Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Let the market decide how many spaces to build

There's a lot of chatter about a proposed development on an otherwise-unused piece of land in Allston. It's been mentioned in the Boston Globe, on The Atlantic Cities and elsewhere. It's not the size of the development, but what it lacks: the property owner plans to build 44 apartments without a single private parking space.

Boston, like most other cities, has minimum parking requirements for new development. This is the case even though much of the older housing stock has no parking, and it still perfectly habitable and in many cases quite desirable. But since the 1950s, adding housing without adding lots of parking has been frowned upon. In order to have even a chance to get the plan through the zoning board, the developer, Sebastian Mariscal, is throwing out all sorts of mitigation efforts. These include public green space, private gardens for each unit, storage units, bike parking (two spots per unit) and storage lockers. But he goes further still: he proposes making each resident sign a lease addendum that, while living in the development, they will not own a car.

It is this rather radical part of the plan that has gotten a lot of attention, and in some cases, praise. I don't fault Mariscal for proposing it, but he shouldn't have to. The minimum number of parking spaces a developer builds should be dictated by the market, not by the zoning board of appeals. If a developer wants to build a lower number of parking spaces than would be allowable, they should darn well be able to. Forcing them to build more spaces increases the cost of each unit, which in turn reduces the amount of housing available, which in turn raises the cost for everyone.

Neighbors may whine about the potential for reduced parking availability clogged streets and gridlock, but their complaints should fall on tin ears. There is no guaranteed right to parking. Especially in a neighborhood like Allston, which, as the Atlantic points out, is mostly pavement, there should be ample parking available to those who need it. If the area is developed enough that there is a dearth of parking (and 44 units won't do this), someone who owns a driveway or parking lot will rent spaces. Then residents can use the marketplace to decide between the cost of a guaranteed, monthly parking spot and the time it takes to search for street parking.

Cities should have a vested interest in making sure that parking is not overbuilt. Too much parking raises the cost of housing, detracts from street life and, as cost for parking falls, disincentivizes the use of alternative modes of transportation. But disallowing projects because they fail to provide parking only serves to drive up the cost of housing, increase congestion and pollution and, in turn, detract from the city's tax base as less housing is built. In addition, if more parking is built than required, it can lead to half-empty concrete parking hulks which have too much sunk cost to be converted to another use (see: Kendall Square). Plus, Allston has plenty of parking, even though you don't need a car. The proposed housing is a stone's throw from a drug store, a major supermarket, half a dozen bus lines and the streetcar. It's a place that doesn't need parking. So why force it to be built?

Toronto has allowed a skyscraper—first proposed in 2011—to go forward with 42 stories, 315 units and no parking spaces. The developer said "if we couldn’t sell a unit without providing a parking spot, then we wouldn’t be selling those units. The proof is in the pudding—we sold 270 units without parking in nine days." And, so far, Toronto has not (yet) devolved in to a gridlock of traffic looking for a parking space.

Lack of parking is a perfect instance in which the free market should take charge. It's high time that cities stop meddling in developers way and let them build the housing they want to build, whether it has "enough" parking or not.


  1. The problem is that on-street spaces are effectively free, but scarce, so there isn't really a market for them. But people feel entitled to the ones that they can get, and will do whatever they feel is necessary to protect "their" space. I have to wonder if it might be possible to get parking reform by having a more market-based system of residential parking permits and daytime commercial parking, and getting existing residents to go along with it by buying out the rights that they think they have to "their" street parking.

  2. But there is a market for on-street spaces! Instead of paying in money, you pay in aggravation. If it's really hard to find parking spaces, fewer people have cars. And if there are draconian street sweeping rules, fewer people have cars (see York, New). Parking permit systems can be added on top of this, but currently Boston, Cambridge and Somerville charge way too little for permits ($25 for a year in Cambridge, which is $2 a month!). If parking becomes too costly based on a combination of these factors, people will vote with their feet, moving themselves or moving their cars.