Asphalt City to Reform Parking Regs

Wow, what a great way to utilize urban land almost fronting the Potomac River!

The Old Town district in downtown Alexandria is the very model of Smart Growth — it was built during the golden age of urban development when city planners believed in such things as street grids, mixed uses, and urban densities. And in recent years, portions of Alexandria’s downtown have been re-developed according to the same principles. But the city, like many of its peers, succumbed during the post-World War II era to the siren call of suburban zoning codes, and the results outside of Old Town have been dismal.

A key component of any self-respecting auto-centric suburban zoning code was a set of regulations dictating how much surface parking was required for everything from strip malls to garden apartments. It appears that Alexandria planners applied those requirements with relish.

An astonishing 10% percent of the city’s surface is covered by parking lots, a task force comprised of Alexandria residents, developers and city leaders has found. The average peak occupancy of 60 sites surveyed was 59%, reports the Washington Business Journal. Nearly 59% of Alexandria hotel visitors reach their destination by taxi, Uber, or Lyft; 52% of restaurant patrons do not drive. And some landlords are leasing their space to others to utilize excess parking.

While on-street parking serves some beneficial purposes in defining the urban fabric — parked cars create a barrier between pedestrians on the sidewalk and moving cars on the street — excess parking is destructive to the environment and urban design. Impermeable parking lots contribute to storm-water runoff. They trap solar rays and contribute to the urban heat-island effect. Parking lots consume space that could be devoted to higher-value urban uses, either buildings that enhance property taxes or parks that enhance well-being. And they fragment streetscapes, thus undermining walkability.

The task force will submit recommendations to City Council tomorrow.

Among the major changes under consideration: Setting a minimum and maximum parking standard for everyone — as opposed to the minimum-only scenario currently in place — exempting small neighborhood businesses from the parking minimum, and allowing for shared parking between businesses.

Sounds like a big improvement over the current policy, which hasn’t changed in 50 years. But personally, I would go further. Unless a compelling public need can be demonstrated to exist, eliminate all parking mandates, period. Next, reform zoning codes to make it easy for property owners to recycle parking lots into buildings. Finally, convert on-street parking to dynamically priced metered parking that varies with supply and demand. Then you’d be talking real parking reform.

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23 responses to “Asphalt City to Reform Parking Regs”

  1. Really like your last paragraph, Jim. But where was that picture taken? Not in NoVa, I don’t believe.

    1. The Washington Business Journal credited the photo to the City of Alexandria.

    2. djrippert Avatar

      Between Jefferson Davis Highway and the GW Parkway just south of 4 mile run. The curving peninsula into the Potomac is the tip of Dangerfield Island I believe.

    3. You must be correct, DJR, as I see the old generating station in the distance — but it’s an old photo, before any of the Potomac Yards roads or buildings at the south end, there for some years now, were built, and long before the widening + dedicated bus lane in Rt. 1 either.

      1. djrippert Avatar

        Really old. I don’t even see the sailboats at the Washington Marina. It appears to be winter but I’d still expect to see some boats.

  2. TooManyTaxes Avatar

    A significant number of people don’t like multi-story parking facilities, most especially when they are underground. The best example comes to mind is BestBuy in Tysons. A number of years ago, the store was located in a location that had underground parking. But customer unrest appears to have motivated the company to move its Tysons store to a traditional parking lot located in front of the store.

    Most comprehensive plans and zoning ordinances require each new land use to park itself. The reason is, obviously, to protect other landowners from finding its parking spaces taken by the use that lacks sufficient parking of its own.

    Fairfax County often sees proposals with shared parking. For example, a place of worship near a school or an elder care facility. These entities tend to have high demand at different times and at different days. Sharing can make sense. Ditto for a mixed use building with both commercial/retail and residential.

    The County is also lowering parking requirements for buildings with the TOD ring at Metrorail stations. All of these developers/landowners have TDM requirements. This is sound conceptually, but County enforcement of TDM obligations strikes me as little more than lip service. Tysons-related traffic is bleeding into the nearby neighborhoods and has created a significant degradation in the quality of life as well as growing political pressure on state and local officials to do something beyond wringing their hands.

    Eliminating ground-level parking lots sounds good in practice, but is often not a good idea in reality, most especially without strict and enforceable TDM obligations and where there are ground-level parking options nearby.

  3. LarrytheG Avatar

    I think there is a dichotomy between what people want to do verses what planners and others want them to do !!!!

    Most people want to drive their cars .. to/from their home, shopping, their doctor appointments, etc… and anything that makes it “harder” is not considered a good thing.

    I say this as a resident of an exurb of Washington – Alexandria, Arlington, et a.. where we have more than 50,000 people who want to drive solo 50 miles to where their job is ..somewhere in the NOVA/DC/MD region.

