Voting Against the Grain on Parking

Yesterday, the Planning and Sustainability Commission voted to recommend new minimum parking requirements for multi-family buildings in transit corridors, with one dissenting vote.

The immediate question on Twitter: “was @chrissmithus the dissenting vote?” I was not! It was my colleague Katherine Schultz, an architect who has experience actually building stuff, and knows what the impacts of the new policy will be.

Not that I’m afraid to cast a dissenting vote – last year I was the lone no vote on the freeway expansion component of the N/NE Quadrant Plan. I didn’t change the outcome, but I got to make a point.

So why not hold tight and vote to continue zero parking minimums for apartments near transit corridors? Because the outcome is in the balance and there are two very good reasons for the PSC to influence it:

1) In response to very loud concerns from neighborhoods over the recent spate of buildings with no parking (unheard of for the first decade it was allowed in code, but now apparently in favor by lenders post-recession), City Council directed us to respond expeditiously, and I’m confident that if we didn’t produce a policy, Council would come up with one I’d like less (and may still – more on that below).

2) Our current policy may point in the right direction, but is incomplete, and can’t ultimately be successful without a lot more work.

Here are some of the policy issues we need to think about:

An orderly transition

Most Portland neighborhoods today manage parking as ‘a commons’ relying on the cooperative action of individuals to manage a relatively unconstrained asset. As neighborhood centers get denser, that’s not going to work. Our vision for our City doesn’t accommodate building so much parking that we’ll just ‘have enough for everybody’.

So we’re going to need a clear transition plan as centers grow up. At what point do we form a TMA (Transportation Management Association)? When do permits become appropriate? Meters?

In the long run parking will have to be either a market good (priced) or a heavily regulated good, but we have no plan or triggers on how to make the transition. We need to develop policy to empower neighborhoods to develop in an orderly way that works for homeowners, renters and businesses alike.

Are we selling out the parking requirements too cheaply?

Being able to avoid building parking is a huge economic boon to developers. Shouldn’t we ask for something back in exchange? Some of the things we might ask for:

  • Some units affordable to folks at 60% of median family income or lower
  • Accessible units for folks with physical disabilities – or just those of us getting older
  • A diversity of units (include some 2- and 3-bedroom units)
  • Ground floor active uses to meet the needs of the new neighbors

Are our permit systems robust enough?

We also need to think about our parking permit policies. PBOT’s existing parking permit programs are about preserving access during business hours. But as we see residents shifting to non-auto modes for commuting, while still owning cars, the impact of long-term storage of cars that see little use becomes an issue. Cars generate value when they’re moving, not when they’re parked. Do we want to think about discouraging long-term parking (perhaps shifting people to car sharing) to help keep our neighborhoods more vibrant?

Is there a windfall to be captured?

The first developers into a neighborhood also have an advantage – they can effectively absorb any excess supply of on-street parking, making zero parking buildings more feasible. Later projects will not have that advantage. Should we have some way to capture the value of that initial advantage and put it back into the neighborhood?

All of these should be looked at in the Comp Plan process now underway.

Tighter alignment with transit

And I’m actually very happy about one amendment we adopted – the standard for the transit service that earns the no parking exemption is tightened from 20 min peak hour to TriMet’s Frequent Service system (which targets 15 minutes or better all day – although we’re not at that standard in all cases today). Some proponents of higher density development expressed concern that this reduces the number of properties that can be developed with minimal parking. But the fact is that we have an oversupply of zoned capacity for housing. We don’t need density everywhere – we need density to cluster in neighborhood and town centers, and aligning to the higher level of service will better drive that clustering.

What we did

Given that we have a long way to go on these policy questions, it’s hard to stand pat on a simple zero minimum. So I reluctantly agree that we need a short-term “bandaid”. We opted to require that larger buildings (40 units and above) build at least some parking (1 space for every 4 units, with some allowances to reduce this by adding things like car share spaces). But this should also at least partially curb the impact of these buildings on our neighborhoods until we have a better policy tools to address the issues.

The geometry and size of these larger buildings will insulate them from some of the cost issues around creating the parking.

Hopefully that will hold us until we can sort out the bigger picture in the Comp Plan.

What happens next

At the Planning and Sustainability Commission we had about equal testimony between folks who wanted stronger parking requirements, and folks who wanted to leave the zero minimums in effect.

The last time we were at Council, the ratio was more like 4-to-1 favoring the folks who want an immediate regulatory solution.

I suspect that at City Council there will be strongly voiced requests to lower the trigger to 20 units. I fear that would take some good smaller projects and cause them to no longer pencil.

I hope the folks who argued in favor of not requiring more parking will turn out to make their case as eloquently at Council as they did before us! Either way, it’s going to be a good debate. See you there.

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