City Council Members Choose Storage for Cars Over Housing for People

Platte Park, Denver, March 15, 2014
South Pearl Street — where City Council members want to cram in more parking spaces. Image: Kent Kanouse/Flickr

In a growing city where homes are becoming increasingly unaffordable, elected officials should be trying to maximize housing for people, not storage for cars. But some members of the City Council want to do exactly the opposite.

The City Council’s Neighborhood and Planning Commission voted 5-0 Wednesday to press pause on a zoning law that allows developers to build parking-free homes on small plots in compact, walkable neighborhoods. Council Members Jolon Clark, Mary Beth Susman, Rafael Espinoza, Kendra Black, and Wayne New voted for the moratorium. The measure will go before the full City Council on August 22.

If it passes, builders will be compelled to construct parking where they weren’t before, increasing costs and hampering the development of housing. That would go directly against the City Council’s top two stated priorities: creating a less car-oriented city and making a dent in the affordable housing shortage.

The rule exempting some lots from parking requirements has been around 10 years. Planners established the zoning in 2005 “to provide flexibility for small lots and encourage a reuse of existing building in limited areas of the city,” according to City Council documents.

So far only one qualifying development has taken the city up on going car-free, according to the Denver Post. But that was before the building boom. Already, six more car-free projects are in the pipeline. This type of development will lead to lower housing costs and less traffic — exactly what Denver should be encouraging as it grows.

Screen Shot 2016-07-22 at 3.42.08 PM
From left, Council Members Wayne New, Kendra Black, Mary Beth Susman, Jolon Clark, and Raphael Espinoza.

“One thing that strikes me is this great idea about eliminating parking requirements on small lots,” said Dan Bertolet, a senior researcher at Sightline Institute, a Seattle-based think tank that specializes in sustainability. “That’s something Seattle’s never done, so you guys are ahead of us.”

At least for now. Council members seem more concerned with where personal automobiles will be stored than where people will sleep. The moratorium is supposed to give the council time to amend the zoning law in a way that appeases car-first neighbors.

Post reporter Jon Murray highlights a proposal on South Pearl Street, one of the city’s most walkable commercial and residential districts. It’s also a few blocks from the Louisiana-Pearl light rail station. A developer wants to build 16 homes on a plot with 50 feet worth of on-street parking in front of it, plus six off-street spaces. “That is something that will dramatically change the feel of that community,” Clark said during the Council meeting.

Meanwhile, in City Park West, Pando Holdings wants to build 108 studio apartments without off-street parking spaces. Rent would cost $1,000 a month — $371 less than the average rent in the metro area. “Our idea was to provide a more affordable option for renters that don’t rely on a car to get around,” Kiely Wilson told the Post. Wilson said his company did their research, and will market the apartments to people who live a car-free lifestyle.

Unless the City Council rejects the moratorium, this kind of affordable, walkable development will cease to be allowed — all because some people are obsessed with parking.

That obsession has a very real human toll. It costs builders about $26,000 to construct each underground parking space and $18,000 for each above ground stall in Denver, according to a report by parking policy expert Donald Shoup. That cost gets passed along to tenants.

In addition, Bertolet says that parking requirements move the whole market toward less affordable types of housing. If projects like the City Park West apartments can’t be built, for instance, developers will react by building bigger homes for fewer people, and charging more per unit. Land consumed by required parking lots and garages will displace land where people could have lived.

The average non-city-planner may not get the ins and outs of parking policy, but City Council members have to. If they don’t, they’ll be condemning Denver residents to higher housing costs and more traffic on the streets.

  • JerryG

    I don’t think that 16 homes on a small lot would be a big impact, but 108 apartments is much different. I think a good compromise would be to add one space for every 10 or 20 units once the development becomes larger than a minimum threshold, perhaps 20 units. Of course, I also think that the city should allow for small (<10) parking-less development along commercial corridors or developing corridors in more neighborhoods.

    • Layla

      16 homes on small lot may not seem to be a big impact, but I challenge you to travel on Old South Pearl and the adjacent streets Tuesday – Sunday where this apartment is going to be built (replacing a single family home). You will find traffic “stand-offs” where vehicles cannot even travel down the street – legally – and safely because some roads are simply too narrow for 4 cars abreast (2 for parking on both sides of road and 2 in motion).

      This is a destination area. People have to either walk, drive or ride. I have yet to see a mass of people walking or riding to the Sushi Den.

