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Parking minimums irrelevant to Georgetown waterfront

At the Zoning Commission hearing on parking minimums a month ago, opponents of parking reform argued that removing minimums would cause widespread chaos. Barbara Zartman, of the Committee of 100, used her neighborhood of Georgetown as an example of a neighborhood built without minimums. She was trying to argue that Georgetown's traffic and parking difficulties were a consequence of low minimums, but as I've written, we can also thank the lack of minimums for Georgetown's human-scale streets and walkable, vibrant commercial corridors.

The Incinerator Building, now the Ritz-Carlton Georgetown. Photo by Monika & Tim on Flickr.

Parking doesn't exist in a vacuum. If you require parking when it's not necessary, you don't simply get the same great neighborhood with better curb space availability, you get a more car-oriented neighborhood with streets looking like this.

Zartman defended her points with this comment:

The same could be said of the construction of large residential or mixed-use buildings constructed in Georgetown in the last several decades between the C & O Canal and the river: The Paper Mill, The Flour Mill, the PEPCO building at 3303 Water, the Incinerator Building, and granddaddy of them all, Washington Harbour. All provided parking for their respective uses. Had they not done so, these residents would be competing with the employees and patrons of the restaurants and bars and shops of the Georgetown commercial zones. ... Building new large-scale projects with inadequate (or, heaven help us, no) parking will do just this.
Zartman may be right that building all of these developments with no parking at all might have made parking difficult. But there was no danger of that. In fact, the parking minimum requirements had no effect on these projects. A least for the ones where I could find hard numbers, all exceeded the minimum requirements, sometimes by huge amounts.

Last night, I finally was able to get numbers for three of these buildings (the other two, the Flour Mill and Paper Mill, are older, dating from the 1980s, and information is less readily available):

3303 Water Street: 72 residential units. Current zoning calls for 24 spaces (1 per 3 apartments); the building has 140 spaces, or almost six times the requirement.

Incinerator Building: Now the Ritz-Carlton, the Residences on South Street, and the movie theater. Current zoning requires 1 space per 3 residential units, 1 per 2 hotel rooms, one for each 150 square feet of the largest function room, and 1 per 10 theater seats. There are 28 condos, 86 hotel rooms, and 2,900 theater seats. I don't have the precise figures for the Ritz's largest function room, but their Web site claims 952 square feet of meeting space. If we assume that's all in a single room, then the building would need 349 spaces under the current rules. It has 575.

Washington Harbour: This has 35 condos and 117,409 square feet of commercial space. Zoning requires 1 space per 3 units and one for each 1,800 commercial square feet beyond the first 2,000, for a total of 76 required spaces. They built 100.

In short, our parking minimums had no impact on these projects. Clearly, they built parking based on their own estimates of demand, not based on the rules. If we had taken away the minimum years ago, they still would have built the same amount of parking. Meanwhile, there are projects where these minimums do force parking—and in those cases, like DC USA, it usually turns out to be excessive.

Georgetown's waterfront projects were probably right to build parking. But we didn't need zoning laws to make them do so. Maybe one day we will have a Metro station in Georgetown, and suddenly fewer people will drive to Washington Harbour or the movie theater. If one of those projects is subsequently renovated, or a new project built nearby, and the existing garages are no longer being fully utilized, shouldn't they be able to build the amount of parking the market calls for instead of an arbitrarily imposed minimum?

Opponents of parking reform are confusing removing parking minimums with removing parking altogether. If we passed a law stating that no more off-street parking shall ever be built in DC, I would agree that would cause pain. But that's not what DC proposes. Some opponents claimed we are scheming to rid the city of parking.

Nothing could be further from the truth. I own a parking space. Parking isn't inherently evil (unless it causes a curb cut). But laws that force developers to build parking when it's not appropriate are dangerous and wrong, and they—not freedom-creating reforms—are the true "social engineering."

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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You keep saying that; "Opponents of parking reform are confusing removing parking minimums with removing parking altogether." Yet the regulations contain parking maximums which while not removing parking altogether could cause the effects that Ms. Zartman contemplates.

by local on Aug 27, 2008 12:52 pm • linkreport

Local: The maximums are not yet defined. I would oppose any maximums that are too low. 575 spaces for the incinerator and 100 for the harbour are probably not too high and the maximums should allow that; I'm not sure about 3303 Water which has two spaces per unit. Maybe the maximum should be somewhere between 1 and 2 spaces per unit for residential, though I don't want to get tied down on specifics until we see research from other cities that might help determine the appropriate maximums.

by David Alpert on Aug 27, 2008 1:07 pm • linkreport

David: That's just the thing. You can't tell people that the government won't not allow parking when you have a maximum that will be determined at a later time. What type of research would be used to figure this out? Who would set the applicable standards/goals? Isn't it just better to let the market decide, by removing both the minimum's and maximums? This "government knows best" approach was how we got stuck with crazy minimums in the first place.

by Local on Aug 27, 2008 1:44 pm • linkreport


We set maximums because the market supply of parking not the issue. We set maximum building heights, too. Based on the cases in other cities, the land values in DC clearly would offer some taller buildings if not held back by regulation.

