Our son went away to camp for two weeks so like any kid-free couple, my husband and I spent a night of torrid, passionate, steamy….conversation about parking.
The latest parking obsession is the feud in California between the State Chapter of the American Planning Association (Cal APA) and Donald Shoup. Cal APA asked its members to oppose a bill (AB 904) that would relieve minimum parking requirements parking in transit-oriented development project areas. Mr. Shoup sent a widely circulated letter back to Cal APA, expressing disappointment with the organization. Professor Shoup sees AB 904 as a “parking disarmament policy” which will let cities allow parking prices near transit and remove minimum (and costly) standards. However, Cal APA sees AB 904 as a one-size-fits-all mandate.
So on to passionate and steamy. I told my husband I actually side with Cal APA on this one. I’ve written before on how and why Arlington, Virginia – home to many planning innovations – actually keeps it minimums on the books (more below).
My husband, on the other hand, sides with Professor Shoup. Aaron travels all over the country in his job, and visits lots of medium-sized sprawly cities. In his work negotiating with local officials, he notes flexibility is worthless because cities looking for a quick buck will always flex to the cheap and the sprawl. He’d actually like to see parking maximums as well, which was not part of AB 904.
As the night wore on, it became clear we were talking about two different place types. High dollar TOD doesn’t happen in medium sized towns, so I’ll give him the standards argument.
But high dollar TOD is what’s on the table, and it seems like the Cal APA-Shoup feud exposes a couple of points:
- Rigorously enforced minimum parking requirements and how outdated minimum parking requirements are flexed as a negotiating tool are two vastly different things.
- While the gist of the conversation should be TOD planning, it is not. It’s about parking. Sure bad parking policy can drive bad planning outcomes. But overwhleming focus on one aspect of planning like parking can marginalize other planning needs that are as important, if not more important.
Take Arlington. They use their nasty old minimum requirements like a BOSS. During recent attempts to get rid of parking minimums, it became clear that the county would give away its ability to negotiate the interlinking aspects of neighborhood design. Negotiation is key because the issues change over time and place to place. When I entered Arlington activism in the early 90’s, parks were highest priority. Affordable housing rose in prominence over the years. Streetscape and sidewalk improvements that make living without a car possible in the first place are a constant need that needs funding. Architecture, once hideous, has improved. Here is a longer post on Arlington, the site plan review process and parking.
The ability to leverage minimums is not just an Arlington quirk where T-3.5 bumps up against T-6. In a review of its station area policies, Charlotte N.C. hired the Lawrence Group to review its TOD policies and neighborhood compatibility. In the report, titled “Review of Charlotte’s PED and TOD Districts for Neighborhood Compatibility,” a must-read discussion (Page 8) comes to the same conclusion: keep your minimums, but signal they are a tool. Don’t give away your bargaining position when setting parking policies.
I realize there is now a great deal of support for streamlining developer requirements for TODs. Setting standards and getting rid of extraneous process are seen as critical for supporting smart growth. But AB 904 would not have only eliminated minimums, it would have deep-sixed the strongest negotiating card cities have to orchestrate a dizzying array of planning goals and lessen impacts. One of the reasons the parking space avoidance card is so strong is (1) unlike other quality of life amenities, spaces are easy to quantify in dollars and (2) those spaces are expensive. Yes TODs must reign in valuable space for people, not parking and yes, Mr. Shoup offers tons of innovative ways to do so. In some cases, blanket elimination of minimums will work. But not all - and that is at the core of the feud.
The bottom line is planners should not be after the best parking plan (or stormwater district or complete streets....). We should be in the business of making great places that thrive over time. Perhaps we have less a parking fetish than a streamlining obsession? Should some Planning Departments be trusted with negotiations and others not? Sounds like my next night out.