Want growth? Reduce parking minimums

Parking garages drive up costs, causing developers to build big.

Chris Iverson

Although parking allows us to take our cars throughout the city, it can be devastating to urban development.

Take Dinkytown, for example, where a bike lane was sacrificed for on-street parking. Although there’s a bike lane on Fourth Street from TCF Bank Stadium to 15th Avenue and from 13th Avenue into the Marcy-Holmes neighborhood, there’s no lane in Dinkytown’s two-block stretch. This is because area businesses need the on-street parking.

The same situation occurs on campus, where vehicles always seem to block the pedestrian traffic flows near Church Street.

So you get my point — parking is important. But it is also a relic of the past, a timestamp from the car-centric second half of the 20th century that restricts ambitious growth.

Parking requirements form the idea that we have the “right” to own a car as well as a parking spot. This worked for quite some time. Unfortunately, this cannot and should no longer be true in urban areas.

When developers attempt to build a new project, they must follow parking minimums that bring up their costs.

“Underground parking garage costs around $25,000 per spot,” said Kelly Doran, CEO of Doran Companies and developer of off-campus projects like Sydney Hall, The Knoll and The Bridges.

Doran said parking structures tend to be expensive to build and are a net negative for development.

More young people are choosing to live closer to amenities and use alternative modes of transportation. The housing boom can be seen around campus, as more people are living closer to the University of Minnesota rather than commuting from distant suburbs.

The large growth of student apartments around the area exemplifies this trend. With more students living near the area and not driving to campus, why do we still require expensive parking?

As an urbanist striving for a car-free city, my gut reaction would be to remove parking requirements altogether. Realistically, some people will always want to drive, no matter how well the transit network is built.

However, a parking minimum reduction is possible, and decreasing requirements over time would be the wisest move.

In fact, the city of Minneapolis has been taking steps to do just that. The University area actually has a slightly favorable situation with its position as a transit hub.

Minneapolis city planner Haila Maze said parking requirements for the city are revised about every five years.

Current city code requires new residential units to have one parking space per dwelling unit. However, Maze said the University has more lenient parking minimums and allows developments to only have one-half parking spaces per bedroom.

Even so, the people behind recent developments are looking to get out from under hefty parking requirements.

“Basically every apartment project around campus in the past couple years has sought a parking variance,” Maze said.

The underutilization of parking spaces around campus is especially striking for developers.

Doran said Sydney Hall holds 135 parking spots, but residents only occupy about 100.

Since it’s a financial burden for developers to build parking, more units need to be constructed to offset the added costs. This process means larger footprints for construction, one cause of concern for controversial projects such as the WaHu Student Housing project in Stadium Village.

At the same time, rent needs to be increased to accommodate the parking expenses. If parking minimums were reduced or eliminated, developers could build smaller and more affordable buildings.

A fine example is a new apartment recently approved near a small parking garage in the St. Anthony West neighborhood.

The small, six-story, 56-unit building has a footprint less than half the size of the Opus Group’s Venue at Dinkytown. The project’s developers, Corner Apartments, do not plan on building any underground parking. Instead, parking needs will be met by adding a skyway to an existing ramp.

Cities like Portland, Ore., did away with parking minimums in some neighborhoods for many years. Developers and planners lauded the lack of parking, claiming it lowered rents and reduced building sizes.

However, removing parking minimums is also a detriment to an area. Without at least some parking, vehicles may invade curbside spots and increase unwanted traffic on local streets. Portland recently reinstated a very loose parking minimum this year to accommodate for these concerns.

It sounds like Minneapolis won’t eliminate parking for that exact reason.

“We don’t want to do away with parking cold turkey,” Maze said.

In the future, the city should continuously reduce parking requirements in order to encourage an auto-free lifestyle for tenants and building smaller footprints for developers.

There is no denying that parking is expensive, and when removed, can be a serious weight lifted off the break of smart growth.