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Thursday
Feb162012

A-park-olypse Arlington - what hath Donald Shoup wrought?

I have a confession.  In my early planning years, I wrote tons of policy recommendations on removing barriers to better development outcomes, including parking. I am a dyed in the wool Shoupista
But lately I am wondering if we have festishized policy to the point of missing the how-to of getting really good urban planning. 

This installment is about Arlington - or rather hub-bub over parking for a new development project that might unintentionally set new precedent for long-term policy.  But before we get to the hub-bub, a little history about the corridor.

In the 1970's Arlington Virginia made a now-famous decision to pay for undergrounding the subway corridor (because of economic reasons, not grammatical purity). The County made a deal with local residents: if you agree to put LOTS of density along this spine, we will cap and taper heights down to the neighborhoods, and set a boundary across which density will not jump.  Less advertised is the deal to also initiate a process called site plan review.   The deal goes like this: developers could go right ahead and build under their as-of-right suburban zoning, or come to table and hammer out details of their project.  Needless to say, the density allowances mean most developers come to the table to talk design review, regulatory relief, and community benefit proffers. The photo below shows this subway spine - S.F. means single-family (for more info - read Kaid Benfield’s post on the corridor here).

Over the years, parking has become the highest stakes element in the process, mainly because relief from the as-of-right parking requirements can save hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of dollars (because underground parking is expensive).  When I sat in on such negotiations, the process became a kabuki dance of finding the right mix of proffer and relief from the strictures of out of date zoning.  At times, we neighborhoods overplayed our hand, and others, developers would throw in extras.  That's how site plan works.

So what's the kerfuffle now?  It looks like there is a push to replace the out-of-date parking ratios with a suite of new parking policies.  For example, maximum parking ratios would be put in place.  For those new to the issue, most suburban zoning codes require minimum parking ratios, for example a minimum of four spaces per 1000 square feet of retail space.  The developer can add more, and in fact often do.  Maximum allotments say "you can only build this many, you can build fewer spaces, or pay a hefty price for spaces above the allotment."  In Arlington, car ownership is really low, due to a combination of the subway, great bus service and the land use mix.  

But here's the problem.  If you take out the old ratios, you take out the biggest leverage you have to get and keep developers at the table.  In the negotiation stage, proffer funds are often sought to improve the walk, bike and transit amenities that support a car-free lifestyle (and as a result make lowered parking space requirements work in the first place).  Site plan review is also needed because, as the photo reveals, the transition from ultra-high density to single family neighborhoods takes place in a matter of blocks.  Making this work is a delicate, negotiated process that takes place building by building.  Parking is not the only objective to work out.  Neighbors have been able to get stipulations on operations that make life next to a 10 story building not just tolerable, but enjoyable. The same goes for design objectives, parks, trees, and historic preservation, though parking can be used as the lever to get the mix of amenities right depending on the particular location in the corridor.

I know Arlington is extremely proud of its smart growth credentials; having old suburban parking ratios on the books just seems to run counter to having a great smart growth program.  But here is the kicker: the “barrier” language is actually essential to getting smart growth, not stopping it. The key to smart growth success is not just in code, but in negotiations: the higher the ratios, the stronger the hand.  If you are saving a developer $50,000 it’s one thing, but $2 million? Why would anyone choose to water down their bargaining position?

And the timing is befuddling.  While some cities are changing codes to become more business friendly, Arlington doesn’t need it, at least not in the corridor.  In fact, businesses locate to the corridor because of the transit and walk investments. I've been told that there are plenty of infrastructure funds now, but we are talking about a policy change that could extend into a future with fewer public dollars.  In a state like Virginia at this political point in time - there is no going back, no do-overs.   

For my colleagues out there on the stump for better code language, this is not a jab.  Rather, I think we need to get a better hold on the definition of success:  is it neat policies and “clean code,” or is it successful smart growth and redevelopment projects?   They are not always the same thing and as this post points out, cities and counties can retain older code not because they are bad at what they do, but because they are really good.