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Will Parking Be The Next “Low-Hanging Fruit” Issue?

November 13, 2023 by Nicole Masson

November 9, 2023 by Wilf Sommerkorn in the ULUI politics Blog

One of the items on the CHA/UEOC list of housing affordability policy issues that had NOT gotten consensus agreement was “prohibiting parking minimums” (see October 16 post).  Let me just say right up front that I generally agree with such a move, but I also recognize that this will likely be a tough one to make happen.

The problem with mandatory parking minimums, which can be found in most zoning codes, is that they are pretty arbitrary (not a lot of empirical evidence went into their being established), and that they create a host of problems.  This is well described in a piece in Slate magazine from a couple of years ago that said:

Such requirements effectively block most small-scale, affordable, and infill housing; they distort the size and shape of commercial architecture; they render thousands of older buildings functionally obsolete (no parking lot, no adaptive reuse);they subsidize driving and make it difficult to build walkable places.

Probably the seminal work on this issue came several years back, with the publication of the book The High Cost of Free Parking.  We had the author, UCLA Prof. Donald Shupe, here in Utah for a Regional Solutions Event when I was working at Salt Lake County, and he made a very strong case for the reduction, or even the elimination, of parking regulations.

Since that time, a wave has been sweeping the country wherein that very thing has been happening.  A story by the Congress for New Urbanism from March of this year indicates the growing number of state and local laws and ordinances that have been modified or eliminated on parking minimums.

Elimination of off-street parking mandates began in downtown areas, where historic buildings don’t meet modern zoning regulations, according to Gould. “That’s where it started, but it’s not where we are headed. … We are seeing a rapid rise in the number of cities eliminating all parking mandates, citywide.”

According to the story, more than 40 cities and states had enacted elimination or modification of parking requirements.  The list is long, and as befits local circumstances, the approaches to parking reform are varied.  Here’s just a sampling:

Richmond, Virginia

Austin, Texas

Bend, Oregon – this one is interesting because the action was based on a mandate passed by the Oregon state legislature for larger cities to reform parking rules.  The Bend city council voted 4-2 to enact the changes.  The discontent and subsequent foot-dragging from local governments is, I think, an example of how top-down mandates run into problems when the “underlings” are expected to quickly implement them.

Several other Oregon cities filed suit to block the elimination of parking minimums. The state Court of appeals late last month denied a motion to stay the rules but agreed to hear the case this year on expedited rules, which took effect Dec. 31.

Better to work things out cooperatively between local and state officials first.

Tampa, Florida

Fairfax County, Virginia

Norman, Oklahoma

There are many others, which indicates that this is definitely a trend.  So the reason given for eliminating, or at least reducing, parking minimums is that it helps in making housing more affordable.  Does it?

Well, a study recently released by the Rutgers University Center for Real Estate looked at the effect on housing costs of reduced/eliminated parking minimums in New Jersey, and concluded that it does, significantly.

Residents of New Jersey would reduce their yearly rent by $1,056 on average if their leaders would simply relax outdated rules that require developers to build car storage that many residents aren’t even using.

In a new study from the Rutgers Center for Real Estate, researchers found that Garden State renters, on average, “own fewer cars per unit than developers are required to provide” — specifically, about one extra space for every two units — and that by simply aligning those requirements with the number of vehicles residents actually have, New Jersey could bring average rents down by about four percent, or $88 a month off a typical $2,200 unit built after 2010.

The study itself is pretty detailed and dense, but presents some pretty convincing conclusions about how parking spaces drive up the cost of housing.

Even our own Wasatch Front Regional Council did a report of parking strategies for communities, and while it looked at a number of strategies, elimination of parking minimum requirements was not explicitly recommended.  You can see the study here

Now, having said that, while the details and data speak volumes, getting local residents to accept reduction/elimination of parking minimums may be difficult to achieve.  Back to the Bend, Oregon experience:

During the public hearing, David Welton of Bend YIMBY (Yes In My Backyard) spoke in “favor of eliminating one-size-fits-all,” costly parking mandates, saying people – not cars and parking – should be cities’ first priority.

But a 22-year Bend resident called the move “a gift to the developers. This is going to be a calamity for Bend.” And another speaker called it “wishful thinking” that dropping the parking requirements will prompt developers to build more affordable housing.

And from the recent experience in Atlanta, where the council considered eliminating parking minimums near transit stations, but ultimately declined to do so:

Councilmember Antonio Lewis said communities near the Beltline have repeatedly oppose developments with reduced or no parking — and that he wants them to continue to have that power. He added: “I want to caution us as we look at the ‘no parking’ in the south and in Atlanta.”

My own experience tracks this narrative.  When changes were proposed to parking minimums for the Sugar House area in Salt Lake City to encourage redevelopment with more higher density housing, residents were pretty upset.  The council went ahead and made the changes, and the transformation of the Sugar House area has been remarkable.  And during my recent stint on my hometown planning commission, a recent consideration of a mixed use development, the reduction of parking requirements drew the most opposition from residents.  The council ultimately approved the project, but with more parking than recommended by the PC.

Given such general public opposition, its remarkable to me that so many communities have enacted parking regulation changes.  Here in our state, a few brave communities are venturing forward, most notably Salt Lake City.  But what will happen if this issue becomes one that is taken up at the state level?  How will collaboration with local officials go when many of their residents seem to be so implacably opposed?  Hmmmm.


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