Portland mandates a parking U-turn
It took almost a decade for a new apartment building with no parking to arrive in Portland after the city waived requirements near transit in 2002. The political backlash came more swiftly. As Portland’s rental market tightened, the city found itself with the second-lowest vacancy rate in the country in 2012. Apartment construction was booming, and buildings without off-street parking were becoming increasingly common.
Then controversy erupted. The epicenter was a 13-block section of Division Street, a car-oriented commercial corridor experiencing a building boom. By the time the issue made it to the front pages of Willamette Week, the local weekly paper, 11 new multifamily buildings were under development, seven with no parking at all.
A city-commissioned survey of 115 residents of new apartment buildings would show that 72 percent of the respondents owned cars, with the majority parking on neighborhood streets. Even though the same survey showed that the areas around the buildings had plenty of available parking, neighbors didn’t perceive it that way.
Charlie Hales, who was mayor during the controversy and had championed the removal of parking mandates as a council member in 2002, even floated the idea of instituting a building moratorium until the zoning code could be sorted out. Hales told Willamette Week that he had anticipated developers might build one parking spot instead of two, but hadn’t imagined banks would finance housing with no parking at all.
In response to the outcry, Portland’s city council reinstituted a parking requirement for multifamily developments with more than 30 units. Those larger buildings would need to provide one parking space for every three or four units, depending on the building size. “That was the strategic retreat,” Hales explained. “We decided to adjust our ideal slightly to a watered-down version in order to reduce the controversy.”
Hales, who is no longer mayor, still believes strongly in eliminating parking requirements. “There’s some things we really don’t need to regulate,” he said recently. “Minimum number of parking spaces is one of them.” Given the political pressure of the time, he has a hard time imagining how things could have worked out differently.
While supporters of parking mandates prevailed in that case, the matter was far from settled. Several years after the 2013 brouhaha, regulated affordable housing near transit regained its exemption from parking requirements, after rising rents and economic displacement prompted Portland to declare a housing state of emergency and elect a tenant advocate to city council. Portland adopted an inclusionary zoning policy that same year, requiring multifamily buildings to set aside units for affordable housing—and waiving residential parking requirements for those buildings.
Looking back, Portland activist Tony Jordan, who went on to launch the national Parking Reform Network, thinks the city was foolish to derail the housing construction wave. “Why would you do anything” to make developers think twice about investing in larger buildings, he asked. The way the code was written, adding one more unit to a 30-unit building came with “a penalty of six parking spaces, incentivizing builders to stay under the limit. “Even if we only lost 60 apartments,” he said, “that’s a housing subsidy that we just threw away—and for what?”
Stopping parking spillover
When parking complaints bubbled up in Portland’s Northwest neighborhood in 2016, the city was ready to try a different strategy: directly managing on-street parking. A local parking advisory committee had petitioned Portland’s city council to apply the citywide parking requirements to the growing district, which had historically been exempted. But when a study showed that those regulations would have made 23 percent of newly constructed homes in the neighborhood illegal, the council opted to improve the district’s fledgling parking permit program instead.
“When city staff manage on-street parking properly, they can prevent that on-street parking from getting overcrowded with a 99 percent success rate,” said planning consultant Patrick Siegman, who has spent much of his career studying spillover parking concerns. The problem, he said, is that almost no one has training in how to manage street parking in a way that is both effective and politically popular. On-street parking management is not part of the core curriculum for planners or transportation engineers.
“What you’re essentially doing with on-street parking spaces is taking a valuable resource that belongs to the public and setting up rights to determine who gets to use it,” said Siegman. Any hotel manager knows that once the keys are gone, there is no vacancy. Yet cities often hand out multiple residential permits for every street space, and wait until the problem is so bad that neighbors have to petition for curbside management. When a neighborhood has more drivers seeking permits than there are on-street spaces, there are a number of ways to ensure balance. Boundaries for a parking district could exclude new buildings or households with driveways, or restrict the number of permits to the street frontage of the lot—forcing developers and incoming residents to make a plan for storing cars off-site.
This is Part Four in a special four-part Public Square series that highlights the growing wave of parking reform. © 2022. Lincoln Institute of Land Policy. From Shifting Gears Why Communities Are Eliminating Off-Street Parking Requirements—and What Comes Next, Catie Gould. Land Lines October 2022. Find the original article here.