The City of Portland has approved numerous massive four- and five-story apartment buildings in neighborhoods of single-family homes separated by streets of single-story shops. These buildings stress the infrastructure built to handle a smaller population, which is most obvious in the increased traffic and parking problems–especially since many of the buildings are designed without parking.
Despite Portland’s reputation as a car-free city, I can attest that neighborhoods that once had few cars parked on the streets are now jammed with cars, indicating far more cars per housing unit than there were a few decades ago. The introduction of apartments lining the business corridors of these neighborhoods has led to huge increases in congestion, which isn’t helped by the fact that the city carefully keeps most signals uncoordinated so that people now frequently drive on neighborhood streets to avoid stopping at frequent red lights.
To allay concerns that the apartments were taking parking away from existing homes and businesses, the city just published a report reviewing the parking situation around eight recent buildings. Four of these had about two-thirds of parking space per dwelling unit on site, while the other four had no on-site parking (page 3). The city’s report found that, even during peak periods, at least 25 percent of on-street parking within two blocks of these buildings was vacant (p. 2).
That was enough to lead the Oregonian to headline its story about the report, “City study finds increase in no-parking apartments but little neighborhood parking impact.” There’s more to the story, however.
First, having parking within two blocks of your home or business doesn’t do much good if you have to lugs bags of heavy groceries or other things to your home or you lose customers because they don’t want to prowl around searching for a parking place and then walk in the rain to your shop. As the study noted, “all locations have areas with high parking demand with one or more blocks at capacity during peak periods. All locations also have other existing businesses and apartments with little or no on-site parking in addition to the project location studied.” A more valid study would have compared the availability of on-street parking before and after the construction of these apartments or in neighborhoods with and without the apartments.
Second, as Willamette Week‘s headline observes, “Apartments Without Parking Don’t Equal Apartments Without Cars, Says City Study.” Residents of the Andria Condos, which have two-thirds of a parking space per unit, own 1.2 cars per unit. EcoFlats Apartments, befitting their name, have no on-site parking yet residents also own 1.2 cars per unit.
Third, the study was careful to stress that on-site parking added around $800 per month to the cost of the apartments. But that’s partly because the city insists on structured parking rather than parking lots (which cost about a tenth as much) and partly because the region’s urban-growth boundary has made land artificially expensive.
UCLA planning professor Donald Shoup has long argued that minimum parking requirements make housing and other construction needlessly expensive. But there is a good reason for such requirements: owners of structures without parking effectively impose their parking costs on someone else. The planning solution–not necessarily endorsed by Shoup–is to replace minimum parking requirements with maximum parking limits, and Portland has done so, especially in the so-called transit-oriented developments that are the subject of this study. This leads to battles over on-street parking.
The Antiplanner’s preferred solution would be to price on-street parking at market rates, thus giving builders incentives to include on-site parking in their plans when demand warrants. Residents of existing neighborhoods should have the opportunity to protect themselves from large apartment buildings through covenants or similar tools, and could even be given the opportunity to “own” their on-street parking through the use of a permit system that would not suddenly impose high market rates on existing residents because someone built an apartment or condo nearby.