The City of Portland is trying to resolve a dust-up over neighborhood parking issues—issues driven largely by a few new apartment developments built without providing parking. The developments sans parking are allowed under the current code because of proximity to transit corridors, but impacts to on-street parking caused by the new apartments have neighbors complaining to the city. Portland’s Bureau of Planning and Sustainability (BPS) and City Council have attempted to respond quickly. But have they responded well? I don’t think so.
In case you missed it, travel back in time a week to read the response I prepared for City Council’s April 4 hearing on BPS’ proposed code changes. My testimony at the hearing was cut short by Council’s three-minute time limit (meaning I only got through the impacts to, and solutions for affordable housing). Fortunately, other citizens covered my remaining points, so at least they didn’t go unsaid.
At the conclusion of the hearing, City Council voted to approve the proposed code changes, plus a couple other amendments noted on OregonLive, including Commissioner Nick Fish’s tiered parking requirement which will make some people feel better and others even more irritated. So what’s missing from the changes they voted for? A lot:
Street Parking Issues Won’t Be Fixed Just by Adding Off-Street Parking
The amendments do nothing to resolve the issue currently simmering over a partially-constructed 81-unit building without parking that has neighbors seething. Of course, since the permit was previously approved and the building is already under construction, changing the rules mid-stream would be a disaster. For the sake of developers who depend on consistent rules, that’s a moot point. Unfortunately, the developer appears to have no interest in being a good neighbor either, but being a jerk hasn’t yet been outlawed so we’re left dealing with these issues in other ways.
The proposed code amendments require developers of certain buildings to provide off-street parking, but they do very little to discourage residents of these new buildings from using the on-street parking. Why? Because the street parking is free. And in the new buildings, the freshly-mandated parking will likely be, well … not free. And we’ve all seen what people will do just for a sale (YouTube has compilation videos of Black Friday mayhem, enough said?), so imagine the lengths they will go to for something FREE. In fact, the city’s own research shows that when free street parking is available, residents will eschew their building’s paid parking in favor of the less-convenient (but FREE) street parking.
So, the city code amendments have the potential to create a bunch of unused parking garages but do nothing to rectify crowded street parking spaces. What’s a city to do?
The Market Will Fix the Parking Boondoggle. Or Will It?
A popular refrain that came up during the City Council hearing is that if residents demand parking, the market will deliver it. Which is kind of true, but since off-street parking typically carries a price tag, it can’t compete with free street parking. Competitive pricing for street parking (via permits, meters, or other means) is essential if a neighborhood expects residents to utilize off street parking they must pay for.
Unfortunately, mentioning parking permits or other fees that might apply to existing residents (who gripe that their free street parking is now hard to find) is apparently taboo for city officials to do in the same context as anything related to new buildings. Pricing or otherwise addressing street parking is not mentioned anywhere in BPS’ recommendations and was barely uttered by City Commissioners during the hearing, except for one small whisper by Commissioner Steve Novick at the end of the meeting.
Still, whether or not it’s discussed, the market may meet the off-street parking needs of new developments, but only if the market isn’t competing with free street parking provided by the city.
Of course, the neighbors aren’t the only ones impacted by the proposed code changes:
Encouraging Development Promotes Affordability
In my testimony to City Council, I argued that low-income residents are less likely to own cars (a fact supported by the city’s research). Thus, developments reserved for low-income residents should be exempted from some of the parking requirements that apply to market-rate residences. But promoting housing affordability—another factor Portland professes to value—goes beyond income restrictions.
Offsetting the demand of Portland’s extremely tight rental market by increasing supply seems to be a simple enough equation, one that many supporters of affordability are championing. And I agree that increasing supply is a good thing, but not at any cost. City Hall shouldn’t rush into reactionary decisions to stimulate development and increase housing supply, just as it shouldn’t rush into knee-jerk policies to soothe neighbors frustrated about hard-to-find street parking.
Upon Final Inspection
Portland carefully crafted urban growth boundaries and developed “The Portland Plan” to keep the city from becoming sprawling suburbia. This same effort set a foundation for and encouraged the success of vibrant neighborhoods which are now especially desirable for residents and developers. This careful planning can ensure the city remains a desirable place to live, work, and play. But reactionary changes to the code risk dismantling the careful planning that has earned Portland accolades for its desirable neighborhoods and sensible urban planning.
Will BPS and City Council step back from these knee-jerk changes and take the political heat from the handful of upset neighbors in order to reap the long-term benefit from better thought-out plans? I’m not holding my breath. I just hope they will follow up sooner rather than later with more holistic updates that provide real solutions to the neighborhoods’ issues.