It’s Official: Denver City Council Values Parking More Than Housing

What’s more important: Providing sufficient housing for Denver residents, or cramming more car storage into the city?

With a unanimous vote on Monday to temporarily ban new small-lot developments without off-street parking, the Denver City Council has prioritized car storage over places for people to live.

The decision undercuts the City Council’s top two stated priorities: creating a less car-oriented city and making housing more affordable.

Building parking can add a fortune to the cost of construction — $26,000 per underground parking space and $18,000 for each above-ground stall. If parking is required, those costs depress the construction of housing, which Denver can ill afford. Already, housing construction is not keeping pace with population growth.

Parking-obsessed residents testified to Council before the vote. “To build a building with no parking spots is pure insanity,” said Doug Gragg. When it comes to on-street parking, “the potato sack is full,” said Bob Hickman.

Inherent in their argument is that parking a private car directly in front of their houses, in the public right of way, is an inalienable right — and that more people moving into their neighborhood would infringe on that right.

Not everyone agreed. Johan Barrios, an expecting mother, lives in Uptown. She hates circling the block for parking sometimes — but also hates the idea of getting priced out of her apartment in six months. “So now we have to choose,” Barrios told the council. “Do we support parking, or do we support the ability to live in our neighborhood in six months? And I can tell you that choice is really clear for us.”

Council members mostly agreed with the parking-above-all crowd. Councilman Paul Kashmann even floated the idea of capping Denver’s growth. “What is Denver’s ultimate population? Is it 900,000, or is it 4 million?” he asked. He shared an anecdote from a colleague in Indianapolis that he wants Denverites to consider: “There’s something very appealing about being a second-tier city.”

Among many problems with Kashmann’s line of thought is this: The City Council cannot stop people from moving to Denver. It can shape growth, but trying to put some sort of cap on housing will only backfire, until only the rich will be able to afford living here.

In Seattle, Mayor Ed Murray is responding to a housing crunch with a plan to build 50,000 new housing units (with 20,000 below market rate), including further reductions in parking requirements [PDF].

Denver risks heading in the other direction if the City Council doesn’t get over its parking obsession.

During the seven-month moratorium, a group of residents, council members, developers, and transit and affordable housing professionals will hammer out a new code that is more “contextual,” said Councilman Albus Brooks.

Councilwoman Robin Kniech said the new code should reflect that some new developments “might not need parking.” “The idea that we can just kind of continue our trend in planning for the single car and that some of this growth will go elsewhere — I don’t think that’s a realistic scenario,” she said.

The City Council grandfathered in nine projects already in the pipeline, so some car-free and car-light development will get built. Two of those projects will add 108 homes in City Park West, sans parking, costing $1,000 a month — $371 less than the average rent in the metro area.

These are the types of homes Council members will stifle in the future, all because some residents can’t conceive of a city without government-mandated parking.