Setting a parking maximum, if done correctly, is merely the regulatory apparatus internalizing the externalities that parking and driving create.

by Alex B. on Aug 27, 2008 2:51 pm • linkreport

Local: We set maximums on housing for people. In fact, one of the criteria that is used to determine maximums on housing for people is that we don't want to cause too much traffic.

Isn't it more important to create housing for people than housing for cars? Is there a reason that maximums on housing for people are good but maximums on housing for cars are bad?

by tt on Aug 27, 2008 2:58 pm • linkreport

Alex B and tt, you provide examples of other regulations that should be changed in order support your idea that a non-market-based approach should be used. I would argue that building heights and density restrictions should be lifted as well, but that doesn't mean we should have parking maximums too.

by Local on Aug 27, 2008 3:58 pm • linkreport

Not only do residential developers in Georgetown far exceed parking minimums (Wormley Row has 22 spaces for 13 condos), areas like Georgetown are also exempt from the elimination of commercial minimums under OP's recommendation. So, in reality OP's recommendation has no direct impact on Georgetown (only the possible indirect impact on less through traffic from Virginia to other parts of DC).

All of this makes me wonder why the Citizens Association of Georgetown decided to take a position against something that doesn't directly impact Georgetown (the Georgetown ANC won't be taking a position for precisely that reason). I would have gladly attended the July CAG meeting in which this was discussed, but CAG does not post their agenda or their minutes on their web site like the ANC does.

by Ken Archer on Aug 27, 2008 4:06 pm • linkreport

I wold guess it is because of the personalities involved with the Committee of 100 who are also on CAG, rather than any independent analysis by CAG itself.

by William on Aug 27, 2008 4:11 pm • linkreport

The free market actually works without silly government regulations! Adam Smith is proven right once again! Imagine that in the People's Republic of D.C.!

by Chuck Coleman on Aug 27, 2008 7:29 pm • linkreport

The excessive amount of parking that these projects are putting in argues for maximums. San Fransisco is progressively converting its minimums to maximums. Some higher density residential zones impose a limit under one space per unit. If we are serious about reducing traffic and the pollution, hazards and general unpleasantness it causes, we need to create maximums. There are better things to do with the resources devoted to all this parking. Certainly there's a transition from an economy based on subsidies for auto use to a sustainable one, but we need to set the right standards to move us there. By ensuring that the user directly pays for parking, we can bridge much of the gap. Pricing on-street parking to ensure availability, and ensuring that the cost of off-street spaces are paid directly by the user will bring demand in line with a reasonable level of supply that will do far less harm to our city and environment.

by Cheryl Cort on Aug 28, 2008 9:16 am • linkreport

Another way of looking at this problem is that the owners of these projects in Georgetown are forcing non-drivers to subsidize drivers. Let's say an underground parking space costs $50,000 to build (reasonable in Georgetown today), the average space is filled 250 days a year, and the daily operating costs are $2. If the building is earning an 8% cap rate, the garage would need to earn $18 of revenues per space per day to carry its weight. If the market price for parking is less than $18 per day, the non-drivers who use the building are subsidizing the drivers.

Parking maximums are one way to prevent this subsidization. Another idea about how to prevent landlords from enforcing this cross-subsidization might be to treat parking lots as common carriers. Spaces must be offered to all comers on equal terms, with no restrictions on how long you can stay in a space. If you offer free parking to customers, you must also offer free parking to people who want to park in your garage and walk to the Metro. An apartment building must charge separately for parking spaces and apartments, and make spaces available to non-tenants at the same price as tenants with no preference for tenants on any waiting list. Such a rule might be applied to all parking, or only to buildings that provide more than a certain amount. I'd be interested in comments on how this might work and how effective it could be.

by Ben Ross on Aug 28, 2008 10:14 am • linkreport

I thought we had agreed that we were going put The Parking Argument(R) on hold for a while...

by Michael P on Aug 28, 2008 10:44 am • linkreport

It's been a while :)

We're not going back to All Parking All The Time, though, at least until there's another really important zoning commission hearing or something.

by David Alpert on Aug 28, 2008 10:48 am • linkreport

Understanding parking in Georgetown starts with the premise that there is not enough of it. Those hundreds and hundreds of socializing patrons at Washington Harbour don’t come by bus; a few may walk, and fewer still come by boat, but the businesses at the Harbour depend on customers who drive.

Ditto the Loew’s theaters across K Street. The garage in the incinerator building offers movie parking for $7; it is frequently full. Far more expensive parking in private lots up Wisconsin and along M Street quickly fills in the evening and on weekends, and patrons drive around, deeper and deeper into residential blocks, looking for a spot.

The amount of parking at the Incinerator was not a developer’s decision, but an intensely negotiated agreement among the community, the National Park Service, and the District government. The land along the river west of the Harbour property was used as flat parking for hundreds of cars for years.

When the incinerator block was assembled by a developer from a mix of private and District holdings, it was agreed that the site would provide replacement capacity for as much of the flat parking on the river as possible, in order to enable the conversion of that land into the Georgetown Waterfront Park that is now nearing completion.

