RVA 5×5: Valet Parking

by Jon Baliles

There was a lot of talk and coverage this week about the City of Richmond’s Planning Commission unanimously approving the removal of parking minimums citywide with the full City Council expected to take the matter up at its meeting Monday night.

The ordinance as written would allow developers to decide how much parking to include in new developments anywhere in the city — or if they need to include any parking at all to serve the development. For decades, the city-required developments to also provide a certain number of off-street parking spaces based on the size of development, the number of dwelling units, type of use, or total floor area.

The end goal is to allow developers to determine how much parking to provide in their developments and if they don’t have to provide expensive parking, they will then increase the supply of needed housing units. The city recently declared a “housing crisis,” and the need for more housing across the entire region is urgent. The proposal is one of the recommendations from the Richmond 300 master plan, which is in favor of less “auto-centric” zoning and more in favor of denser and more walkable mixed-use neighborhoods.

The Planning Department staff report said: “The overabundance of parking can perpetuate a car-centric built environment and discourage the use of public transit or other forms of transportation. Instead of requiring parking minimums in the Zoning Ordinance, the Master Plan encourages market-based parking strategies, including shared parking so that each property does not have to dedicate valuable land to parking spaces.”

Advocates of the plan say it will free up developers to add more housing with lower rents because they will not be burdened with the cost of building a parking deck or creating surface parking instead of more units and more density. According to a 2016 UCLA study, buildings with parking garages charge 17% more in rent each month than those buildings without. Although the demand for housing here will vastly outweigh the supply for quite some time, as noted in many recent housing stories, it will be some time (years) before housing/rent costs recede, assuming they will.

City Planning Director Kevin Vonck said at a recent community meeting:

We’re not requiring anybody to put in parking, but people still will put in parking. When somebody comes in and decides to make an investment or build a product, they’re going to have to think about, ‘How ultimately am I going to be able to sell, rent or lease this product, and how important of a factor is off-street or dedicated parking going to be as part of it?’ It’s looking at allowing the market to shape more of those dynamics.

He also noted in his presentation to the Planning Commission that the city had already reduced or eliminated minimum parking requirements for some uses in some districts.

But the cost of development is affected by many things. One of the biggest obstacles to development in our city is the slow pace and sluggishness of the permits and inspections and planning and Council approvals (in the case of Special Use Permits), which slows down development and raises costs for builders and developers.

Some skeptics of this proposal argue that developers will save money by not having to provide as much (or any) parking, and can then build more units and theoretically rent for less, but that won’t necessarily translate into savings for renters or buyers if the market says otherwise. They say that developers are not going to put the best interest of renters at the top of their list (and they are not wrong).

One resident told the Planning Commission, “I wonder how many of you would be affected by this proposal. My neighborhood would. I invite you to come to Manchester any Saturday and I can show you what’s happened over the last few years in our neighborhood.” If you have been to Manchester recently, you can see examples readily.

Another opponent of the idea who lives on Cedar Street in Union Hill said the dense developments built in that area in the last decade-plus have made street parking there atrocious (all you have to do is drive by there at any time of day and see what he is talking about).

Of course, no one who relies on street parking in front of their house (as I do) has a constitutional right or a guarantee to have a spot in front of their house; some residents think they do, but they don’t. But it’s also not unreasonable to assume (or expect) you should be able to find a spot within reasonable distance of your abode.

Regardless of which side you come down on, consider this question: is it smart to implement a blanket policy citywide FIRST, before we see if/how it works or what impacts it will have in one area or a certain corridor(s) of the city before applying it to every street and neighborhood? The 9th District is very different from the 7th District. The 2nd District is very different from the 4th District. Commercial districts are very different than residential districts and there is not one ring to rule them all. The impact could be very disruptive in different parts of the city for different reasons, but disruptive nonetheless. But let’s go ahead and dive in the pool head first….

Throughout this debate in recent months, there were a lot of mentions about other cities that are eliminating their parking minimums, too. We can learn some lessons from other cities if we are willing to look at them before we decide what course we will take.

Jon Baliles is a former Richmond City Councilman. This is an excerpt from the original article posted on his blog, RVA 5×5. It is posted here with permission.