D.C. parking plans strike the right balance

July 21, 2013

PLANNING OFFICIALS’ proposed rewrite of the District’s zoning laws has been five years in the making, runs more than 600 pages and covers a gamut of issues. But the only thing people seem to want to talk (or, more accurately, fight) about is parking.

A proposal that would lessen, and in some cases waive, parking requirements for new buildings has created fault lines that make the divide between red and blue America seem shallow. But the city’s top planner has drafted policy based not on ideology but on the practicalities of accommodating both those who want or need to drive and those who opt to go “car-light” or car-free.

Harriet Tregoning, director of the Office of Planning, has gotten pummeled from both sides. The initial proposal from her office to eliminate minimum parking requirements for developers in transit zones was fiercely opposed by residents already irked by the hunt for curbside parking and drivers who saw it as another front in what they say is a war on cars by urban planners who don’t live in the real world. Ms. Tregoning’s recent disclosure that the proposal was being revised so that transit areas, but not an expanded downtown, would still have some parking requirements brought immediate outcry from those who accused her of retreating from smart-growth policies that encourage a more walkable and livable city.

The scaled-back proposal, announced Friday on WAMU-FM, is still being finalized before being submitted to the Zoning Commission, but it appears to strike the right balance by tailoring parking requirements to the needs and nuances of neighborhoods. Existing policies were written more than 50 years ago for a city that envisioned a population of some 900,000 in which virtually everyone would have a car. Today the population is more than 630,000, nearly 40 percent of D.C. households don’t have cars, and there are transportation choices — Metro, D.C. Circulator, Car2Go, Capital Bikeshare — that should be considered and encouraged.

Requiring more parking spaces than necessary not only adds to housing costs but can also result in white elephants, such asthe 1,000-space garage the city built at a cost of $47 million for a Columbia Heights shopping center. It goes mostly unused by shoppers, who tend to use Metro. Not having parking requirements doesn’t mean parking won’t be built; developers can’t ignore the market, and the city will still have discretion to tailor requirements for bigger projects.

Parking can be tough to find in this city. To the extent that encourages people to use alternative transportation, that’s not a bad thing. But not everyone wants or is able — because of geography, family situation or other circumstances — to forgo a car. Neighborhoods are right to demand protection, and visitors should expect to be better accommodated. The city is right to promote a balanced approach.

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