After six years of work, the first major rewrite of Washington, D.C.'s zoning code since 1958 is inching closer to approval. But it's facing fierce opposition from some residents who worry it will shrink parking.
On Tuesday, the District's top planning official defended her office's ideas at a D.C. Council hearing, part of the ongoing Zoning Regulations Review that has involved nearly 50 public hearings and meetings since 2008. The Office of Planning is expected to hand its voluminous proposals to the Zoning Commission by the end of the month, triggering another lengthy public process.
Under the new proposal, developers would no longer be required to construct a minimum number of parking spaces in new apartment housing, office, and retail space in downtown D.C., near Metro rail stations, and in busy bus corridors. Office of Planning Director Harriet Tregoning told council members that the current rules are outdated, prescribing a one-size-fits-all approach that does not reflect driving and parking demand in individual neighborhoods.
"The current code can't look at the household rate of car ownership in a neighborhood. It can't look at the type of people who are being marketed to for a particular building," said Tregoning. "It is one-size-fits-all now, so the proposed changes are to make it possible for the parking in a given building to more closely resemble the anticipated demand in that place, in that building, in that neighborhood."
Eliminating mandatory parking minimums would not mean developers would cease building any parking spaces at all, Tregoning said.
"Should the Zoning Commission approve changes to parking requirements the projects are likely to deliver more than what is minimally required and explicitly be sensitive to market demand," she said.
Tregoning pointed to Census data that show 38.5 percent of D.C. households are car-free, and roughly half of all trips are taken with transit, on foot, or by bicycle. In her view, mandatory parking minimums often lead to the construction of excessive, unused spaces. The Coalition for Smarter Growth, a group that supports the changes, contends that the construction of parking spaces drives up housing costs an average 12.5 percent per unit.
Data under dispute
Opponents testified that the elimination of parking minimums would force drivers to circle their neighborhoods looking for spaces. Despite efforts to reduce car dependency, the number of vehicles in the District is increasing, they said.
"There were 267,000 vehicles in D.C. in 2009. 285,000 registered in 2012. So we have a very significant question. What is D.C.'s comprehensive approach to parking? Is this our plan?" said Judy Chesser, one of several residents who testified against the parking proposals. "[The Office of Planning] has demonstrated their lack of data by insisting for many months that car ownership was being reduced in D.C. while it was increasing."
Lobbyists for AAA Mid-Atlantic, whose officials have accused Washington of waging war on cars, told council members the proposed overhaul of parking rules threatens the District's future because visitors will choose to stay away if they can't find parking.
"This situation will worsen if new apartment buildings, stores and offices are built without garages or parking spaces," said AAA's Lon Anderson. "The Office of Planning's logic is that if parking is scarce and driving difficult we will attract fewer cars. But that also means we will attract fewer people."
Developers near transit stations and in downtown D.C. may favor a change in current policy because of the enormous cost of constructing underground parking, estimated at $40,000 to $70,000 per space, according to Tregoning's office.
Learning lessons from out west
In Portland, Oregon, officials in April reversed changes to the city's parking rules after eliminating mandatory minimums, a development frequently cited during the hearing by Tregoning's critics. Portland reinstated minimums for apartment dwellings with more than 30 units, although developers may reduce by half the parking requirement by providing more bicycle parking and spaces for bike- and car-sharing services.
In 2012 Portland commissioned a study that found "that 64 percent of residents are getting to work via a non-single-occupant vehicle. Almost a third (28 percent) of those surveyed belonged to car-free households; however, cars are still the preferred mode of travel for many of the survey respondents."
About two-thirds of the vehicle owners surveyed in Portland's inner neighborhoods "park on the street without a permit and have to walk less than two minutes to reach their place of residence, and they spend only five minutes or less searching for a parking spot," the study found.
The Office of Planning is targeting July 29 to hand its proposed zoning changes to the Zoning Commission.