by: Tracy Zafian, Research Fellow
In December, Hartford, Connecticut became the 2nd major U.S. city and 3rd largest North American city to eliminate mandatory minimum parking requirements citywide for development projects. Hartford follows in the footsteps of Buffalo, New York and Mexico City, where parking requirements were eliminated over the past year.
As described by Streetblog, Mexico City, the largest city in North America (2017 population: 8.8 million) went even further, capping the number of allowed parking spaces for new developments (at 1 parking space for every 30 square meters, or 323 square feet) and implementing a new fee on any new central city development including more than 50% of the maximum parking allowed. Revenues from the new fee will be used for subsidized housing and transit improvements. New parking requirements include bicycle parking for new building developments in Mexico City. Goals of the new policy include reducing traffic, improving air quality, and making housing more affordable. With the new regulations, existing parking spaces can be converted to other uses.
Buffalo, New York eliminated its minimum parking requirements as part of an overhaul of its zoning bylaws and shift to form-based zoning. The change to a form-based code is “aimed at reinvigorating Buffalo’s vibrant neighborhoods, capitalizing on its good civic “bones” (including a radial street pattern), and emphasizing urban sustainability” wrote Daniel Baldwin Hess while describing the parking changes. Hess describes Buffalo’s situation further: “Even with lower minimum parking requirements than other cities, approximately 28% of land area in Buffalo’s city center is used for parking but only 63% percent of parking spaces are occupied on an average weekday. This excess is compounded by low parking prices sin municipal parking lots, and structures.An abundance of inexpensive parking encourages people to drive and weakens the need to seek out other travel methods for commuting to work.”
A 2014 national meeting of the Congress for New Urbanism in Buffalo and lectures by Donald Shoup, a ULCA urban planning professor who has researched and written extensively about the expense of parking minimums provided the impetus for city planners in Buffalo to revise their zoning and eliminate their parking requirements. In his book The High Cost of Free Parking, Shoup describes how Los Angeles’s requirement of one parking space per every 250 square feet of retail space can can nearly double the cost of building a shopping center. Such costs are then passed on to customers but they offer no benefit to those who don’t own cars, who are predominantly low-income. Shoup has written about situation in Los Angeles in the 1990s where historical downtown buildings were mostly vacant above the ground floor but couldn’t be renovated for housing because of a requirement at the time that each housing unit have two parking spaces. A city planner proposed, and received approval for a new ordinance -the Adaptive Reuse Ordinance; this ordinance allows historical buildings to be exempt from the parking requirements when being converted to housing. Although initially there were concerns, within 8 years of the ordinance’s passage, 57 historical downtown building were fully restored into housing.
Buffalo faced similar issues with historical building preservation and downtown development. The elimination of the minimum parking rules will make them easier. In Buffalo, the City Council can still decide to require parking for new developments larger than 5,000 square feet. Hartford, Connecticut has no such requirement.
In Hartford, the requirements for parking spaces for downtown projects were eliminated two years ago; at that time parking mandates were also dropped for retail and service land uses citywide. Now, the parking requirements have been removed for all uses, except for a few such as car dealerships (Connecticut State law requires parking) and a few large uses, such as stadiums, where parking will be reviewed on a case-by-case basis.
Sara Bronin, chair of Hartford’s Planning and Zoning Commission was quoted in a recent Streetblog article, “There have been some buildings that have been renovated downtown in a much faster and more efficient way by not having to provide as much parking,” she told Streetsblog. “Because of that we felt that it was time to bring that same benefit to developments citywide.” As in Mexico City and Buffalo, Hartford’s parking changes are expected to promote alternative transportation and a healthy environment. According to Bronin, about 42% of Hartford’s land area includes impermeable surfaces which contributes to water pollution. Says Bronin, “For me, the environmental implications were really important….We also believe that in deemphasizing parking we will make our neighborhoods more livable.”
There are other cities that, though they have not yet eliminated parking requirements, they have either do so partially, such as in downtown areas, or are considering doing so. A 2015 crowdsourced map by the nonprofit Strong Towns shows that dozens of cities, mostly small ones have implemented or proposed eliminating their minimum parking requirements. Over time, people like Shoup believe that more communities, both larger and smaller cities, will make this change.