Wednesday, January 26, 2011

More on Parking

This was sent along to me today:

Washington, DC is now joining the group of jurisdictions where parking ratios for new developments are going from required minimum ratios, to maximum allowable ratios. This is being done to reduce the car-centricity of District residents and those who work there. Developers are collectively breathing a sigh of relief and celebrating, as the cost to build below-grade parking is typically $40,000 per space (or significantly more if you have to go “robotic”), and it is very hard, if not impossible to make a profit on the spaces.

P. Michael Saint of The Saint Group is one of the professionals who has seen this coming across the country and internationally, as his business is to devise, coordinate and execute public campaigns on behalf of developers to get their projects accepted by the community (and thus more likely to be approved by the regulators). If you want to keep up on zoning and land use news, be sure to check out The Saint Report for the latest.

As one of my mentors told me, the two most important things about urban development are to be able to confidently answer these two questions in the affirmative: 1) Can you park it?, and 2) Can you get the neighbors?

Will parking maximums present new problems? Probably, as developers must always build to the market. Just as zoning agencies were and are still behind the times by keeping high minimum ratios in locations served by transit, the zoning agencies will probably overdo it by imposing maximums that don’t allow for enough parking for developers to cater properly to their end user. This will end up exacerbating the challenge of finding street parking, and rile the neighbors up. And around and around we will go.

The emailer added that he didn't believe a blanket across the city approach such as this would be appropriate in Dallas and I wholeheartedly agree.

First, a very brief bit of background. What the above article is saying is that the typical zoning approach was that any new development would have to provide at least a given number of parking spaces (off-street) based on the amount of square-footage is being developed per use. Eh?

An example: a new mixed-use development might have 50,000 sq.ft of retail and 250 apartment units above. Retail is often parked at 5 spaces per 1,000 sq.ft (with some variations for specialty uses like restaurants or movie theaters which are geared toward seats). The convention for residential is 1 per bedroom. I can guess what these ratios might be because nearly every municipality in the country cut-and-pasted zoning codes from one another since the 20's.

We'll just assume that the retail specialties balance out to 5 to 1(for simplicity of calculations), although market rate for retail parking is trending down to 4:1 - as market-rate is less calcified then zoning, but an unfortunate and similar byproduct of inertia. Your correspondent's guess is that the recent market-driven reduction is two-fold. A response to the visible, empirical evidence that parking lots are way under-utilized except for (everybody's favorite phrase) "the day after Thanksgiving" AND that parking costs cash-money. And, if it is sitting empty 99% of the time it isn't helping to deliver business, a sunk cost. That puts retail parking for this hypothetical project mandated at 250 spaces.

For residential, due to the hypothetical it is a bit difficult to guess the breakdown of units. In a multi-family development, a developer will break down the total number of units they're trying to deliver into studios, 1-BRs, 2-BRs, and occasionally 3-BRs depending on the market they're trying to meet. Let's say this is an uptown development, so it will be heavy on studios, 1's, and 2's (for those wanting into uptown - but willing to take on a roommate out of preference or reduced cost). Once again for ease of calcs, we'll say there are 150 studios and 1-BRs, and 100 2-BRs (and if you've read any of my Millennial Generation writing, you know that Millennials are a social creature and more willing to take on roommates just to be in cool areas - this also happens to be a more efficient way to develop if you can be sure to lease all of your bigger units, you just have to gear the project and its area to a Millennial crowd).

So with 150 1's/studios that means 150 parking spaces and an additional 200 parking spaces for the 2-BRs, that is 350 parking spaces for the residential piece alone. Our total number of parking for the project is at 600 spaces (and they would probably want a handful thrown in for the leasing office, but we'll stick with round numbers).

Now, 600 is a lot of parking spaces, the cost of which are heavily dependent on local and time-sensitive material and labor costs. If you build underground parking deck in an expensive city, you're looking at 30 grand minimum per parking space. For above ground parking $10,000 per space is about the norm, except I've anecdotally heard of some being built recently for 6 or 7K.

At 600 spaces and 10K per space, we're looking at $6 million in hard costs for the parking garage. A hefty cost for something that is generally not revenue producing (unless you unbundle unit price from parking space - but that is a trick to reducing parking demand for later - right now we're still trying to meet minimum parking). This can be 20% of construction costs, just in parking, all mandated by zoning law, which eats up all of the expected 10-15% profit, extra costs which could be put into increased amenities and better building materials. It's no wonder all mixed-use projects require a public partnership. The municipality is apologizing for their onerous demands.

But why do city's demand such high parking requirements? The easy answer is that it generally just responds to whatever the "market demands" or developers say the market demands and then the city amends the code every once in a while. But like we said, market demand for parking is a complicated thing that is a product of inertia. It is fluid and it crested at those high numbers. We're now trending downward and have to do zoning gymnastics (because "market" is lower than the minimums) to get reductions in parking so that projects are both affordable and profitable in a down market.

