In 2012, Metro sponsored a study of parking ratios for multi-family developments in urban King County. By counting vehicles parked overnight, the Right-Size Parking study created a model of current parking needs and demonstrated that parking is 40% oversupplied.
Several pilot demonstration projects were developed in partnership with various cities. However, only one, in Kirkland, made recommendations for changes in policy. It hasn’t gone well. The challenges encountered point to the difficulties in reducing suburban parking requirements.
Fundamentally, right-size parking is a conservative approach. It does not defer to developers to build what the market requires. (Suburban cities are too concerned with spillover parking to be comfortable with that). Neither does it look forward to a less car-dependent future. It only brings parking minimums into line with current use.
Kirkland’s base parking requirements are high, far above even comparable suburban communities. They’re so dated that nobody remembers how they were derived. In downtown, 1 stall per bedroom is required, with a 1.3 minimum per unit. Most other neighborhoods have a 1.7 requirement per unit. Up to another 0.5 stalls per unit are required for guest parking. But overnight parking counts found just 1.27 parked vehicles per apartment. Indeed, the average multi-family unit only has 1.57 residents, so the code requires more parking than there are residents.
Excess parking distorts residential construction in predictable ways. Single family homes gain an arbitrary cost advantage, skewing the market against multi-family development. Downtown apartments have few bedrooms to avoid building more parking. The resulting demographic skews toward condos for retirees, with few units for larger families. Multi-family housing in downtown Kirkland has very few families with children.
Nevertheless, the proposal ran into early opposition from neighborhood groups and anti-growth activists. Much public comment reflected disbelief that others could live with as few cars as the data showed. Surely, most units would have two residents who each needed a car to commute to work? Many were skeptical that regional data could be used to estimate Kirkland parking requirements. But local data gathering confirmed what the regional model had suggested. Much more methodological nitpicking ensued, none of which undermined the data analysis. There were even complaints that the parking counters must have trespassed into private garages (They didn’t, of course).
The Planning Commission deliberated for several months and recommended requirements higher than the RSP model. Although model estimates closely fit local usage, some buildings varied from the model by up to 15% in either direction. So the base requirement was raised 15% for every building. Then it was raised another 10% for guest parking because developers were presumed unwilling to manage this themselves. The Commission recommended 1.2 stalls/ studio, 1.3 stalls/1-bedroom, 1.6 stalls/2-bedroom, and 1.8 stalls/3-bedroom. An additional 10% guest parking was also recommended. Realizing that these standards were adding parking in downtown, there was one concession: a 15% off-setting reduction within a half-mile of the transit center, but only if the developer funded transit passes for residents in perpetuity.
Nevertheless, by the time the proposal reached the City Council, it was politically toxic. Residential parking became conflated with Kirkland’s “shortage” of parking for retail. Street parking in downtown is free, and public lot parking is inexpensive. With many older buildings that lack their own parking, free street parking is over-used. Businesses won’t countenance any spillover of residential parking into scarce street spaces. Single-family homeowners on neighboring streets are hostile to spillover parking on ‘their’ streets. In a city that has mixed feelings about growth, the risks of making development more expensive are preferred to the risks of spillover.
Parking modifications came into focus. This process permits a developer to submit a parking study with data from comparable buildings, and thereby gain relief from high code requirements. With such unrealistic base requirements, parking modifications were regularly granted. It was almost a do-it-yourself right size parking initiative. Council members were very uncomfortable with this process which may have been more widespread than they’d realized.
Parking in mixed-use buildings is complex. While residential needs are predictable, business needs vary greatly with the particular use of the space. One building, in Juanita, had issues with employee parking. Another, in Totem Lake, attempted shared use of parking by business customers and residents, but didn’t manage this well. Many other buildings successfully managed parking with multiple uses, but it was a few failures that drew attention.
The 15% reduction with transit passes was greeted skeptically. Though supported by regional data, it was not supported by local data on frequent transit routes. With so much required parking, Kirkland has attracted mostly residents who do not rely on transit. But rejection of this approach would cut off one more option for developers who wish to cater to a different audience.
In the wake of the voter rejection of Prop. 1, some questioned the reliability of transit. Could the city rely on transit to reduce future parking needs if Metro service wasn’t guaranteed?
The Council is expected to consider this again in June, but any major reform appears unlikely. Neighborhood organizations are opposed to any reduction in parking minimums. Parking modifications may be sharply curtailed. This would diminish regulatory flexibility, and increase de facto requirements even as code standards are nominally eased. Kirkland may be better off walking away from the Right Size Parking project.