Greater Greater Washington

Parking minimums undermine Montgomery zoning changes

Montgomery County is rewriting its zoning code, but the proposed draft leaves old minimum parking requirements largely in place. This obstructs the very growth the county wants to encourage.


Townhouses in Colesville. Photo by thecourtyard on Flickr.

Outside downtowns with parking districts, almost all new housing will still need 2 off-street parking spaces per dwelling, even in mixed-use or multi-family residential areas.

Parking minimums drive up the cost of housing unnecessarily. Developers want to sell what they build; they will include parking to meet the demand from future residents. Extra spaces just add costs.

The added expense bites hardest in the less affluent sections of the county, where a transit-riding populace struggles with infrastructure built for cars. Parking minimums could stymie the needed revitalization of corridors like New Hampshire Avenue, University Boulevard, and Veirs Mill Road.

Formulas for Bethesda and Silver Spring won't work countywide

Parking minimums like these did not impede the county's first wave of transit-oriented development, centered on the expensive downtowns of Bethesda and Friendship Heights. Rents and condo prices there are high enough to cover the cost of underground parking even if it goes unused.

In Silver Spring, where rents are lower, the county lifted the parking burden off developers' shoulders by building massive garages at taxpayer expense.

But the county can't afford to endlessly replicate the vast subsidies that went into downtown Silver Spring. Nor can the Bethesda model of luxury housing and expensive retail be copied everywhere. It would drive out current residents, and in any case there are only so many places where the market would support it.

The county needs a new model of revitalization, one that upgrades existing neighbor­hoods without displacing their population. This will not happen as long as off-street parking requirements make anything but luxury residences too expensive to build.

Decaying strip malls illustrate the problem. Planners hope that the strip malls can be rebuilt in a more urban style, with stores that open onto the sidewalk, a few floors of apartments above, and a parking garage behind the buildings. A row of duplexes, facing the single-family homes across the street, could complete the back side of such a development. Duplex housing, now very rare in the county, is more affordable for both the tenant and the owner (the rent helps pay the mortgage).

But under the zoning code, a developer cannot sell a duplex unless it has 4 parking spaces of its own. The cost of building 4 spaces in a parking garage is over $100,000enough to put an otherwise affordable home far out of reach for a middle-class buyer.

Parking minimums serve a different purpose in single-family neighborhoods

Regardless of whether parking minimums are good policy, planners have sound political reasons for keeping them in Montgomery's single-family zones. They preserve the bargain that underlies the county's land use policy: keep single-family neighborhoods the way they are while promoting smart growth near transit.

Parking requirements serve a different purpose in suburban neighborhoods than in cities like DC. While the District's debate over minimums revolves around "spillover" that deprives residents of places to park, Montgomery homeowners would have space to put their cars with or without minimums because of two other laws.

The minimum lot sizes in the zoning code guarantee that every house has at least 60 feet of curb space. That is more than enough room for two cars, if there were no driveway. The resident parking permit program ensures that outsiders cannot park in those spaces.

Instead of guaranteeing space for cars, the rules effectively ensure that on-street spaces will usually be empty. Except in a few older neighborhoods where houses don't have driveways, mostly around Takoma Park, that's what housing subdivisions have always looked like in Montgomery. For many homeowners, car-free curbs are an essential element of their neighborhoods' suburban character, and the county has promised to preserve that for single-family zones as it becomes more urban elsewhere.

But minimum parking rules apply to commercial and apartment zones as well. There, off-street parking requirements are counterproductive. Left to its own devices, the real estate building and lending market will provide all the parking that is needed and more. The planning department should abolish parking minimums for mixed-use and multifamily residential zones, as DC is doing.

Ben Ross was president of the Action Committee for Transit for 15 years. His new book about the politics of urbanism and transit, Dead End: Suburban Sprawl and the Rebirth of American Urbanism, is published by Oxford University Press. 

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Abolish mandatory automobiling!

by Phil LaCombe on Apr 30, 2012 3:37 pm • linkreport

It is kind of infuriating when I see a block of houses, all with driveways (that you can usually fit two or more cars into) and the curb spots are restricted to residents only. If you're at a point where all of your vehicles won't fit into the driveway lets have some acknowledgement that someone (likely a teen driver in the house) may have to walk a little bit every once in a while.

In my neighborhood (technically the one adjacent) the blocks close to the metro don't all curb side parking. Which makes sense but there has got to be something for people who occaisonally have visitors who can't find a place to park because the street parking on the blocks that allow it is taken up and I don't have guest passes because I don't live in the special zone.

by Canaan on Apr 30, 2012 3:52 pm • linkreport

On street parking should be for visitors and there should be ample parking for owners and renters off the public space.

Sadly it seems too often GGW considers multi modal trnaportation to mean excluding cars and giving preference to everything else.

by Anon on Apr 30, 2012 8:52 pm • linkreport

@Anon:

ditto

I'm a huge advocate of transit and smart growth, but the ggw vibe is decidedly anti-auto, although some contributors believe in compromise

It's simply not practical for every metro area resident to take transit. This fact obviously hasn't dawned on those who believe we should all live in a car-free, bicycle/bus-only utopia. They don't realize that they can't have their cake and eat it too...

by King Terrapin on Apr 30, 2012 9:15 pm • linkreport

Sadly it seems too often GGW considers multi modal trnaportation to mean excluding cars and giving preference to everything else.

This is a bit like the old "White Males are the last group you can discriminate against" trope. In America, literally *everything* is oriented around automobile travel. Most everything I've read on GGW advocates cutting a thin slice from the public space, and giving it to pedestrians or cyclists.

Really, when someone reads GGW and sees a prejudice towards "excluding cars" it says more about the ubiquity of auto-chauvinism than it does about GGW.

by oboe on Apr 30, 2012 9:29 pm • linkreport

Sadly it seems too often GGW considers multi modal trnaportation to mean excluding cars and giving preference to everything else.

You do realize that this post is merely advocating a rollback of the requirement that developments provide off-street parking, right?

No one is yet proposing less parking, merely that they not be required to provide it. If you wanted to include parking, you could do so.

Sounds rather inclusive, not exclusive.

by Alex B. on Apr 30, 2012 10:32 pm • linkreport

On street parking should be for visitors and there should be ample parking for owners and renters off the public space.

What for? Society functions perfectly well when off street parking spots are optional amenities and locals can choose to park on the street or not have a car at all if they don't want to spend the money on those things. It seems you think that the government should force developers and residents to pay for stuff that they don't necessarily need and do not add to quality of life.

by Tyro on May 1, 2012 5:33 am • linkreport

I think tennis is really important, can I advocate for zoning that forces builders To build tennis courts for all houses.

by Nathaniel on May 1, 2012 6:49 am • linkreport

@ Anon:Sadly it seems too often GGW considers multi modal trnaportation to mean excluding cars and giving preference to everything else.

If you want to see anti-car stuff, go look at the political programs of the green parties in Europe, that are often reigning in major cities (such as Amsterdam). They want to ban trucks, SUVs from downtown. They want to stop giving parking permits to SUVs and all other large cars. They want to close the (shopping) core of downtowns to all cars.

That is anti-car. Asking to not mandate parking spaces with buildings is hardly that. In fact, it's asking Big Government to get out of the way and let the people (developers) decide what's good for them.

by Jasper on May 1, 2012 9:14 am • linkreport

I have to agree with Nathaniel. I'm sick and tired of the vehement anti-tennis ideology of the MoCo board in their refusal to insist on mandatory tennis courts for houses.

by JustMe on May 1, 2012 10:49 am • linkreport

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