Why Parking Policy Matters for Equitable Neighborhoods: A Lesson for Denver

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Residents against new homes without new parking have been fear-mongering in City Park West. (This is not a parking spot. It’s a bike lane).

What do parking spots have to do with equity? A lot.

I was at last week’s Rail~Volution conference in the Bay Area, where “building livable communities with transit” was the topic of conversation. It was striking how some of the country’s leading urban planners talked about transit, not in terms of buses and trains, but in terms of equity — how great transit contributes to healthier people, safer streets, and economic mobility.

And, on the flip side, how shaping neighborhoods around cars drives up living costs and excludes people from walkable neighborhoods.

“We have people in the Bay Area struggling from paycheck to paycheck, and often getting pushed out onto the street,” said Patrick Siegman, a principal at urban planning firm Nelson\Nygaard. “And on the other hand, we’ve completely solved our affordable housing problem — for our cars.” Siegman spoke at a panel about parking policies around transit-oriented development.

Denver is no stranger to minimum parking requirements that compel developers to build homes with expensive parking spaces, driving up the costs for residents in a city that lacks affordable housing. Denver is also familiar with the disdain current resident have for potential newcomers who will steal “their” on-street parking if home builders don’t include new stalls. But Denver is far from the first city to deal with this tug of war between places to live and places to store private property.

Siegman shared a cautionary tale about Oakland where, in 1965, the city began requiring home builders to bake one parking space per unit into apartment buildings. The unintended consequence? Construction costs rose 18 percent. “It became a great gentrification measure,” Siegman said, because developers began building for the rich to recoup their costs. Land value fell by 33 percent because developers couldn’t make money building apartments for working class people.

But with smart local and state policies, cities can manage parking in areas with good transit in a way that includes people instead of excluding them. The best thing cities can do is eliminate minimum parking requirements altogether, Siegman said, which is something Denver has done downtown and in Arapahoe Square. Indeed, Denver developers are planning for a future without parking, but until then, Berkeley, California may have a lesson for the city.

The Berkeley City Council decided it wanted its street parking to be full between 65 and 85 percent of the time, depending on the block. That way, spaces are being used, but others are readily available. That meant pricing parking according to demand, or what Siegman called “Goldilocks pricing.” Right now meters cost between $1.50 and $2.75 an hour, but that fluctuates depending on whether city blocks are meeting occupancy goals. The revenues get funneled back into public services, including services for people without homes. Meanwhile, residents can buy yearly parking permits for un-metered spots that allow them to park there longer than the two hours permitted to non-residents.

So how does this affect housing?

Berkeley has a new building called the Gaia Apartments: 91 one- and two-bedroom homes, a ground-floor theater, penthouse office space, and just 42 parking spaces. Each unit costs less than the average rent in Berkeley. There are two car-share spaces on site, and others throughout the neighborhood.

The city also required the developer to “unbuckle” the monthly parking costs from rent — $1,800 per year — so people could see the high cost of owning a car. Turns out the developer still overbuilt parking. The Gaia has 237 adult residents with 20 cars — a result made possible, Siegman said, by the unbuckling, combined with curbside parking reform that relieved pressure on the system, and good transit.

“Now we don’t need to fund and build as much parking, so now you can build more housing and less expensive housing,” Siegman said. “And the final link in the chain is that not as many people get pushed out on the street because they lose their place to live.”

Stay tuned for more takeaways from Rail~Volution. Hat tip to National Resources Defense Council and Transit Alliance for sending Streetsblog Denver to the Bay Area.

  • Sloan

    I’d just like to point out that that lawn sign isn’t in front of a parking space…That’s the bicycle lane, with a “no parking anytime” sign in the photo.

  • mckillio

    Good article. The thing that I noticed the most was “The city also required the developer to “unbuckle” the monthly parking costs from rent”, this should be standard for all major metro areas.

  • David, do we have any sense how much parking plays in to housing costs in Denver?

    • David Sachs

      Something I can look into but I bet it varies widely by development. Also, it often goes back to the banks that lend the money. They don’t want to take a risk on building something with an “insufficient” amount of parking.

      • Thanks for the quick response. It would be interesting to see in an area like cap hill where parking is simply street parking and most buildings are 15+ years old, vs condos that have built in garages. It’s unfortunate that the public doesn’t have the understanding that land is limited, and their housing could be lower if they weren’t paying for the parking.

    • Anthony

      Arleigh,

      Check out Table 5.4.3 on Page 11 of this document produced by the Victoria Transport Policy Institute. To adjust for inflation just multiply any of the figures by 1.34. These figures are annualized over a 20-year amortization period. So, according to Mr. Litman’s research, the total monthly cost for an urban 3-level structure is $319 per month. This isn’t Denver specific, but with a little more work I’m sure I’d be able to identify an accurate multiplier to use. I’d feel comfortable at this point giving a margin of error of about 25%, so that’s a large range but it’s still an obscene amount of money: $239 – $399 per month.

    • Anthony

      And I was afraid the hyperlink wouldn’t work: http://www.vtpi.org/tca/tca0504.pdf

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