      • JerryG

        The location of this proposed development is 2-3 blocks from the Louisiana-Pearl rail station and also on a bus line that runs north-south. It is also ~10 min walking from two grocery stores and, as you implied, within easy walking distance to the Pearl Street commercial areas. The walk score for this location is also quite high: mid-80s and the surrounding area has good biking infrastructure. Therefore, the people who may potentially live in these apartments will be able to do so without having to drive to meet their daily needs. These type of apartments are also self-selecting on who might consider living there: someone who requires a car to get around, due to age or health-related issues, will not choose to live there.

  • JZ71

    This only makes sense IF tenants are restricted to those that do not own cars. Otherwise, the burden for storing cars shifts from the private realm to the public – see Capitol Hill! There is no “free” parking – on-street parking has costs, costs that are sharec by everyone, thru taxes!

    • MT

      But those costs are easily shifted to those that use the parking by charging for it. We already use two hour limits, parking meters, and residential permits in busy areas. If needed, those permits can be charged for at a rate that will keep the street from being overcrowded.
      Much simpler solution than mandating that off street parking be built. People that want parking, on street or off street, can pay for it, those that don’t need it aren’t forced to.

    • Layla


      • neroden

        Wrong! (About restricting tenants.) The problem is, very clearly, the “free” on-street parking. Put up parking meters, raise the price to the market price, and you’ll find that the right amount of parking gets built off-street. You don’t have to restrict the tenants — they’ll restrict themselves (who can afford to feed a meter every day?)

        Mandating that every developer build parking off street while building more free parking on street… just jacks up housing prices and jacks up the rent.

        Charging for parking meters, by contrast, allows the city to cut property taxes while doing the same amount of road work. Or do more road work without raising property taxes.

  • Republic

    Public parking permits should be auctioned and cost about the same as renting a private space. Tragedy of the commons solved.

  • John Riecke

    I argued against this course of action at both CHUN and INC when presented. Spoke with Albus Brooks. This policy change is a failure of imagination and will cost the city in terms of affordability and long term growth potential. If the streets we have now can’t fit all the cars that are already here, what makes people think that adding more cars to the mix will make it better?

    • JZ71

      Because adding even more people (by increasing density) does mean adding more cars to the mix. People that don’t own a car rely on taxis, Uber, Zipcar, delivery services, RTD and friend’s vehicles to get places and stuff when walking or biking simply aren’t feasible. Those vehicles may spend less time motionless (unlike a personal vehicle), but they’re still spending time at every residence. The number of spaces truly needed is likely less, for parking (but NOT for loading), but it will never become zero!

    • Paul Davidson

      CHUN and INC both passed resolutions supporting this moratorium. The vote at INC was 26-2 in favor of the moratorium. I suggest that your fellow neighbors are just imagining a different kind of neighborhood.

  • Vertigo700

    I think the council needs to talk to the many people in Denver who don’t have cars. I only got a car about two years ago and lived in Capitol Hill without a car for six years. I was absolutely able to take care of all my transportation needs by walking, riding my bike or by transit even in winter. A lot of my friends still do not have their own cars and places like 16th and Humboldt would be a great place to live for them. That’s on 16th Avenue, one of the most popular and accessible bike lanes in the city and one block from Colfax, the most accessible and popular bus line in the city. If I worked at one the many shops or restaurants in the area, I would definitely prefer to live nearby and then use my bike and transit to other parts of the city. Of course only if I could afford the rent in that area.

    • Layla

      Great that you were able to live without a car. Why did you get one?

      • Vertigo700

        I moved out of Capitol Hill and I became a teacher, which means early commutes that often require me to carry supplies. I still managed to ride my bike many times, but needed to have a car as well. If I lived in Capitol Hill and had a job that didn’t require a vehicle as I had before, I definitely would get rid of the car.

  • Chris

    I think Denver is more unique in that many people want access to the mountains nearby. There isn’t a quick option to make it out there and to the trailheads in a timely manner. Many people like the convenience of their cars to do this – unless they don’t travel to the mountains that often or have extremley good friends that pick them up and take them all the time.

    • Vertigo700

      It’s really unfortunate that RTD doesn’t cover more mountain recreation areas. Heck, they don’t even go to Red Rocks.

  • neroden

    Good grief. Seems like the policy is PARKING UBER ALLES!

  • MefromDenver

    I think one of the issues that I’m not seeing here is that developers were taking small lots that were adjacent to each other and developing it as one large development but claiming small lot development to be exempt from the parking requirements. That would seem to require a small tweak to the law not allowing for that type of development. Two steps forward, one step back.


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