Currently 49 percent of the land included in that rezoning is dedicated to surface parking.

Shoup for one approves of such a move: “Parking requirements prevent a lot of things from happening such as the development of more affordable housing because so much space is taken up by car infrastructure. Minimum parking requirements seemed like a good idea back in the day because no one recognized that they would lead to a completely car-centric society. This system only works wonderfully when you’re a driver and you don’t mind an urban environment where half of the city is just parking.”
A pedestrian crosses Broad Street in Richmond, Va.
A pedestrian crosses Broad Street in Richmond, Va.
(Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

The Fight Over the FLUM

Seventy miles to Richmond’s northwest similar disagreements over the best use of limited urban land are playing out ahead of the passage of Charlottesville’s new Future Land Use Map. The most recent skirmish over parking played out via the city’s Parking Advisory Panel which deadlocked on the perceived need for a new 300-space downtown garage to accommodate Albemarle County’s courthouse.

“There is more than enough parking downtown already, and the real issue is parking management rather than parking supply,” said Jamelle Bouie — a Charlottesville resident and member of the panel. “Once the FLUM is passed and rezoning begins to happen, that’s where I expect a healthy debate on whether the city wants to reduce or even remove parking minimums in some neighborhoods.”

Instead of simply building more parking decks around town, Bouie, a New York Times columnist and avid e-bike user, would like to see the city deploy an array of strategies to better manage Charlottesville’s already abundant parking, including returning to the use of metered street parking, hiring a company dedicated to oversee the management of existing parking resources and establishing a parking rule enforcement system that doesn’t involve police. As a member of the Parking Advisory Panel, he believes that body’s membership is stacked against such commonsense solutions.

“If I had it my way the city wouldn’t have a Parking Advisory Panel — it would have a Transportation Advisory Panel,” he said. “Bringing on a bunch of downtown business owners whose perception is that the bulk of their customers come from outside of Charlottesville just creates a panel which is going to advise the city to create more parking. You’re asking people who are highly reliant on car infrastructure what we should do about it but the truth and lived experience suggest if you move around the city as a pedestrian and as a cyclist that more and bigger car infrastructure is just as often a hindrance.”

Entire city blocks dedicated to parking garages cut into the land available for new housing construction. Cars racing 35-45 mph down key corridors make it dangerous for people to walk, bike, or take the bus instead of driving. Charlottesville has set lofty goals for itself to build out more affordable housing, improve its public transit system and move towards a carbon-free, climate-friendly future — goals that will be impossible to achieve without addressing the city’s addiction to free parking.

“If you have to make more space for cars, then you have to reduce space for people,” Bouie said. “Strong parking requirements are a way to prevent the kinds of buildings NIMBYs don’t want to see. If you’re thinking from the perspective of what is going to make my city a more lucrative or a better place to live, you’re looking at a city that has deprioritized car traffic. We cannot build the Downtown Mall — our most popular, enjoyable and economically viable part of the city — anywhere else. When you say it outloud you can hear how insane that sounds. Another pedestrian boulevard seems like a no-brainer, but apparently it is not.”

Minimums No More

In Buffalo, New York — the first American city to eliminate parking minimums, on average, new developments were built with 17 percent less parking than under the requirements. Some developments even provided more parking than was previously mandated because builders knew many people still wanted to have a place to park. Such an outcome may surprise those scared to remove minimum parking requirements but not Shoup: “It’s foolish to think developers that want to make money would suddenly build all their new buildings without any parking.”

After Minneapolis cut its parking requirements in half, the rental rates for new studio apartments dropped from $1,200 to $1,000 a month due to the money developers were able to save by building less parking. That math makes sense considering the cost of constructing parking: Each surface lot space costs upwards of $5,000 each, above-ground garages cost $25,000 per parking spot and below-ground parking averages $35,000 per space. One 2016 study from UCLA estimated that “garage parking typically costs renter households approximately $142 per month, or an additional 17 percent of a housing unit’s rent.”

With stronger residential parking enforcement, Addison believes reducing or removing minimum parking requirements could make Richmond more attractive and incentivize the opening up of currently private parking for public use. 

“We have to use our TOD-1 zoning to create more neighborhoods which need less parking,” he said. “Surface lots in our most valuable areas like along Broad Street and downtown need to become 12-15 stories of mixed-use. If we need parking there we can take existing parking structures and make them shared. The state-owned lots downtown for government workers are full weekdays from 8-5 and then empty all evening and all weekend when folks could use them to go to Shockoe Bottom or to the National for a concert.”

Although it may sound crazy to some that less parking could mean a better city for all, Shoup encourages folks to look beyond our current car-centric state capital. “We’ve gotten so used to the idea that parking should be free that we have designed a world where parking is free, but I’ve never heard anyone say it was a mistake to remove off street parking requirements,” Shoup said. “The older neighborhoods of Richmond — the areas people like best — were all built before parking requirements existed. However, if we tried to build those same neighborhoods again today, that wouldn’t be legal at all.”

This article was first published by the Virginia Mercury, which is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Read the original article.
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