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Parking countdown #6: Parking minimums undermine neighborhood retail

This is the fifth of ten daily posts about why the Zoning Commission should approve the Office of Planning recommendations on off-street parking, leading up to the hearing on Thursday, July 31 at 6:30 pm. Please attend and testify if you can, or submit comments to the zoning commission in this thread.

A grocery store on Rhode Island Avenue NE. Photo by AlbinoFlea on Flickr.


Today's topic: How requirements damage the viability of our neighborhood retail.

A common topic of discussion in many neighborhoods is retail. Once upon a time, most people shopped at local stores for groceries, hardware, clothes, or vacuum cleaner repair. Today, more and more commerce happens online, at major mall-like destinations like Georgetown, or in suburban malls.

These trends have harmed neighborhood retail corridors. In some areas, like upper Georgia Avenue, the debate centers around how to bring any successful retail to the area to avoid being nothing more than fast food restaurants, check cashing establishments, and liquor stores. In richer neighborhoods like Dupont Circle and Cleveland Park, it is about maintaining a mix of stores to serve neighborhood uses instead of becoming a monoculture of bars and nightclubs.

Parking requirements undermine these neighborhood efforts. When we require parking, we force residents of newly constructed building to pay for it, either through parking spaces bundled with units or higher housing prices needed to cover the cost of the garages. If residents have already paid for parking, they're more likely to have cars; if residents already have cars, they're more likely to drive when shopping instead of patronizing neighborhood retail.

Along the Rhode Island Avenue retail corridor, retail is struggling as it is in many other areas. When we build new residential buildings with required minimum parking (and often lots of it, those new residents are more likely to drive out to Prince George's Plaza than to visit a nearby establishment on Rhode Island.

With fewer patrons, we have fewer businesses, making it even less appealing to shop in the District. It'll take a lot of work to break out of this vicious cycle. As long as our zoning code subsidizes and encourages driving, it inhibits that process. The Zoning Commission should adopt OP's recommendations and start us down a path toward stronger neighborhood retail.

I may have a reason every day to eliminate parking requirements, but the Zoning Commission needs to hear from more citizens, not just me ten times. Please write your own comments for the Zoning Commission here and testify on the 31st.

David Alpert is the founder of Greater Greater Washington and its board president. He worked as a Product Manager for Google for six years and has lived in the Boston, San Francisco, and New York metro areas in addition to Washington, DC. He now lives with his wife and two children in Dupont Circle. 


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Have you been reading Don Shoup?

by Kenf on Jul 24, 2008 7:48 pm • linkreport

Yes. I think most of us on the side of removing minimums are at least familiar with Shoup's book.

Remove minimums, Charge market-based varying rates for on-street space, and invest the money very locally is basically the Shoup mantra.

by Michael on Jul 24, 2008 10:47 pm • linkreport

Interesting that you mention 'major mall locations like Georgetown' - G'town Park Mall is hurting, few shoppers except at the stores that have a street entrance, developer can't sign a major dept store (Nordies and Bloomies turned it down.) They do have lots of underground parking. What does that say about parking? It does show the value of the walkable context.

by lou db on Jul 24, 2008 11:59 pm • linkreport

"When we build new residential buildings with required minimum parking (and often lots of it, those new residents are more likely to drive out to Prince George's Plaza than to visit a nearby establishment on Rhode Island."

Sounds like you want to eliminate parking for new residential buildings in order limit the opportunities of new residents so that they won't be able to drive to other areas to shop, or for that matter reach jobs that are not readily accessible by mass transit, and will be forced to shop at the local stores.

by J on Jul 25, 2008 7:38 am • linkreport

J: It's the opposite. But good question because I know I didn't make this point super clearly in the piece.

Current parking minimums are forcing people to invest the sunk costs in having cars already. Once you've invested in a car, an incremental car trip is very cheap and easy, so people tend to take lots of car trips. If we stop forcing residents to pay for cars, many of them won't need to invest the large amount of upfront money in buying a car, insuring it, repairing it, etc. and on a day to day basis are more able to make a real choice between going to PG Plaza or patronizing neighborhood retail (and Zipcars are available when people need to go buy really big items).

by David Alpert on Jul 25, 2008 8:26 am • linkreport

Eliminating parking minimums also gives people more choice in living arrangements and housing. If I want to live my life without a car, why should I have the price of a parking space that is of absolutely no use to me bundled into the price of my housing?

by kenf on Jul 25, 2008 8:36 am • linkreport

kenf asked:"why should I have the price of a parking space that is of absolutely no use to me bundled into the price of my housing?"