    They are not happy about the toll lanes even if you get a free ride if you carpool.. and they would be even less happen if their place of employment got rid of their “free” parking.

    So when I hear of efforts to get rid of parking and encouraging more walking – coming from folks who claim to be Conservatives.. well. my hair catches on fire…!!!!

    1. Larry, Read the article — even at periods of peak demand, only 60% of the parking capacity is utilized. That means two out of five parking spaces is superfluous. You can get rid of them without inconveniencing anyone!

      1. LarrytheG Avatar

        Jim -begs the question why they were built to start with, eh? I always hear that businesses want enough so they don’t lose customers for a lack of parking. I think the 60% is point of view… that is at odds with other views.

        But from a free market – “govt knows best” control point of view – what do Conservatives say about this? What is the “conservative” approach to parking? Do you let the business determine what they think they need or do you use govt to pressure them to a different size that they really don’t want but are forced into?

        what say you?

      2. djrippert Avatar

        “A survey of 60 sites performed for the task force found all but one had lower parking demand than required — the average peak occupancy in those lots was 59 percent.”

        That is potentially a very misleading statement. Potentially. A mixture of lightly used parking lots and heavily used parking lots could easily create a 59% average. What is the distribution of these 60 data samples?

        I also find the statement, “all but one had lower parking demand than required”. I assume that means that one lot actually filled up. My suspicion is that people will drive right by a lot that’s, say, 95% full since it appears completely full.

        Alexandria is 15 sq mi in land area. 10% of that is 1.5 sq mi. That’s 41,817,600 sq ft. Assuming a parking lot devotes 80% of its area to parking spaces (vs access roads, etc) we get 33,454,080 for parked cars. Assuming an average of 10′ by 20′ we need 200 sq ft to park a car. So, Alexandria has enough space to park 167,270 cars. Or, a bit more than 1 space for every person living in Alexandria.

        My guess is that the need for parking spaces (assuming you want businesses to succeed) is related to population density. As I recall, Manhattan has something like 120,000 off street parking spaces – fewer than Alexandria. Of course, the store in Manhattan have a lot more potential customers within walking distance due to the population density. Alexandria’s population 50 years ago was about 110,000. Today it’s approximately 160,000. Of course, the number of people commuting in to work or for tourism would affect that number as it applies to parking spaces.

        As for the task force … “A task force comprised of Alexandria residents, developers and city leaders has been working since March to revise the city’s commercial parking standards.” Everybody except the business owners who might be killed by inadequate parking were represented.

        Let me tell you how this ends … The inept politicians and the tree hugging residents cut the amount of parking way down. This allows the predatory developers to convert parking spaces into Vape Shops and other useful things. Once the dust clears and businesses can’t survive because there isn’t enough parking (and the Alexandrians drive out to the suburbs instead) the tax base will fall, residential property taxes will rise and the developers will be long gone with swollen bags of money.

      3. TooManyTaxes Avatar

        Any land use must consider what level of peak parking demand is needed. Have you ever seen the parking garages and small surface lots at the Tysons (I) Mall from early November to mid-January? Most of the time they are beyond full with cars cruising for an empty space. Do you think Macerich, the Mall operator, would judge it to be a prudent decision to give up spaces? Of course not. They might well want more during peak shopping days.

        Schools, places of worship and the like often lack sufficient parking during big events (such as back to school nights, concerts, sporting events or major holydays/services). What do neighbors complain about when an institution proposes an expansion? First on the list is fears about inadequate parking.

        Geez, go to the Fairfax County Government Center when the Board of Supervisors are holding hearings on some topic of great interest – taxes, budget, a big re-zoning case — and, during the day you might have to drive around for 20 minutes to find a parking place.

        The general rule – Each use must park itself – remains valid and important.

        1. The general rule – Each use must park itself – remains valid and important.

          Sometimes, but not always. At the very least, the regulatory regime needs to allow for creative solutions. There is an area near where I live in Henrico County where a church, a synagogue, and a private school are located in close proximity. By your reckoning, each institution should provide for its own individual peak parking. But the school’s peak parking is M-F. The synagogue’s is Saturday. And the church’s is Sunday. Why shouldn’t they be able to pool their parking.

          Admittedly, that’s a rare case. But there’s no reason why office buildings (peak parking 9-5) shouldn’t be able to work out arrangements with restaurants and nightclubs (peak parking after 5:00 to whenever…) or apartment complexes (peak parking when people go home from work).

          The idea that each use must always be able to handle its peak parking load in isolation from its neighbors is just insane!

