City council member Tom Rasmussen stopped by the council’s planning and land use committee this week to express his view that the city’s new parking recommendations—which would, among other things, continue to allow new developments to be built sans parking, while encouraging alternatives to driving such as carsharing, biking, and riding transit—might violate the city’s Comprehensive Plan.
The recommendations (all meeting materials available here) were based on a survey of 219 newly reviewed or permitted residential developments in parts of Seattle where no parking is required, which found that three-quarters of developers are choosing to build parking anyway, despite the fact that parking adds between $20,000 and $50,000 per space to the cost of new developments (or about $500 a month per unit in rent) and reduces the total number of units that can fit in a development. The market, not the government, determines whether a developer chooses to build parking.
The developments with parking comprised 16,600 units; only 2,400 units in the survey will have no parking, mostly in places with easy access to frequent transit such as Capitol Hill, the Central District, Ballard, and the U District. The rest will average 0.55 spaces per unit.
A separate survey, King County’s “Right-Sized Parking” study, found that in Seattle, about 35 percent of parking spaces in multifamily buildings go unused, becoming, in planning committee chair Mike O’Brien’s words, “a wasted resource.”
Rasmussen and fellow density skeptic Nick Licata attempted to pick apart these findings by claiming they didn’t narrow in on Seattle (incorrect; the conclusions are based on Seattle parking vacancies only), or that they were too old (the survey data was from 2012, not 2002), or that they only took very dense neighborhoods like Capitol Hill and First Hill into account (wrong again—the survey spanned Seattle from Alki to the U District).
But Rasmussen’s main issue with the recommendations—which have gotten pushback from neighborhood residents concerned that, as Department of Planning and Development director Diane Sugimura wryly phrased it , “they are not able to park in front of their house”—is that development without parking will lead to “spillover parking” in nearby neighborhoods, the kind of adverse effect the city is supposed to avoid.
Rasmussen went on quite a tear about this point, lamenting that as the city grows, “people are saying [a street parking shortage is] causing tremendous congestion: ‘We can’t get to our church,’ ‘We can’t get to our home.’
“We’re hearing concerns from the community, and they’re saying that we’re not complying with the comprehensive plan. … So either we change the comprehensive plan and don’t address our commitment to the public about not having spillover parking, or we try to develop some information [about] if spillover parking is occurring, and that’s what I was expecting to see in this study.”
In fact, the city’s parking report concluded that “it is not likely that establishing new off-street parking requirements would have a noticeable effect on on-street parking in a number of areas because there is no mechanism to compel people to park off-street when on-street parking is much less expensive.”
Rasmussen also argued that parking requirements should be “very neighborhood-specific,” an idea that could effectively negate the city’s entire urban center/urban village strategy, and suggested that DPD and the Seattle Department of Transportation go back and study parking patterns in neighborhoods across the city over time, a huge assignment that would go far beyond the scope of the study on which the new parking recommendations were based.
Paolo Nunes-Ueno, SDOT’s Transit Division chief, said that while the city could go back and do that study, the ultimate issue, as the King County parking survey indicates, is that “although we can require parking to be included in a development, we can’t require people to park in that parking.”
The committee also briefly revisited the definition of “frequent transit service,” which, thanks to a hearing examiner’s ruling last year, is now much more rigidly defined. The definition matters because proximity to frequent transit is one of the criteria for eliminating parking minimums in an area, and under the new definition (15-minute headways on a specific route, rather than 15-minute average headways on routes going the same general direction) more developments will have to be built with parking.
Sugimura noted that the city doesn’t plan to implement any new parking rules until the end of the year, which O’Brien said was too long to wait before dealing with the frequent transit issue. He suggested that given the pace of new development and the Prop. 1 transit improvements coming to Seattle in September, the council should take up the definition much sooner. “It sounds like a pretty straightforward change, and one that has some pretty direct impacts on what’s going to happen in the city,” O’Brien said.
Other significant changes proposed in the recommendations include:
• Requiring new residential buildings to provide transit passes to residents. Although the exact details have to be worked out, according to the report, “actual costs of this type of program will be a small fraction of the cost of building new parking.”
• Loosening the definition of “frequent transit service,” as discussed, plus eliminating the current requirement that developers perform detailed transit service calculations for every individual development.
• Allowing residents to share parking spaces with people who don’t live in the building, a common practice in other cities that Seattle currently does not allow.
• Standardizing what counts as “bike parking” and creating minimum bike parking requirements, which, as Licata noted with some incredulity*, do not exist yet in the city.
• Implementing demand management for residential parking zone permits, which give residents of congested neighborhoods exclusive access to long-term on-street parking; these permits are currently very cheap ($65 or less for two years) and widespread, as households are allowed multiple permits. In this case, demand management would probably consist of easing back on the city’s extremely permissive permit requirements, and/or increasing the cost to park on the street in high-demand areas, although actually charging people market rent to use public street space for private car storage would probably be considered beyond the pale.
Not on the table, but potentially on the horizon, are solutions like parking maximums, making it easier to allow tenants to rent an apartment without renting a parking space, and subsidizing transit discounts for transit. Great ideas, but here’s a counterproposal: Why not make unbundling mandatory, so that residents know exactly how much of their rent is apartment and how much is car storage, and get rid of parking minimums across the city?
* I’m asterisking this one because Licata acted equally dumbfounded about the fact that there was no minimum bike parking requirement for microhousing, of which he was not a fan, as a preface to suggesting expensive new bike parking at those developments.