But backing up further, why do city's have minimums in the first place? The larger reason is mobility. Cities wanted to ensure that all citizens could get around. Ensuring a parking space for every person means every person can participate in the local economy (that is, if they can afford a car). The unintended consequences are that all transportation and development feeds off this cycle and next thing you know, all there is is roads and parking. Getting around any other way (bus, foot, bike) is undignified and often downright dangerous. It is forgotten.

The more specific reason is that in the 1950s when automobiles began to crowd out cities NOT built to accommodate cars, they would choke off a city looking for public on-street parking. Cities said, "enough taking up all of our public parking. You need to provide your own parking." Rational, but short-sighted of course. In conjunction with car-first and only transportation policies, it pulled a city apart and created a feedback loop where more people had to drive thus mandating more parking and more parking mandated more people having to drive. On and on until today.

The amount of parking prevents urbanity because of the infrastructure required to support all of those cars. Everything becomes too spread out, too single-purpose.

What minimums do not take into account is "new" emerging forms of mobility such as biking, streetcar, rail, in some cities busing is acceptable to the bourgeois, and of course that new form of mobility called walking.

Another malady is that all parking is hyper-local. Meaning that you're parking every site by that site and assuming everybody is arriving from far away (because our transportation system favors regional mobility over local mobility - that's just they way we think). The retail parking assumes everybody would be driving in from Plano or wherever to patron Mo's Popsicle Stand, when the majority of users are probably right upstairs.

And since this is a dense project, it is probably amongst other density, and therefore the entire neighborhood would/could/dare-I-say-should walk or bike to the Popsicle stand. What facilities do you need to accommodate this parking? A bike rack and a front door is all.

Of course, these reduced demands also do not go unnoticed and to adjust, we don't get rid of minimums. Instead we add another contraption to the Rube-Goldberg machine. Parking reductions can be levied based on density, transit availability, mixed-use sharing, and other demand tools such as "de-coupling" price of parking from rental rates which statistically has been shown to reduce parking demand by 15-20%. When people have to pay for parking (or at least when they knowingly have to), it doesn't seem like such a sweet deal anymore.

The end result is a maximum parking that you have to work hard to find ways to reduce the cost burden on the developer AND the physical burden upon the city. Instead, we should just simplify based on neighborhood.

The entire city shouldn't be subject to one single zoning code, which on paper sounds simple enough, until those nasty peculiarities of site-specific conditions get in the way. Another reason for this is found in Bill Hillier's Space Syntax work (at this point, I sound like an advertisement for the man). What Hillier has shown is that cities exist on two overlapping planes: the movement economy - essentially commerce that is based on locating according to traffic (of all forms) overlaid upon a background fabric of residential. Each of these have a gradation to them based on desirability, that is somewhat interconnected.

Within the movement economy, there is a direct relationship between value and traffic counts. Further, this value is then amended by quality of that traffic (ie if it is by foot it is a more desirable location than if the same amount of traffic is moving past at 80-mph). Also, there is a certain desirability within the residential background to be near these amenities. There is also a draw to be away from all of this activity.

But in the end, the background residential desirability is determined primarily by quality of life in that neighborhood, which includes anything and everything imaginable and is highly personal, subjective.

Because it is so subjective, it is very difficult for a public entity to regulate. But in the 20th century, oh we tried. Did we ever try. And now what we're left with is an oppressive sameness of all places. There is no local personality emergent through self-organization in a free society. Where there is some whisper, it is hailed, ie Oak Cliff, the place that used to be called Deep Ellum, etc. Point being, the public is NOT good at regulating these residential areas.

It is good and a fundamental agent in planning, funding, building, and creating the movement economy, the bones of a city. Eh, I take that back somewhat. We're good and necessary at doing all of those things, but terrible in understanding the connections to and implications of those actions and their effect on placemaking and the residential background's natural adaptation to it.

These are the areas we need to fix, the bones of the movement economy. The rest of the city will re-form around it, as cities always have and always will do. One of these areas is in simplifying the parking by zone:
Establishing overlay "tiers" depending on the size, scale, and attraction of an area. These tiers would be "neighborhood" center and have parking maximums to somewhat govern the amount of commercial square footage that can go into areas that are primarily residential. The higher tier would then be "regional destination" and these would be served by regional transpo (highway, DART, streetcar, etc) and have parking facilities and a parking authority to manage cost per space and overall supply/demand so that parking doesn't negatively affect the area. Greenville and Henderson are both areas that should probably be neighborhood centers since the scale of the road and nearby residential suggests less intense development. They can't handle the surplus of being a regional destination and the conflict between neighborhood and business owners/developers is the evidence. Ross on the other hand would be perfect for a regional destination. It should have streetcar running down it linking west end, arts district, henderson, and lower Greenville. Quite explicitly on the map, Ross is where neighborhood service streets come together to form a regional "main street."

The key to this approach is long-term success as well, in that it doesn't restrict density ever. Only the amount of services per area. For example, it wouldn't maintain all of the single family in and around Henderson, if the market determined that all of that should become townhome/multi-family. All it does is restrict the amount of services to being scaled precisely to that area (since the parking cap would ensure that many would walk or bike from their nearby new home). Consequently, the regional destinations would always be the focus of "more infrastructural significance" and be prioritized when it comes to transit planning (of all scales).