Americans have had a long love/hate relationship with their automobiles. They give us the freedom to roam at will, something our independent spirits crave. But they’ve also led to regular traffic jams, urban sprawl, monstrous parking lots around shopping centers and ugly suburban architecture. The list goes on and on …
They’ve even helped put the kibosh on the revitalization of older downtown neighborhoods — thanks to zoning ordinances that require what critics say are a too-high number of off-street parking spaces for restaurants, stores, apartments and condos.
But a growing number of municipalities — and even small towns — are rethinking those parking restrictions, according to University of California at Los Angeles urban planning professor Donald Shoup. He says they are following on the tracks of cities such as New York, Boston, Chicago, Seattle and San Francisco, which have low or even no minimum off-street parking requirements.
“In fact, they’ve had maximums,” said Shoup, author of “The High Cost of Free Parking.” His research focuses on the links between transportation and land use, and his book has led a growing number of cities to charge fair market prices for curb parking, dedicate the resulting revenue to finance public services in the metered districts, and reduce or remove off-street parking regulations.
And the movement is picking up steam. In the past four years, he said, 100 cities and towns around the country have trimmed or even removed their minimum off-street parking requirements. Shoup, who served on the design review board in Los Angeles for eight years, said the push is coming from everyone from developers to environmentalists to city planners to free-market economists.
Developers know that required parking can prevent infill redevelopment on small lots and add thousands of dollars to the final cost of a condominium or apartment, depending on the where it’s built, he said. Moreover, surveys show that building owners consider minimum parking rules the second most onerous regulation they face. (The top one was having to pay property taxes, he noted.)
“And it’s not just rehabbing older buildings,” he said. “Parking requirements will limit what can be built more than what the rest of the zoning does. Usually builders can’t provide all the units required by the zoning because they stumble over the parking requirement barrier.
“It’s quite common for developers to say that parking requirements limit density more than any other part of zoning. And, having parking lots in downtowns creates ugly ‘dead spots’ along streets.”
Shoup said what occurred in Los Angeles — a city truly in love with its cars — back in 1999 was “almost a miracle.”
“It happened in downtown LA, which most people don’t think of as the greatest place to live,” he said. “But this city has the nation’s largest collection of intact office buildings from the first part of the 20th century, and all were vacant above the ground floor because urban renewal had shifted business uses to a new high rise area.”
Unfortunately, developers could not use these structures for residential use because of the minimum off-street parking requirement. But nearly 14 years ago, the city adopted the Adaptive Reuse Ordinance (ARO) which said the owners could convert these empty office buildings into apartments with no new parking.
“The opponents cried ‘this will never work, bankers will never lend for redevelopment and people will never buy them without ample parking. Developers know that required parking can prevent infill redevelopment.
“Well, they were proved wrong. There were 57 buildings that were beautifully restored and turned into 7,300 housing units between 1999 and 2008 — with much less parking than the zoning otherwise required. It was a great success story.”
Shoup also lauds towns and cities around the country that have changed their zoning rules to allow for the development on the perimeters of large parking lots that often surround malls.
“Ministers are told ‘don’t build your parking lots for Easter Sunday,’” he said. “But we build shopping centers for the week before Christmas, which I think is a huge mistake.
“Fortunately, some cities are allowing mall owners to build housing around the perimeter of the lots, which can make them money and greatly improve the look of the malls. It activates the street life and really doesn’t reduce the parking for 99 percent of the year.
“If you allow development around the periphery, it creates the impression that you are in a city neighborhood and helps create a feeling of community. Besides, those aren’t the spaces where people want to park anyway.”
Shoup said he is convinced more people are coming to view mall parking lots as expensive, unattractive, producing huge amounts of runoff, and not producing taxes for the cities where they are located.
“There is a lot to be said against empty asphalt, and I think that minimum parking requirements are a lot of empty asphalt,” Shoup explained, adding that one of the good things about these parking lots is that they are potential land banks just waiting for development — at least on the periphery.
