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Parking rules for a 21st-century D.C.

By Harriet Tregoning and Terry Bellamy,

Few proposals in the comprehensive overhaul being considered for the District’s 50-year-old zoning code have generated more public interest than proposed changes to parking requirements.

Let’s consider what’s been proposed and why. Current zoning regulations include a laundry list of parking minimums (the minimum number of spaces that must be provided) for each land use. But the same use is treated differently in different zones, and requirements are calculated on the basis of different criteria — such as the length of a church pew, the number of employees or dwelling units, or whether a fast-food building has a side yard. These use-based parking standards interfere with the adaptive reuse of buildings and make no distinction between a development with great access to mass transit and one along an automobile-oriented commuter corridor.

In the draft zoning code, we have proposed dramatically simplifying these requirements. And, yes, we have suggested that, in limited areas of the city, including downtown and other higher-density, mixed-use settings with plentiful access to mass transit, the minimum-parking requirements should be lifted. The draft changes also include allowing shared parking between buildings and requiring set-asides for car-share spaces. We view this as a highly tailored, “go slow” approach to simplifying and right-sizing parking requirements after decades of assuming a car-centered city very different from the one we now plan for.

If the current requirements had no adverse impact, we could simply say “no harm, no foul” and continue to maintain these cumbersome regulations to ease the fears of some residents. Unfortunately, the regulations have a real cost. A designated parking space can add as much as $50,000 to the price of a residential unit. At a time when our city is struggling to provide enough affordable housing to meet the needs of a growing population, we are duty-bound to explore ways to reduce those costs.

Indeed, the cost of living is extraordinary for many District residents. AAA’s 2012 edition of “Your Driving Costs” estimates the annual cost of driving 15,000 miles at $8,946 for an average sedan and $9,504 for a minivan, and consequently many households have elected to live car-free. The Census Bureau estimates that more than 38 percent of D.C. households do not own cars. Minimizing the costs of driving and parking can allow for many residents to live in a city where they might otherwise be priced out.

While we’re interested in reducing housing costs, alleviating traffic congestion and providing more transportation options, we certainly have no intention of making parking scarce or driving difficult. Those who want to drive in the city will continue to have that option, while those interested in alternative, and typically less expensive, modes of transportation will have that choice as well. While the flexibility provided under our proposal may result in an apartment building here or a shopping center there with fewer parking spaces, we expect the overall impact on the parking supply to be incremental.

Concerns about competition for curbside spaces are understandable, but this is precisely why the D.C. Department of Transportation (DDOT) has embarked on a vigorous effort to examine and update its own regulations, covering everything from the residential parking permit system to the pricing and management of parking meters. DDOT has also recently launched the MoveDC effort, a participatory, long-range plan that will guide future transportation investments to make it easier for everyone to get around.

The District’s transit ridership is among the highest in the country; we currently have the largest bike-share system in the United States; our car-sharing programs have more than 65,000 members; and neighborhoods are gaining more walkable amenities every month. We are literally creating the model for how to grow a 21st-century American city that includes all transportation modes — including cars! — every day. To ignore the changes occurring in our city and to base rules for future development on automobile-only planning would be irresponsible.

One of the more dubious claims advanced is that minimum parking requirements “keep downtown pedestrian-friendly” and prevent streetscapes from being “interrupted by surface lots and parking structures.” We find this idea particularly odd, since downtown D.C. has the lowest parking requirements of any part of the city. In fact, a recent study published by researchers at the University of Connecticut found that higher levels of parking downtown are negatively correlated with economic growth. What makes our city pedestrian-friendly is a combination of a well-planned street grid, good building rules, a mix of convenient goods and services, and an emphasis of the public realm and safety. If minimum-parking requirements generated pedestrian-friendly streetscapes, then every suburban jurisdiction in America would be a walker’s paradise.

The writers are the directors, respectively, the D.C. Office of Planning and the D.C. Department of Transportation.

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