That's easy, if you don't need it, then rent it out or sell it (if allowed.) If it's there and you don't need it personally, it still has value. If it's not there it's value that is just plain not there.

The problem with a lot of this "don't build the roads and they won't come" concept is that it strives to achieve its "efficient use" of resources by relying on mechanisms that cause "no growth". This is static thinking because it overlooks the fact that efficiency gets geometrically increased as you increase choices ... which is something the automobile (as a form of personal transportation that can take and your things almost anywhere you want to be at almost any time) has done for us.

by Lance on Jul 25, 2008 2:28 pm • linkreport

kenf asked:"why should I have the price of a parking space that is of absolutely no use to me bundled into the price of my housing?"

Also, the minimum parking requirements are far below one space per unit, so developers aren't required to bundle the spaces with housing--there wouldn't be enough spaces! If you choose housing with bundled parking, you have available the reasonable options Lance gave, but with a parking requirement of one space for every four units, the minimum parking requirement that couldn't possibly make it difficult for you to rent or buy a unit without parking.

by J on Jul 25, 2008 2:51 pm • linkreport

The value people can get for the spaces doesn't equal the cost of the spaces in the first place. An underground space costs about $60,000 to build and $33 per month for maintenance; if rented at $200/month, it will take 29.9 years to pay off the space.

Therefore, even if people sell them on the market, they're paying more for them. If it's bundled, that's the resident; if it's not bundled, it's the developer, but in order to make a profit on the building, the developer has to charge more for the apartments because they're not making money on the spaces.

At the Highland Park development in Columbia Heights, the developer, only 5% of residents are paying for a space. And the developer is having a hard time renting the spaces to anyone else. The more parking we force on the market, the more we'll have an oversupply, pushing prices down even more. Not only do lower prices make it even harder to make back one's investment on parking, but they artificially make car ownership cheaper—a societal subsidy for car ownership.

Plus, think of it this way: if people could just rent out parking spaces for enough money, developers would build them on their own to make profit. They're not doing that. But if they were, then there'd still be no need for minimums, because developers would just build more parking on their own.

by David Alpert on Jul 25, 2008 3:53 pm • linkreport

With a minimum requirement of only one space for every four units, how can you interpret this as requiring the builder to bundle the spaces with the units? And if he wants to bundle, won't the builder run out of spaces, unless 3/4 of his units are vacant or he voluntarily builds more than the minimum parking?

For Highland Park, you say that only 5% of the residents are paying for a space, but you haven't said whether some of the residents of the building might own vehicles that they park on the street in order to save the rent on the spaces? Isn't it car ownership, not off-street spaces rented when looking at how this change will affect the rest of the neighborhood?

by Tom on Jul 25, 2008 4:13 pm • linkreport

Tom said:

"For Highland Park, you say that only 5% of the residents are paying for a space, but you haven't said whether some of the residents of the building might own vehicles that they park on the street in order to save the rent on the spaces?"

You raise a good point. The problem here are the "free" spaces on the street subsidized by the taxpayer. There was a time in this city where that curbside space wasn't viewed as a longterm parking alternative (e.g., the 72 rule where cars couldn't stay longer than 72 hours in one spot). If the curbside parking was properly costed, then you would find garages filled. Another thing to note is that Columbia Heights is far from being fully developed. Give it 10 years and when it gets where (for example) Adams Morgan is now, those garage spaces will be filled. And THEN it would be too late to add the parking needed ...

by Lance on Jul 25, 2008 6:37 pm • linkreport

Lance - Why will it be too late in 10 years to add needed parking? If owners of cars are willing to pay full freight for their parking spaces, landowners will tear down apartment buildings and build parking garages, just as landowners in downtown over the last two decades have been tearing down parking garages and building office buildings because tenants have been willing to pay more for office space than for parking spaces.