Up in Seattle, Shoup is singing to the choir. Mike Podowski, an urban planning supervisor with the city, said Seattle adopted a “progressive” land use, transportation (and parking) plan around 1985 for downtown neighborhoods. To promote residential development and 24-hour neighborhoods, the city eliminated off-street parking requirements for residential use in downtown.
“We’re letting the developers and property owners provide the parking that suits the needs of the tenants and taking the city out of the equation,” he said. “We’ve found that residential developers still provide parking for 60 to 70 percent of the units. Occasionally, there will be a building with no parking, but that’s rarer.”
Other significant steps, since then, include the 2007 adoption of new commercial zoning for business districts, that eliminated off-street parking for commercial and residential users. And in all other areas outside these districts, the city reset the requirements at one off-street parking space per unit.
He said environmentalists and developers have supported these ideas, while local residents sometimes express opposition.
“But they realize that we’re not prohibiting off-street parking, just not dictating it,” he said. “And it’s also important to work with the city’s transportation department to manage on-street parking at the same time.”
Then, in 2009 and 2011, Seattle removed off-street parking requirements in multi-family zones. This year, the city began promoting transit community policies to make it easier for people to live and work and ride transit.
Only further-outlying city neighborhoods that don’t have adequate transit service have required off-street parking now of one space per unit for residential units and other rules for commercial uses, based on square footage.
“But in the city center, which is served by light rail and frequent bus service, we don’t have those requirements,” he said.
“We’ve made a substantial investment as a region in public transit and these kinds of policies leverage that investment.”
In Greenfield, Mass., Mayor William Martin said his small city, founded nearly 260 years ago, has many buildings between 80 and 120 years old on its Main Street.
Many of them were vacant above the first floor because of a bevy of government regulations, including minimum off-street parking rules, he said. But in 2007, the city eliminated those parking requirements for downtown residential units as part of an urban renewal plan.
“With change to the zoning ordinance, we reduced the need for off-street parking for downtown residential units, which helped property owners decide to invest in their buildings,” he said.
That private funding, combined with a number of local, state, federal and other tax credits meant millions of dollars were pumped into the city’s downtown. A $13-million rail and bus transportation center opened in early 2012, a $60-million courthouse renovation will break ground this spring and other projects, worth more than $6 million, are on the way, he said.
“It took a couple of years to put a lot of the plans into effect, but after the Greenfield Redevelopment Authority, by eminent domain, took over three abandoned buildings, every property changed hands within a year.”
Martin said his city’s downtown was never blighted, but it was on its way.
“We never hit bottom, and it’s because we wanted to make the U-turn before that,” he said. “Changing the rules on off-street parking for apartments was a key.”
In Muskegon, Mich., zoning administrator Mike Franzak said several years ago the city did away with the off-street parking requirements for businesses, for existing buildings that need less than 15 spaces.
“We’re revisiting that ordinance now and looking to do further, major modifications which will be more of the same because we have a lot of parking now where a mall used to be and we’re working to revitalize the downtown,” he said. Apartments now are required to have 1.5 spaces per unit and that rate will most likely be lowered.
“So far, the changes are working well. We tore up the covered mall that used to be downtown and put in streetscape. It’s now being developed with two- and three-story buildings, with some condos and townhomes going in, too.
“Unfortunately, the recession slowed everything down. But now it’s starting to pick up again.”
Further west, in Sand Point, Idaho, senior planner Joan Bramblee said her downtown was struggling several years ago when the city council did away with confusing, offstreet parking rules for businesses in the core area.
“Our parking code did not allow for available street parking,” she said. “We have a lot of historic buildings built lot line to lot line right on the street, so this created problems for our businesses. There was not a lot of room for putting in new parking.”
Now, she said, the town has less difficulty attracting businesses downtown. In addition, Sand Point has changed its commercial code to encourage more apartment development by increasing the allowed height of buildings from 45 feet up to 65 feet, as long as residential units are provided on the upper floors.
“These have been good changes for us, and it’s given businesses and building owners more flexibility to help create a vibrant downtown,” she said.