This post is by Ryan Benton, a project manager at CPEX.
Ten years ago, historic downtown Sandpoint, Idaho, found itself in a frustrating position: It was rapidly losing many of the small businesses that made its downtown a vibrant place to visit and shop. The culprit? Parking requirements.
Many municipalities and planning departments set minimum parking requirements based on land use. These regulations require businesses to ensure that enough parking is available by mandating that developers include a certain number of spaces in relation to the expected number of visitors and residents in the area. For example, businesses like movie theaters or restaurants have a certain number of spaces based on the number of seats available.
Sandpoint’s leadership took action by eliminating off-street parking requirements for downtown businesses and it paid off: Millions of dollars have been invested in downtown projects that wouldn’t have been possible if the city was still prioritizing parking over creative development.
A shortage of parking spaces can certainly be a hassle, but parking for cars shouldn’t be the priority in development plans.
Here are three things to consider when thinking about ideal parking requirements in our communities.
Plan for Typical Days, Not Extremes
Parking minimums result in more parking than is really needed. Many business owners forecast how many customers might be at their business at a peak time, then build for that demand. Big-box stores are a perfect example. Their parking lots are designed to handle major shopping days such as Black Friday. There’s even a nationwide event —- #BlackFridayParking — designed to make the harmful nature of minimum parking requirements clear.
These requirements create an expanse of asphalt that is almost never close to full. That's a costly use of land, both for developers and for the community. It prevents the space from being used for other purposes, and there’s no return on that investment when those spaces sit empty.
Eliminating parking requirements that are based on capacity that is rarely needed would allow for better use of the space that could generate more revenue for businesses and the community.
Incorporate Pedestrian and Bike Infrastructure
Business owners have to be able to reasonably satisfy their customers, and that includes making it convenient for them to access the business.
There are places — for example, some neighborhoods around Government Street in Baton Rouge — that were built many years ago and don't have adequate room to accommodate new businesses with current parking requirements. Typically these are historic areas that were developed prior to the onslaught of car culture. They have a denser development pattern with less room allocated to automobiles. These places also happen to be some of the most valuable areas for development and revitalization — think downtowns just about anywhere and older Mid City neighborhoods like Ogden Park or the Garden District in Baton Rouge.
Parking requirements shouldn’t be a barrier to the kinds of development that pay off in a big way for the city and improve quality of life for the community. A person who wants to open a business in these areas may not be able to get a permit simply because there’s no room for additional parking; as a result, the city loses out on revenue that would be generated by the business and residents lose out on new job opportunities and services.
Some stretches of Government Street have special urban design overlay districts that provide reduced parking requirements, which can help remove barriers for new businesses and encourage desirable foot traffic. Rethinking our approach to parking requirements by focusing on providing alternative ways to access these locations also helps reduce demand for parking and improves the overall walkability, safety and desirability of the neighborhood. The option of safely walking or biking a few blocks is often more attractive to people than driving, and neighborhoods that have a higher walkability score often enjoy higher property values.
Prioritizing pedestrian and bike infrastructure is key to solving parking problems.
Get Creative About Parking Policy
Baton Rouge may not be ready to eliminate parking requirements, but we can get more creative about how we approach parking. Current requirements often don’t allow for alternative approaches that ensure customers can access storefronts.
For example, businesses in Baton Rouge and other places in Louisiana can't easily share their parking spaces or have shared-use agreements that allow them to manage peak and nonpeak parking more efficiently. While people often point to liability as a concern with shared-use agreements, businesses can usually resolve this issue with a simple change to their insurance.
Proven solutions exist. Having parking districts where spaces are shared among a number of businesses is an effective strategy to manage peak demand. Variances for installing bike racks that reduce the number of parking spaces needed also helps communities better utilize the available land and encourage more biking. Getting businesses involved can help change customers’ behavior. For instance, some of the vendors in Baton Rouge’s White Star Market offer discounts for walking or biking rather than driving.
Vast stretches of asphalt are not what attracts people to a place. If we want to build the kind of city that attracts businesses, residents and visitors, we need to take a common-sense approach to parking that allows businesses and communities to thrive.