          1. Good discussion. This is exactly what led to the creation of the transmission grid connecting electric utilities (mainly in the 1950s): the high cost to each utility of meeting its own load curve in isolation, with generation set aside to meet its stand-alone forecast annual peak after allowing for emergency and maintenance outages. The grid was built for sharing of the risk of outages, sharing the benefits of non-coincident peak demands, and sharing the efficiencies of a broader mix of generation types. Inevitably this led to shared economic dispatch by a single system operator, and to energy markets based on after-the-fact billing for the energy exchanges that took place in real-time as the result of that shared economic dispatch. Inevitably that has led to joint regional planning to improve those efficiencies and remove bottlenecks.

            Larry asks the correct fundamental question, “What is the “conservative” approach to parking? Do you let the business determine what they think they need or do you use govt to pressure them to a different size that they really don’t want but are forced into?” We say, of course, government should interfere with markets the least consistent with their functioning. Yet this discussion assumes that government should plan the land use types and densities, plan the roads, plan the parking requirements, plan the traffic management, even plan the tax districts — all to support “private enterprise.” Of course there’s tension there. Ayn Rand explores the (to me, dystopian) consequence of extreme government disengagement; but in the real world even Houston’s unzoned sprawl (cf, Charlottesville north to Ruckersville) is too much for most people. So I don’t mind us imposing planning requirements (with all the bureaucracy and regulation that implies) in order to achieve some measure of efficiency in how things unfold — knowing full well that politicized planning can run amuk with the vision of only a few dominating, and sometimes a self-serving few.

            I don’t see how we can have that sort of planned free enterprise, with all the tension and all the avoidance of extremes that implies, in a political environment so polarized (even at the local level) that there is no political center, no government by consensus or practical compromise, “take no prisoners,” no discussion across the philosophical Divide. That is not proper conservatism, or proper liberalism either. So, I’m with you that “At the very least, the regulatory regime needs to allow for creative solutions,” but beyond that, we need to step back occasionally and debate the proper role of government in planning all sorts of things — like education and health care — and how much competition and flexibility for “creative solutions” is a good thing

  4. LarrytheG Avatar

    I’m also a little suspicious of the “average peak occupancy” metric…

    did they do that study at Christmas?

    but – from a “Conservative” , business-friendly, low-regulations point of view – would Conservatives govern cities/towns to let businesses decide their needs or would Conservative governance ALSO stipulate how much parking a business can have?

    how do Conservatives govern cities/towns different from those pesky liberals?

  5. Reed Fawell 3rd Avatar
    Reed Fawell 3rd

    Only a drastic solution will come anywhere close to solving this problem.


    Look at a map. This is a narrow, highly traffic dysfunctional strip of land, hemmed in on both ends and both sides, the Potomac River on the north, Seminary Ridge on the south, the Potomac Gorge on the West, Mt. Vernon on the east. Plus the worlds greatest traffic generators are shoving vast armies of land vehicles thought this narrow strip in a futile attempt to serve several auto-centric cities simultaneously, along with several major north south interstate Highways serving the entire east coast of the nation.

    The problem is hopeless, absent a drastic over-haul of the regions roads, parking, mass transit, land use, and vehicular usage.

  6. LarrytheG Avatar

    Need to keep a proper perspective. Every single city in the US has this problem no matter their particular geographic circumstance… whether it’s New York, Cleveland, Chicago, Seattle, LA, Houston, Atlanta , etc.

    it’s not a problem unique to NoVa.

    it’s a problem present everywhere there are cars – and people who want to use cars to be mobile.

    The fundamental question is – from a governance perspective – is :

    1. – provide the infrastructure that people need to provide for their car-centric wants

    2. – have governance decide something different from what people want given their proclivities?

    3. is there is a realistic different between Conservative governance and “liberal” governance when it comes to this issue?

    4. – can anyone name examples of “Conservative” approaches to this – which cities do it “Conservatively” and better than “liberals”?

    Bonus Question: Are Conservatives philosophically capable of governing cities? Name the top 3 Conservatively-governed cities … and how they are “better”….

    carry on…

    1. Larry, I reject your framing of the issue. The debate over parking has nothing to do with “liberal” and “conservative.”

  7. LarrytheG Avatar

    Here’s the framing I am reacting to:

    ” Chuck fuses Smart Growth and fiscal conservatism — akin to what I did much less successfully when I published the “Smart Growth for Conservatives” blog. ”

    from that I DO GET an implication that there is a “Conservative” approach to these issues – different from the typical non-Conservative approach.


    Somehow in these blog tomes – I do get the impressions that govt-directed “blue” governance is at the root of some of the problems and that a “Conservative” approach is “better”.

    we hear this with regard to zoning and regulations.. and I presume – parking.

