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[Editor’s Note: Yonah Freemark studies equitable transit-oriented development at the Metropolitan Planning Council based in Chicago. This article originally appeared on the council’s blog, The Connector. It appears here with permission.]

For most people, zoning requirements have little to no effect on everyday life. Indeed, zoning—which is defined by municipal governments and which regulates building features such as building size and allowed uses for new projects—is typically an issue that affects few others than developers and land use planners.

[pull_quote_right]Parking requirements increase cost of living, even for those living with no cars.[/pull_quote_right]

But sometimes zoning regulations get in the way for regular people, years after a building was built. That’s especially true in the case of parking requirements attached to new building permits.

I’ll use a personal story to show you how these regulations affected me. After deciding to move apartments and neighborhoods in Chicago, I settled on renting a one-bedroom apartment in a relatively new (10-year-old) building in the South Loop. Walking, the building is 1,800 feet (about seven minutes) from the Chicago Transit Authority Green, Orange, and Red lines; 1,900 feet from the Metra Electric line, and about 600 feet from five frequent bus lines. In other words, it’s very close to an array of transit options. It’s also in a dense, walkable neighborhood filled with shops and restaurants.

My household doesn’t own a car, and the apartment was advertised as not having a parking space. Yet when we were ready to sign the lease, the condo owner suddenly announced that we were required to pay a $200 monthly parking space fee… for a space we would never use and which we were forbidden to lease out to people outside the building. It was an unforgivable sleight of hand by a deceitful landlord—and suffice it to say we chose not to rent there. Instead, we picked a different, older apartment with no parking attached.

I’m not writing this post to criticize the landlord, but rather the zoning regulations that forced him to build the parking space in the first place.

Since 1957, Chicago’s zoning ordinance has usually required parking to be provided with new residential units, even if they’re very close to high-quality transit options. Current zoning law requires that private-market (non-subsidized) housing units in “R” zones (residential-only areas) provide one parking space per unit built. The same is true for developments in many “B” (business) and “C” (commercial) zones. Even downtown, parking spaces are required for residential units, though to a lesser degree.

In the case of the newer South Loop building I wanted to move into, the city’s rules were more lenient: Only 0.55 parking spaces required per unit. Unfortunately, the apartment I chose happened to be attached with one of those required spaces.

Parking requirement policies have a number of negative effects. For one, they increase the cost of living for people in the city. Building parking costs up to $20,000 per surface space, $50,000 per structured space, and $80,000 per underground space, according to TransForm. Since parking spaces are typically attached to units when they’re sold or rented, that’s like adding up to $80,000 per unit. If paid for under a mortgage under current interest rates, the parking space alone would cost $450 to pay off, per month, for 30 years. If people aren’t charged for the parking directly—as I would have been—they are charged for those costs with the expense of buying their housing units or their rent.

[pull_quote_right]Free parking? Hardly. One parking spot can cost up to $80,000.[/pull_quote_right]

Inevitably, someone will pay for the parking that was built, and that person is typically the renter or owner—whether or not they own cars. This increases the cost of newly built housing and makes living in a high-quality home less affordable.

A study by TransForm and the Center for Neighborhood Technology that profiled 68 buildings in the San Francisco Bay Area found that 31 percent of spaces built as part of recent developments—usually required by zoning ordinances—were sitting unused. In just those few dozen buildings, those empty spaces totaled 900,000 square feet of space and an estimated $139 million in construction costs. What a waste.

[pull_quote_right]Almost 40 percent of renter households in the city of Chicago live with no cars.[/pull_quote_right]

Parking requirements also don’t reflect the choices of many households. According to the most recent statistics, over a quarter of all households and almost 40 percent of renters in the city of Chicago live with no cars. Some of those people simply can’t afford a car; others choose not to have one. It is worth emphasizing that this trend is increasing; controlling for employment, transit ridership growth has outpaced vehicle miles traveled in Chicagoland over the past 12 years. Given parking requirements in the city, those people will either pay an extra fee for a feature they won’t use or will be forced to live elsewhere.

They may also be encouraged to buy a new car—a poor outcome for a congested city like Chicago. A 2009 study by Rachel Weinberger, Mark Seaman, and Carolyn Johnson of the University of Pennsylvania found that the availability of off-street parking increased car use. In their comparison of two similar New York City neighborhoods—one in Queens with ample off-street parking in buildings and one in Brooklyn without—they found that car ownership, auto use and carbon emissions were all significantly higher in the community where off-street parking was available. People drive more when parking is readily available.

Certain developers recognize that a large portion of the population is happy to live without a car. Wicker Park’s 1611 West Division project, which opened in 2013 and is within steps of the CTA Blue Line station and a future Ashland Avenue Bus Rapid Transit stop, includes no parking at all for its 99 residential units. This project required special approval by the alderman and the city council, but other developers are interested in following in this well leased project’s footsteps. Now hundreds of additional people who chose not to drive live in the community, adding tax revenues and visits to local stores with little to no effect on traffic.

We have an opportunity to alter parking requirements to give people more options, instead of requiring people who want to live in newer buildings to pay for parking they won’t use. We can make buildings like 1611 West Division commonplace, rather than a cumbersome exception.

In 2013, the Metropolitan Planning Council (MPC) advocated for the passage of Chicago’s transit-oriented development ordinance, which reduces the minimum parking requirements for developments located near rail transit stations in certain zoning categories. Developments that qualify can have their buildings’ parking requirements reduced by up to 100 percent for commercial uses and 50 percent for residential uses—a major change.

There remain more opportunities to respond to the interest among many members of the public to live car-free. Many cities around the country are piloting strategies to encourage more effective use of their parking spaces and to develop a less car-reliant population. MPC will be working throughout 2015 with our partners and the City of Chicago to identify additional changes that reduce parking requirements and thereby reduce cost of living and encourage people to live without automobiles in their lives.

[Top image: Peter Dutton / Flickr]
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Yonah Freemark

Yonah Freemark

Yonah is a project manager at the Metropolitan Planning Council where he currently focuses on policies to promote equitable transit-oriented development and transportation investment. He holdsa Bachelors of Arts in Architecture from Yale and later received masters' degrees in city planning (MCP) and transportation (MST) from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The North Carolina native currently lives in Chicago.
Yonah Freemark

2 COMMENTS

  1. Anyone know about Louisville’s parking zoning regulations? Are they appropriate or in need of reform to avoid these very issues?

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