Yes, I doubt that it's going to happen, as I'm sure you do. But that's because parking in ten years will not be "needed" as much as housing and office space.

by Ben Ross on Jul 25, 2008 8:33 pm • linkreport


What you say is true ... i.e., that commericial space is more profitable than garage space. Commercial space is also more profitable than residential space, however that doesn't mean we let developers tear down any and all residences to build commercial buildings ... at least not since zoning rules went into effect in the 1950s. Without regulations prohibiting this "highest use" to be played out, we'd probably have no walkable residential neighborhoods left in DC. Look at the area below Dupont Circle and compare it to the area north of it and you'll see how this "highest use" conversion got stopped in its tracks with the implementation of zoning. Yes, each individual developer benefited best by razing rowhouses and townhouses and building office buildings, but the city as a whole (and Dupont) paid the price for the developers' benefits by losing streets and streets of neighborhoods.

The parking problem is similar. Each and every developer can make more profit by building a commercial building and taking away parking (or housing) to do so, but the city and the community pays the price by having to absorb the parking that that building pushes out into the streets and in to existing garages. There is no direct incentive for most builders to provide sufficient parking if not mandated to do so. They know that most of their building's parking needs can be pushed out on to other building's parking garages and the city streets to satisfy. They can maximize their individual profits by letting the parking issues become society's issues. And when enough of them do this, you will even find the city itself paying to construct these parking garages as we see in places like downtown Bethesda. Forcing developers to provide parking sufficient to satisfy their needs is a win win situation. As long as ALL developers must adhere to these requirements ALL benefit equally from this added value being brought to the community.

by Lance on Jul 26, 2008 8:52 am • linkreport

I'm sorry, but as someone who usually travels on foot or by transit I don't benefit when I'm forced to subsidize somebody else's driving.

Surely you'll agree that sleeping and eating are more fundamental human needs than driving. Yet we don't require an office building to contain bedrooms for all the people who work in the building. We don't require cafeterias - we allow a building's eating needs to be pushed out onto other buildings' restaurants. Why should cars be treated differently? If drivers are willing to pay the cost of providing parking, they should get parking, but they shouldn't be subsidized by non-drivers as they are now.

by Ben Ross on Jul 26, 2008 10:26 am • linkreport

"Why should cars be treated differently?"

Simple, they allow you a way of life that otherwise would be unsustainable. Without the efficiency that allows maybe not you but others to navigate a metro area stretching at least a 100 miles from east to west and north to south, you wouldn't enjoy the lifestyle you are now enjoying. Think 1880s when the first private plumbing was coming about and people slept on back porches in the summer because of lack of air conditioning. And that's not even touching on the fact that just about everything you eat and wear has been transported to you. Yes, you may be priviledged and be able to afford to spend your life on foot because others have driven around getting things to you (think, for example, the waiter who drove from Springfield to serve you your latte), but not everyone is. It's living in a bubble to think you can enjoy a 21st century lifestyle without the automobile.

by Lance on Jul 26, 2008 12:17 pm • linkreport


Sure, cars allow a way of life that is otherwise unsustainable. The problem is, that way of life is quickly becoming unsustainable anyway, due to the rapidly increasing price of the energy it requires. We have to change that immediately if we want anybody (aside from a very privileged few) to have a standard of living that even remotely resembles what we have today. One of the first steps in what will be a long, difficult, and hugely expensive process (that is nonetheless necessary to the survival of society as we know it) is to recreate a built environment that allows people to live without a car. Zoning codes that require too much parking get in the way of that. Let the market, which right now is moving towards less car usage, dictate how much parking is necessary.

I might even go so far as to say that one who thinks that a car should be necessary in the 21st century is living in a bubble, but I digress.

by Adam on Jul 26, 2008 2:02 pm • linkreport

"The problem is, that way of life is quickly becoming unsustainable anyway, due to the rapidly increasing price of the energy it requires."