    I don’t see a “Conservative” .. “smart growth” approach.. even though it is claimed… so I’m asking.. is there a “Conservative” approach to cities and “smart growth”? I personally think the whole idea of how a city is governed is tilted towards liberals views of ‘more” government rather than the standard Conservative thinking that the free market is “better” than top-down govt governance…

    Or will you admit that “governance” requires Government and that the unfettered “free market” is more “Cairo” than NoVA?

  8. Will you admit that “governance” requires Government and that the unfettered “free market” is more “Cairo” than NoVA?

    I’ve never advocated an “unfettered” free market — a fact that I have repeated endlessly in response to your suggestions that I think otherwise. I do think that we have excessive regulation, taxation and government intrusion, and that government needs to be scaled back, but that in no way implies that I believe all government is bad or that a pure laissez-faire system would work.

  9. LG, you’re talking like it’s a black-and-white choice, yet you elsewhere talk about an “approach” that’s “tilted” one way or the other, which seems to me much closer to the ark. If there’s a conservative bent or “approach” applied, it’s to be minimally intrusive bureaucratically, to keep costs down, and to pay as you go or at least borrow “conservatively” to coin a phrase. Now I will take issue with you strongly if you think a person with that approach cannot govern, or if you think such an approach is not generally recognized as one approach to good government.

    But are there “conservatives” out there who get the reputation for being killjoys and curmudgeons because they become near impossible to persuade to do anything constructive because it will cost too much? Are there conservatives out there who mix social-conservative/ ideological or religious positions in with their economic stances? Are there reactionary people out there who call themselves “conservative” but are no more than populists? Are there elected officials who are dumb as posts and shouldn’t be allowed responsibility for anything? Hellfire, it’s a sliding scale of how bad, what’s the alternative, etc., on both sides of the political center! Trying to trap people in a coherent ideology when talking about conduct they only “approach” or “tend to” apply is painting the world in black and white without any shades of gray. Needless polarization is exactly what keeps us from finding compromise and finding practical solutions in government. [As I said earlier in this post.] Clearly this is not what JB is advocating, here.

  10. TooManyTaxes Avatar

    The shared parking arrangement can work depending on the specific facts of each situation.
    But, in Fairfax County, we are seeing broad, sweeping proposals to reduce parking. For example, “2. Transportation Demand Management

    ❖Eliminate parking reductions based on TDM programs and replace it with a more general reduction provision. Rationale
    ❖There is no generally accepted method for correlating vehicle trip reductions using TDM strategies, with parking reductions.
    ❖Current provisions require that the applicant demonstrate how parking would be provided if the TDM program doesn’t result in the projected reduction in parking demand. This is necessary because of the speculative nature of these reductions, but is problematic.

    What does this mean? Aren’t members of the public supposed to understand the rules.

    Here’s more from County staff.

    4. Parking Rates -Non-Tysons Transit Station Areas
    A. Proposed rates for multi-family based on bedrooms (current rate 1.6 spaces/DU):
    Bedrooms Spaces per unit
    0-1 1.3
    2 1.5
    3+ 1.6

    B. Proposed rates for office (current rate 2.6 – 3.6 based on building SF):
    Distance from Transit Station Spaces per 1,000 sq. ft. GFA

    0-1/4 mile 2.0
    > 1/4 mile 2.3
    C. Proposed rates for commercial (excluding restaurants):
    • 20% Reduction

    1. We’re talking from local policy working to encourage excess parking now working to encourage insufficient parking — from one extreme of government regulation to the other. Businesses should be allowed to build as much parking as they see fit. One interesting trend in the parking industry is to build structured parking that can be easily and inexpensively retrofitted to accommodate a different use (office, residential, whatever). Public policy should encourage flexibility so that owners of parking assets can quickly respond to shifts in market demand.

  11. TooManyTaxes Avatar

    Sorry I didn’t get to finish my post yesterday.

    My point is that this justification is gibberish. If a building or complex fails to meet its TDM obligations – and Fairfax County allows self-reporting with no apparent follow-up, much less auditing compliance – where do the vehicles park?

    “Current provisions require that the applicant demonstrate how parking would be provided if the TDM program doesn’t result in the projected reduction in parking demand. This is necessary because of the speculative nature of these reductions, but is problematic.” This sounds to me as if the County understands there could be a problem with a lack of parking if TDM goals are not met – in reality – but want to reduce parking requirements anyway. Neighbors be damned. Ideology seems to be driving public policy.

    If TDM is required because high levels of density are granted near (or sometimes, not near) rail stations, but the requirements are not met, where do the cars park? What happens to the locations where they do park?

    Once again, the benefits of reduced parking requirements inure to one set of people, but the costs of failure are paid by someone else. Align the two, such that the owners with reduced parking obligations must obtain substitute parking in the marketplace if their TDM compliance is short, and I’m ready to listen to plans to reduce parking.

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