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

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.