Two Perspectives on the Parking Issue

By Lee Perlman

Some say allowing large new apartments without off-street parking decreases neighborhood livability and endangers business vitality. Others say parking is still available, if not convenient, and parking requirements increase rents and work against City goals.

The Richmond neighborhood, for one, is divided on the issue.

A study by Portland Bureau of Planning and Sustainability supported the second position. At a public hearing, some added that the complaints of neighborhood associations should not be heeded because they do not represent the broader community.

The Planning and Sustainability Commission agreed. Although the body, which hosted the hearing, took no vote, and in informal comments, indicated no desire to impose off-street parking requirements for new development beyond what now exists, and certainly none to impose a moratorium on new development as some community activists have called for. In general they said that they felt “the system is working”.

As the parking study noted, discussions about easing city requirements for off-street parking in conjunction with new housing development date back to the 1980s.

The looser requirements have been in place in some zones for more than a decade, and they were later expanded to include projects in any zone within 500 feet of “frequent transit service”.

What is relatively new is the degree to which developers are taking advantage of these provisions and gaining financing for their projects. The City study notes that this has accompanied an unusually low apartment vacancy rate. In the last two years, 30 new apartment projects, including two in Hollywood, have commenced that provide no off-street parking.

The City commissioned a survey by David Evans and Associates of eight recently-completed apartment projects. These included 20 on Hawthorne, Andria Condominiums, 3812 SE Division Apartments, and the 43 Division Mico-units.

The survey found that although tenants of these apartments use bicycles and transit more than the city average, the vast majority of them – 72 percent – also own cars. The survey also showed that while car-sharing services such as Zipcar and Car2go were available to these tenants, few used them.

However, a survey by city staff found while there is parking congestion around these buildings, some of which can be attributed to their tenants, there is “adequate” on-street parking within two blocks of them.

Staff also examined the cost of providing parking. Costs would range from $3,000 per space for surface lots to $55,000 for underground parking, and would result in a loss of units ranging from 10 percent for “tuck-under” parking to 40 percent for surface lots. The costs and loss of potential revenue would result in higher rents, the study concluded.

Senior city planner Joe Zehnder told the Commission that since 2006 there have been 122 new buildings containing 3,900 units, and of these 55 percent have some off-street parking.

“The point of the policy is to provide choice and let the market decide,” he said. “What we think we’re seeing is that the policies are providing a range of options.”

(Note: The study also showed that since 2009, there have been 30 new buildings without parking, and only 15 that provide it.)

Asked if this trend will continue if allowed to do so, Zehnder said, “How this plays out I don’t want to predict. The market is distorted by the low vacancy rate. This is not how a city is built, but a bubble.”

A survey conducted by the Citywide Land Use Committee to neighborhood association officers and distributed by them to others, produced 1,188 responses.

Large majorities “strongly” or “somewhat” agreed on several conclusions:

• that the city’s Climate Action Plan for reducing greenhouse gases should focus on more than automobile usage

• that it should declare a moratorium on parking-less apartment development where there isn’t frequent transit service

• that developers of parking-less apartments should help subsidize such service

• that neighborhoods should have more notice and a stronger role in city review of such developments, and

• that city System Development Charges for such projects should be spent on improvements to adjacent neighborhoods.

There was less agreement on other issues, including whether off-street parking requirements should be restored.

Richmond is one of the most affected neighborhoods. As neighborhood co-chair Allen Field testified, nine such buildings containing 234 units, have recently been built or planned for a seven-block section of SE Division St., where there are new buildings going in.

“Division is over-night changing,” Field said. The Richmond board recently voted seven to six to ask the City to change its codes to require some off-street parking and add incentives to “incent [encourage] more car-free people to live there.”

Doug Klotz, on the losing side of the vote, said current regulations are furthering goals such as the City’s Climate Action Plan. Tenants of new buildings tend to drive less, he said. They still own cars, but “There is adequate space to park them, and if not, there is permit parking”.

Jeff Diese, who lives within two blocks of a new project on Hawthorne said, “I know what density is and I know what the parking issues are, but I question what kind of density is appropriate. There’s no question there’s an impact. Walking is less safe, and there’s an impact on business. You’re pushing these things into neighborhoods with narrow streets, and asking the neighborhoods to bear the costs. There’s compelling need for a moratorium. It can’t wait.”

Richard Lishner, who lives near SE 37th Ave. and Clinton St., said, “I knew this was a great neighborhood before it was ‘discovered’. I believe in density, but these buildings are the result of unmitigated greed.”

These neighborhoods contain older homes with “a horse ring in front for Bessie. We can become Brooklyn over the next generation but not the next three years. The prospect of 81 units is something that no one would accept without a fight”.

Current regulations are “only concerned with the future, not existing residents. A ’20 minute neighborhood’ doesn’t mean 20 minutes to find a parking space”.

Gary Davenport, who lives one block from a new project on the edge of Overlook Park, questioned some of the study’s conclusions. “’Developers who don’t provide parking will charge less’ – how so?” he said.

“They are businessmen, and they’ll charge what they can. What is the impact on adjacent homeowners and businesses? This is a good first step, but we need to expand it to measure the impact.”

Tamara DeRidder, chair of the Apartment Parking Task Force that put the survey together, told the Commission, “The extraordinary amount of response to this questionnaire cannot be ignored.”

As it turned out, it could be and was. The survey noted that the vast majority of respondents were homeowners, that nearly 80 percent earned $50,000 a year or more, that more than half used their cars daily compared to daily use of transit (13 percent) or bicycles (18 percent). Opponents used these figures to argue that these people were unrepresentative of the affected community.

Dick Banner said he and others are creating a six-unit “intentional community” on E. Burnside at 28th Ave..

