BY BRIAN LIBBY
Today's issue of Willamette Week includes a small blurb in its Murmurs section that got me thinking about the relationship between the urban places we most want to frequent and the parking issues that can ensue. We want to be in places with no parking, it seems, as long as we can find a place to park.
The blurb was about how Southeast Portland neighbors are asking the city to freeze construction along Division Street, "hoping to halt the boom in apartment buildings without on-site parking," it explains. The neighborhood's request comes as the result of a four-story, 81-unit apartment complex at Southeast 37th Avenue and Division Street, which has already received permits to go forward. But with a succession of apartment and condo projects along Division and and other major streets, there seems to be a growing chorus of neighborhoods feeling the growing scarcity of on-street parking, much as residents of Northwest Portland's Alphabet District near 21st and 23rd Avenues have felt for the past few decades.
“Our neighborhood will be a congestion nightmare next summer and never the same after that,” Richmond neighborhood resident and novelist Richard Melo (as quoted in WW) wrote to City Commissioner Dan Saltzman, who oversees the Bureau of Development Services, calling the current course “a national case study for unchecked urban development.”
Coincidentally, just yesterday I received a form email from mayoral candidate Charlie Hales addressing parking and multifamily housing projects.
"A recent wave of new apartment projects has provoked controversy in several neighborhoods," the Hales team writes. "In our desire to support urban living and non-auto transportation, have we gone too far? When we first started trying to fit new mixed-use development into streets like Belmont, Division and Alberta, parking was a challenge, but in a very different way than today. Our struggle then was to get developers and banks to accept less parking than would be typical in suburbia. Now, the world has changed. Banks are today willing to lend on apartment projects with no parking provided. While this has resulted in affordable projects for those without cars, there are other unintended consequences impacting neighborhoods in ways that need to be carefully assessed."
So it would seem that there is growing push-back in Portland's neighborhoods about the growing scarcity of parking spots. If that's the case, it's a break from the city's reputation for progressive pedestrian and transit-oriented developments. In urban policy circles, the talk is not of disgruntlement over decreasing parking, but innovating and prospering because of such deliberate moves. In an August 7 Atlantic Cities post, Norman Garrick and Christopher McCahill of the University of Connecticut explore Zurich's approach to restricting parking while most cities in America and the west have parking minimums.
"Since the late 1980s, Zurich has developed an alternative that's worth studying because it breaks all the rules of conventional transportation planning, and yet has been vitally important to the success of that city," they write. "In contrast, the conventional approach has devastated most American cities, and many in Europe as well...Such a policy specifies the minimum amount of parking that must be provided for each square meter of floor space of new construction. The rationale of a parking minimum is to ensure that enough parking is available to meet projected demand."
In 1989, Zurich "turned this regulation on its head by adding parking maximums to their code. A parking maximum is a device for protecting the city from having too much parking that could degrade the urban character of the city....Under this new system, there is a default parking level for the whole city, which is then reduced depending on whether or not a particular location is well served by transit.
Garrick and McCahill's research at UConn found not only that cities with higher levels of automobile use generally supply more parking, but that these cities "also have a much lower density of what matters in cities, residents and jobs. American cities in our study with small numbers of parking spaces have two to four times more people per square mile. This seems to have a lot to do with the amount of space that is needed for parking. In other words, space used for parking is simply not available for more productive uses."
Granted, the Zurich example is focused more on its central core, whereas the aforementioned parking tension in Portland is taking place in close-in neighborhoods of mostly single-family homes. Yet I can't help but think of a previous Atlantic Cities post, by editor and creative-class guru Richard Florida, citing research by San Francisco real-state firm Trulia to determine which American cities have the highest concentrations of restaurants and bars. The two don't necessarily go hand in hand, it seems. The list of top ten cities for restaurants per capita, which included Portland at #10, was comprised entirely of East Coast and West Coast metropolises such as San Francisco (which took the top spot), New York, Boston and Seattle. The South and Midwest, on the other hand, dominated the list of cities with most bars per capita, including New Orleans (in first place), Toldedo, Milwaukee, Pittsburgh, and Buffalo. The bars list also reflected more cities that have lost out in the migrations of jobs, culture and knowledge to the West. When you're amidst rust rather than silicon, it's time for another round.
Richard Florida also cites a study by Arizona State University and the University of North Carolina at Charlotte that finds a connection between the creative class and levels of entrepreneurship in cities. In other words, if you are good at growing restaurants, galleries and arts facilities, you're also probably going to be successful, over time, at attracting and growing small businesses. For example, the tech industry today, particularly social media companies and startups, is increasingly locating itself in cities rather than the suburbs. As the New York Times' Norimitsu Onishi recently reported, Twitter and other big tech companies are heading from Silicon Valley to San Francisco. Portland is also seeing a proliferation of startups headquarting here rather than in Hillsboro and Beaverton.
When I think of the parking tension along Division Street that Willamette Week reported, I can sympathize with the frustration of trolling for parking in one's own neighborhood, as I used to do daily when I lived downtown in the late 1990s. I think of the trolling we all do when we go to Northwest 23rd. But 23rd is ultimately getting a parking garage - not an eyesore of multistory concrete, but one thoughtfully tucked away. I think that's a better solution than restricting apartment and condominium projects because they'll add neighborhood congestion or requiring new developments to build their own parking, as we once did. Nobody likes parking, but it's a bit of a Catch-22 situation here: the more you build parking, the less likely it is to be a place where people want to go - and park, and spend money, and contribute to a vibrant local economy. Portland has long since committed itself to density over sprawl, and we can't have it both ways. And I'd rather we be more Zurich than, say, Houston or Toledo.