That the same developer chose, at 3303 Water Street, to provide more parking capacity than was required may just have been prudent business. It certainly didn’t cause anyone to buy another car.

For me, putting formulaic maximums on a dynamic element of community life and the local economy to satisfy theoretical constructs is not a direction that offers promise. Neither does entertaining the idea that no parking at all is an acceptable alternative if a less savvy developer decides to cut costs.

Now can parking go back to bed?

by Barbara Zartman on Aug 28, 2008 2:37 pm • linkreport


Perhaps that parking in that particular project didn't induce anyone to buy a car. But that also hits at the essence of the parking problem - a tragedy of the commons. A single action is in the actor's (actor being a developer in this case) best interest, but the collective sum of these actions is not in the city's best interest.

Parking minimums codified this tragedy of the commons for years. Parking maximums attempt to reverse course.

Finally, this kind of stuff should never be considered in isolation. Parking reduction is one thing, but it needs to be accompanied by other transportation strategies - biking, walking, etc in the short term, Metro and the new Blue Line in the long term...

by Alex B. on Aug 28, 2008 3:00 pm • linkreport


Thanks for joining in the debate here.

I have a couple of responses:

First, to the central point: If the incinerator building's parking was the result of a PUD negotiation or something similar, then it wouldn't have been affected by the proposed elimination of minimums.

If we go with the OP proposal to remove most minimums, the community can still advocate for parking using the other tools available. These developments would not have been affected.

To me, this sounds like opposition to a phantom alternate-reality OP proposal. OP is not advocating for no more parking ever, yet you conjure these nightmare scenarios for what would have happened if these projects all got built without parking. Meanwhile, the parking got built having no relationship to the regulations anyway. So what's wrong with scrapping them?

As for maximums, I agree we have to be judicious about those. Since we have no concrete maximum proposal, opposition to that element seems premature. I'll happily join with you in pushing for higher maximums if what's proposed looks too low. We should err on the side of giving greater freedom, and only cap it to avoid the clear and egregious harms.

I disagree that any discussion of Georgetown should take as a given that there's not enough parking. Many people don't drive to Georgetown because there's not more parking. If we have more, there'd be more traffic. Currently, Georgetown is thriving. Therefore, it's doing something right. An alternate reality Georgetown with more parking would necessarily have fewer stores (since the parking must displace something), and would therefore be more suburban, with more driving and less walking. I like Georgetown's urbanism the way it is.

Finally, how do we know nobody bought a car because of the parking? The residents of 3303 Water have 2 spaces per unit. I just did a quick search for 3303 Water and found this listing for a unit that comes bundled with a two-car garage. A family moving in there might well decide to keep two cars, even if they only need one or zero; by having the cars so readily available and parking so convenient, they certainly would take somewhat more vehicle trips than they would otherwise (say, if they had bought an equivalently-priced townhouse without off-street parking).

by David Alpert on Aug 28, 2008 3:31 pm • linkreport

I think Barbara presents her perspective very well. Her premise, that there is not enough parking in Georgetown, leads to the conclusion that market forces are NOT enough to get developers to build enough parking. But how do we know when there is "enough parking"? Let's consider the options.

1) When people are no longer circling the block looking for a space? No. Folks do that because some parking is subsidized (free neighborhood parking, inexpensive meters); market-rate meters on M, Wisconsin and neighborhood streets would stop the cruising for spots.

2) When more people come to Georgetown to shop and dine? No. M, Wisconsin and the Waterfront are packed on Friday and Saturday nights, shoulder-to-shoulder in some places.

3) When non-residents stop parking in the neighborhoods? No. People will continue to park in the neighborhood as long as it's subsidized.

The truth is, there are two different answers to the question of how much parking is enough: 1) When parking is free, and 2) When parking is based on market rates. Nationals Stadium has 1 parking spot per 22 attendees at games, and neighbors feel it is enough. Why? Because the city has put market-rate meters in their neighborhood. The success of that initiative ensures it will be made available to all neighborhoods, and I plan to support it here in Georgetown.

by Ken Archer on Aug 28, 2008 3:49 pm • linkreport

I had similar initial responses to Barbara's comment: It sounds like she argues the case for dropping minimums; Visitors to GT so often drive because the mass transit options are not good. It's true, fewer cars mean more space for people and places they can eat and shop. Better transit options in GT will liberate GT residents with more options as well as visitors.

by Bianchi on Aug 28, 2008 5:00 pm • linkreport

I'm sorry to have missed this debate (although I'm not sorry that it reason for my absence was the beach).

The one thing I can add is that any policy that would have dissuaded the building (and more importantly, the patronizing) of such awful crap as the Georgetown Waterfront is fine by me. I would happily pay a lot of money to make the Water St. and M St. cruising scene go away. Jacking up the price of parking in Georgetown everywhere would be a good start. That would mean setting meters at 8-10 bucks an hour, making the neighborhood parking 2 hour maximum 24 hours a day, and jacking up parking taxes to go directly towards building a Metro stop.

by Reid on Sep 1, 2008 9:36 pm • linkreport

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