“We were struggling with parking from the beginning,” he said. “It became clear we could not achieve our costs with parking. If the city reverses its policies now we’ll have to abandon our goals. It will increase the cost.”

Developer and former Planning Commission chair Rick Michaelson said, “It’s all my fault.” He had managed to have development on NW 23rd Ave. exempt from off-street parking requirements.

“I don’t think we ever thought that buildings with 20 to 40 units would be built without parking,” he said. However, he said, “We really need to not eliminate the requirement for all projects.”

Asked by commission member Howard Shapiro if neighborhood associations should be the body that reviews such projects, Michaelson replied, “My one-word answer is ‘no.’”

Tony Jordan of Sunnyside, a bike rider and “reluctant car owner” said the city should seek “24-hour transit service” rather than having people “covet their neighbor’s parking space”.

Ted Labbe, a member of the non-profit De-Pave, warned, “Backsliding on the parking policy will endanger the Urban Growth Boundary and drive up the cost of housing. Parking lots fragment neighborhoods and drive up the cost of housing.

“Displacement is a huge issue. There is an over-abundance of single-family housing.” Housing without off-street parking is “a return to an older form before the car became dominant.”

In the discussion that followed, the Commission made clear they would not support new parking requirements. Commission member Don Hanson said, “Moratorium? Forget about it. It isn’t going to happen.” He added, “We heard some good ideas for minor adjustments and fine tuning.”

Shapiro, one of three Commission members from NW Portland, said it was “a metaphor for the rest of the city” as Portland’s most “urbanized” neighborhood. There should be a review process by “some kind of neighborhood group that acknowledges change will come,” he said.

Mike Houck said he didn’t favor a moratorium but said of very large projects, “There’s some threshold at which we need to consider the impacts. Design issues are something we really need to look at.”

Kathryn Schultz, the Commission’s newest member, said, “The policy of no parking requirements is working.”

Chris Smith said, “The Portland Plan has important assumptions that we will drive less. If we don’t let growth happen in ways that neighborhoods can absorb, it isn’t going to work. Providing abundant free parking is not the way to go”.

“80 units with no parking is clearly going to have an impact”, he said and needs to be dealt with. He suggested the use of permit parking districts and “using our resources more efficiently. Developers are externalizing the costs – we need to turn the benefits back into the community.”

Michelle Rudd agreed, “A moratorium is not the way to go,” but added, “It’s worthwhile to invest in (revision of ) the design guidelines. Everyone should know what the rules are.”

Commission chair Andre Baugh asked staff to “come back with options short and long-term”, including “options to give neighborhoods better input”.

He added, “I didn’t hear input from the business community, what their approach and concerns are.”

Planner Matt Wickstrom said City Staff will be working on refining their findings and making recommendations, and continue to take public input.

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Housing Without Parking Take 2

By Don MacGillivray

 Much concern is being expressed about new apartment buildings that don’t provide on-site tenant parking. A recent study completed by the Bureau of Planning and Sustainability looked at eight recently constructed apartment buildings with no on-site parking and interviewed their tenants about their transportation choices and the general characteristics of the buildings.

It turns out that the lack of parking has little effect on car ownership for apartment dwellers. 72% of the 166 tenants surveyed own cars. They are not used for commuting to work, but they are needed on weekends and for many local errands.

The history of this policy goes back to the first Comprehensive Plan passed in the early 1980s. One of its features was a desire to reduce auto usage in favor of alternative types of transportation.

The 2009 five year Climate Action Plan set a goal of reducing vehicle miles traveled in Portland by 30% from 2008 levels. Since our land use patterns are still dependent on automobiles, this may be difficult to achieve.

The housing downturn and one of the lowest housing vacancy rates in the country is changing local attitudes. Both developers and bankers didn’t believe housing without on-site parking would be successful.

In the last six years 55 apartment buildings with 1,270 new units have been built or are under construction, all in the older neighborhoods of Portland. Most of these are located in commercial zones, with very few commercial uses included in their plans.

Even with these tenants parking on neighborhood streets the study showed that there usually is plenty of room for additional cars. If parking becomes too tight, permit parking will be the likely answer.

Northwest Portland has had a difficult experience with this solution, but it does encourage the greater use of alternative transportation.

Along Division Street in the Richmond neighborhood between 30th and 45th, seven large new apartment buildings with no parking are under construction or planned. The residents in this area, as well as some business owners, are concerned about the height, size, density and design of these new buildings.

For three years, the Division St. corridor was studied under the “Green Street” program. The results did not anticipate this type of housing without parking even though it does promote alternative transportation.

“One purpose of the [Green Street] Plan is to rezone areas along the street to reflect the desired main street character. Current zoning, nonconforming uses, and poor design were identified as impediments to achieving the project goals.” Division Green Street/Main Street Plan, 2006, p. 12.

By addressing parking issues in this way, the issue of affordable housing is also addressed. On-site surface parking costs $3,000 per parking space while structured parking is from $20,000 up to $40,000 per space depending on the type provided.  A public forum held November 13 by Portland Planning and Sustainability Commission to review the study allowed the public to express their opinions and concerns.

There was standing room only in the hearing room. Thirty people expressed ideas for ninety minutes about the increased density and congestion. Three quarters of the 1,200 respondents expressed dissatisfaction with the lack of on-site parking at new apartment buildings.

Neighborhoods want a stronger voice in the planning of such projects. This was promised by the City in the Public Involvement Principles adopted in 1996 and 2010.

These issues will become part of the discussions about the Comprehensive Plan update that is underway. The first draft of this plan will be available for public review and comment around the end of the year.



Two Perspectives on the Parking Issue

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