Adam, we've been down this road before ... in the 70s ... What you say wasn't true then and isn't any truer now. The last time oil prices went up like this, they later dropped to all time lows (in real dollars.) Why? The spike in prices encouraged so much more exploration that we got deluged in cheap oil. Also, that previous spike moved us to where we now drive cars that operate at efficiencies (i.e., mpg) unheard of back then. (Your average car back then got between 5 and 11 miles to the gallon.) Renewable energy sources came along, etc. etc. The clock of progress doesn't tick backwards, it ticks forward. We live in the world we live in because people and things and communications can easily move great distances on flexible schedules.

by Lance on Jul 26, 2008 3:14 pm • linkreport

Well, to Lance, if it were simply a matter of the cost of the gasoline, one could take comfort from your projection that the price of energy will not continue to be such a burden on auto-mobility (moving great distances on flexible schedules). But the cost of gas is such a small slice of the overall problem. There is so many more costs to using cars to achieve that flexibility: pollution per mile traveled, the lost productive time of the driver, the time cost of congestion, the land and green space lost to other productive use in order to park, and on and on. So much more, Lance.

by lou dc on Jul 26, 2008 3:31 pm • linkreport

Also, in the 70s, oil production hadn't peaked. Even if it hasn't peaked now (although an increasing number of estimates suggest that it has) the supply of oil is not infinite. Demand will keep increasing unless we do something about it.

by Adam on Jul 26, 2008 5:29 pm • linkreport

Adam, if oil had peaked like you say, we would long ago have tapped into Alaska. Known reserves of oil already discovered (i.e., not counting the vast amount still out there) is not something we can ever exhaust in our lifetimes. And then there is coal that can be turned into oil, etc. etc. This is a temporary glitch caused by China and India suddenly needing a lot of oil and exacerbated by the dollar losing half its value since 2000 as well as the real threat that Israel might decide to take out Iran and its oil supplies. All this shall pass eventually ...

by Lance on Jul 26, 2008 11:22 pm • linkreport

Lance, you need to do a bit more research on oil depletion - basically everything you've posted here is utterly, dangerously wrong.

Re: Alaska - I'll ignore your non sequitor that we have to have tapped Alaska before world oil peaks. The thing is - we *did* long ago tap into Alaska, right after we accepted that the US had reached peak oil, was in continuous production decline, and would therefore be subservient to OPEC. Prudhoe Bay's rapid, dirty development gave us a moderate bump, but didn't do anything much other than push back the production curve by eight years or so:

Re: 5mpg - The data disagrees. Here is the data for new cars:

That's a 55% increase. New combined-type average, meanwhile, only went up around 25% due to the increase in truck and SUV sales. The total US fleet average increase was much slower and much less. Here's household fuel consumption, which hasn't shifted much since the recession of the early 80's (the biggest one since the 30's) -

Re: Reserves - Oil fields are not simple storage tanks for oil. What you're suggesting is akin to saying "I'm estimating that there are 10,000 squirrels on this hunting preserve, I could shoot ten per hour for a thousand hours.." In reality, you'll start out without any hunting skills, and slowly develop them shooting the dumb, the injured, and the sick squirrels. As you kill more of them, you'll eventually peak in efficiency, when the scarcity of squirrels results in you having to walk around to find any to shoot, and the survivors are all running away at the merest hint of your footstep. You may end up being able to kill a few an hour for a very long time, but killing the last few hundred squirrels (who may have found a hollow tree to hide in, or have excellent hearing) is going to take forever. That's the scenario with harvesting any depletable resource that has deposits of varying quality, and a constant desire for the resource.

In the case of oil and other resources with a general demand, a large enough number of competing suppliers, and reasonably bottom-up exploration & exploitation circumstances - that bell curve of production is approximately symmetrical. Hubbert et al posited fifty years ago that the peak in production occurred at approximately half of the ultimate recovery amount, and it has proven roughly correct in numerous countries and fields since then.

The best demonstration that we are at the peak that I can give is the correlation between the sudden stasis in oil production figures in late 2004, and the gradual increase in price since then, without a budge in production:

You can say what you want about US government policy on drilling, but that certainly doesn't hold for the entire oil producing world, which should have jumped at the opportunity of $100+ oil to open the taps.

Re: the devaluation of the dollars - And how do you explain that the price of oil is at record levels even denominated in the appreciating Euro?

