The potential benefits of fewer parking spaces

Credit: Photo courtesy of Transit for Livable Communities

We take up a lot of space storing cars. Converting that space to other uses can change the way a city looks and functions.

Over the last 15 years, a lot of surface parking lots in downtown Minneapolis have been converted into new housing developments. Parking spaces often are included, but it has not been widely known what it costs to build parking. A surface parking spot costs $3,000 per space. An above-ground parking structure costs $20,000 per space. The per-space cost of underground parking is $55,000. These figures are from a 2012 report from Portland, Ore., about parking and housing affordability.

There is a relationship between the cost of parking and housing costs. The more parking spaces the fewer units to rent or buy, which drives up the cost of each unit. According to the Portland report, for any new development, the rent or purchase price of a unit depends on how many units can be built and the overall construction cost: “In general two standard parking spaces will replace a residential unit.” More flexibility around parking could lead to more affordable rents.

But, except in certain locations, zoning regulations have required a parking space for every unit. The City of Minneapolis this summer is considering reducing the minimum parking requirements for multi-unit developments located near frequent transit.

Developers will always consider parking needs — and some are building with less.

Kirk Moorhead, housing development project manager with Beacon Interfaith Housing Collaborative, managed the $9.5 million Nicollet Square mixed-use development for homeless young adults in Minneapolis.

“When I was doing Nicollet Square, I inquired with other locations with similar housing and found that most of these young residents don’t have cars,” he said.

He said the Minneapolis Planning Commission has been supportive about projects with less parking when the developer shows the need. He says that in deciding where to build housing, Beacon always takes into account nearness to high frequency transit.

Will Delaney, real estate strategy and asset manager for Hope Community, said the proposed change “doesn’t mean we would not do parking.” But he also doesn’t think the city needs to require parking. Delaney is working with Aeon on a mixed-income housing development in south Minneapolis. He says the market will determine whether parking is required. The new building will have one parking space per unit. Delaney said neighbors expressed concern about parking in the area, but a study found that even at the busiest time half the spaces nearby were available.

Episcopal Homes built senior housing on the Green Line in St. Paul — and then expanded it. Even in the nearby suburbs, seniors are making the transition to being car-free.

Edna Bernstein of St. Louis Park is one example. “I used to drive many, many miles to everything I had to get to,” she said. But after moving from her home in Golden Valley to a mixed used development, she said: “I walk everywhere. I have some assistance: a cane and shopping cart. I can shop with the four-wheeled cart, fill it with groceries, and walk back home. A lot of businesses I can reach that way. It’s very wonderful exercise to walk around.”

Like Edna, more people are finding it possible and even advantageous to get around without a personal vehicle due to the increasing options for getting around.

With the opening of the Green Line (joining the Blue and Red) and related expansion of bus service, more jobs and housing are in range of high frequency transit. (High-frequency transit still does not reach enough households. Metro Transit has a plan to expand service, but it awaits funding.)

Bicycle routes and bike sharing and (of course) walking are ways to connect to the transit system or to get places directly. The Twin Cities has seen a vast expansion of the system of bicycle routes in recent years and Minneapolis is moving forward with a plan for protected bikeways, which should continue to expand bicycling as transportation.

Especially for those with credit cards and smart phones, there also are “cars on demand” rather than “a car in the lot.” In Minneapolis and Saint Paul, the car2go fleet, HOURCAR or Zipcar can be your personal vehicle as needed. HOURCAR even has trucks. Car rental companies are there for extended trips. Lyft and Uber and taxis are options.

There can be an expectation that parking needs to be part of a building. But, a more flexible approach to parking — and some willingness to walk a little bit more — can mean more creative and effective use of urban space.

At a recent hearing about the residential parking regulations in Minneapolis, an architect showed a new development with a side parking lot. He then showed what could happen if fewer spaces were required: the design bloomed with trees and a bench and bicycle parking along with the vehicle parking. 

Hilary Reeves is communications director for Transit for Livable Communities.