Regarding all of this - where are you getting your assurance exactly that Everything Will Be Okay and It Will Be Just Like Last Time? There are a lot of professional petroleum geologists that are very scared about the current circumstances. I recommend you read sometime.

Ultimately, we may end up utterly trashing the environment (strip-mining the plains, poisoning our rivers, removing all the mountaintops, melting Greenland & thereby losing Florida, mercurizing our fisheries, freezing Europe, creating a North American Brown Cloud to match the Asian one) instead of giving up our industrial lifestyle or implementing renewables. Coal, tar sands, and tar shales are orders of magnitude dirtier than the crude oil and natural gas that we are running out of. Fortunately or unfortunately, they're also much harder to harvest. To get at our shales you have to freeze a large circular area of Colorado, then melt the center with megawatts of power for *years*, then separate out the oil using a river's worth of steam. In the Canadian Tar Sands (which look like the Moon), they're running into problems ramping up because they've ran out of river water.

The current energy debate, where it happens in serious terms, is not even particularly about whether Peak Oil exists or not (the oil companies havn't gotten around to propagandizing on that, they've been busy with Global Warming)... it's about which path to take to fix it. The Hirsch Report recommends a crash coal to liquids program starting 20 years before the peak to stave off serious discomfort - with rapidly mounting consequences the later it's started.

Gore's call for an emergency program to rapidly implement 100% renewable energy in a decade is really not completely unreasonable if you study the issue. I say this understanding the trillions it would require, and the shape our economy is in. Because if we don't get this right, there are worse things in store. It's not going to blow over if we don't think about it.

by Squalish on Jul 27, 2008 1:59 am • linkreport

Squalish, it sounds like the perfect storm. I remember hearing people describe the same possibilities 30 years ago. I guess we were just lucky then that none of these perfect storm elements actually happened then.

In the movies, all the "if's" always happen ...

by Lance on Jul 27, 2008 9:38 am • linkreport

It's not a perfect storm, it's an eventuality. Everyone hopes that it isn't happening anytime soon, and have largely ignored it because they don't know how they would deal with it. We live in a world where we are utterly dependent on a finite resource. Such a world can't sustain a smooth increase in production, or even a flat consumption, forever.

Thirty years ago we had massive interest in the subject because suddenly, for the first time ever, our economy survived at the pleasure of OPEC. We went from the top oil-producing nation in the world from 1900-1970 to number three or four, and felt crisis conditions because of our sudden increase in imports. So all of a sudden, we (and at the time, much of the world's oil industry, by extension) started a panicked search for more fields, for more oil, for energy alternatives, for conservation measures of all folds.

Then, the world hit the 2nd worst recession of the 20th century at the same time that oilfields everywhere were coming online from the boom of the 70's. Given the moderate supply glut, OPEC's national leaders suddenly had to compete with each other in order to meet the year's budget - the cartel largely ceased its aggressive stance of the previous decade, compounding things further. The extended low price of oil, for the next decade or two, resulted in the collapse of much of the free market oil industry (the survivors were corporate mega-mergers), the firing of most of its employees, the cancellation of almost all the conservation and renewable research started in the 70's, and enough cheap oil that we could continue Project Suburbia for another decade and a half without serious trade deficits.

A string of four or five freak cold winters in a row isn't enough to convince a climate scientist that his impeccable models for anthropogenic climate change on the scale of centuries are incorrect. It's more than enough to convince the media, the public perception, Congress, and his grant providers, in that order. A decade later, when a random country suffers a random complete crop failure and millions starve, he may be invited back to the public discourse now that there's a fresh panic in everybody's minds. That doesn't change the outcomes of his model, or the steady rise in CO2 concentration for the time he was out of work, or the fact that the world is much closer to the brink at the end of his sabbatical than at the beginning.

If McCain won the White House and opened the SPR to flood the market with cheap oil for an extended period, the amount you would hear about the entirely unrelated concept of Peak Oil would drop to a dim whine from academics as well. That wouldn't increase the validity of writing their concerns off next time the public has need to panic - particularly since the statistics appear to agree that the eventualities they fear are here.

by Squalish on Jul 30, 2008 2:05 am • linkreport

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