Saturday, May 22, 2021

Some Ways Parking Distorts our Analysis of the City and Our Salem Project

Three recent comments on zoning proposals for Our Salem show efforts to protect parking and driving, and swerve away from the central matter, that in order to make reductions in carbon pollution, we must reduce our car travel substantially. The comments are not totally wrong, and they engage some of the issue, but avoid really grappling with it.

By still focusing on the accommodation of cars as if that still was the primary thing, we lose sight of the fact that cars are tools, means rather than ends, and miss the real primary ends of housing for people and reductions in greenhouse gas pollution.

Regional vs City Housing

One incoherence is a slippage, perhaps deliberate, between regional housing and city housing.

It says that if we don't offer housing at the right price here in Salem, we force people to outer communities like Monmouth, Independence, Turner, Stayton, and Silverton. People commuting to jobs in Salem make longer drives for more VMT and more carbon pollution.

This emergent criticism of Our Salem, then, also functions as way, intentionally or unintentionally, to try to greenwash single detached homes on the edge of the city. It is also something of a divide-and-conquer strategy, pitting housing against emissions reductions.

from the Realtors

We saw it in a letter from the Home Builders Association on a recent and contested annexation in South Salem, and here it is again from the Realtor Association offered in formal comment on the zoning concepts for Our Salem.

From the Mid-Valley Association of Realtors on Our Salem:

As you consider the zoning options related to the environment, we urge you to remain conscious of how those same options would impact housing and commercial development to avoid any unintended consequences.

No one can command what the future housing market will support or force developments that are not cost effective. The increasingly high cost of creating housing developments in Salem will force developers, and therefore Salem’s citizens, to the surrounding suburbs. As these people then commute to/from Salem for their jobs and the shopping and entertainment Salem provides, have we really addressed the concerns of greenhouse gas emissions?

Setting mandates to require multifamily housing in mixed-use zones or requiring neighborhood hubs and/or middle housing in large subdivisions will not make those developments happen. Instead, by providing incentives and rewarding the types of housing and development desired while removing related barriers, we are more likely to achieve the goal of affordable housing and a livable Salem.

Eliminating parking near major thoroughfares (Cherriots’ Core Network) where jobs and shopping are located will force vehicles to side streets, nearby neighborhoods, or existing large commercial lots. Rather, we suggest building flexibility into zoning related to parking by setting a minimum, rather than a maximum.

There is a mixture of valid criticism and hand-wavey strawmanning and fear-mongering in this.

The stress on the "increasingly high cost of creating housing" is salutary, but it treats "housing" = single detached housing on large lots, and does not include small plexes, middle housing, and large apartment complexes as housing. It relies on an assumption in reading that the primary sense of "housing," the real housing, is always single detached. Other forms of housing are always lesser and secondary.

They are right that we need to make smaller forms of middle housing and apartments less expensive to build. However, we are not facing squarely that single detached housing may just be more expensive to build, not just in materials cost, but in hidden and externalized transportation, emissions, and social costs.

But you know why driving from Silverton or Independence is attractive? Because it relies on free parking and the total absence of any decongestion pricing or tolling. Drive 'til to you Qualify, or other ways of understanding the utility of cheaper housing at longer distance, rely on underpriced parking and transportation. If the cost of transportation was anywhere where it should be, longer-distance commutes from more remote housing would offer a more pressing trade-off. Some might still choose it, but they would have to analyze the decision with more transparent accounting. Even though it looks like the market and its high cost of housing in Salem is sometimes pushing people to other towns, by not pricing transportation right, we are indirectly subsidizing development in other cities. There is a complex market failure here.

There's also no sense of traffic evaporation in the letter. If we provide more robust transit, price parking right, and make it a little scarcer, fewer people will need to drive. It's not just forcing the same amount of traffic to side streets.

The goal of neighborhood hubs isn't just to provide goods and services at a shorter driving distance, but is also to provide goods and services that can be reached without a car trip at all. In a second comment, we will see how the elimination of car trips is insufficiently considered.

All in all it is funny to read the market-oriented Realtors say, "Don't price parking and let the market decide how much is needed; instead, we need free parking and for state power and regulations to mandate parking minimums."

Neighborhoods and Parking Subsidy

In a separate comment on Our Salem, a reader writes:

Most multifamily, HUBs and R4 zones are being proposed on collectors, arterials and along Core Networks (bus lines). This concept is that people will park on the street, or around the corner from the homes, apartments, or shops. Trouble is that almost all collectors, arterials and Core Network streets have bike lanes where no parking is allowed. Parking 'around the corner' or a side street is often not possible in many places. I urge those who disagree to actually look at individual properties.

Example in my neighborhood is to make all of the properties from Sunnyview Road NE to Brown Road NE into R4 zone. Problem is the only nearby streets are Hollywood or Brown Road. Both of those streets are collectors or arterials with bike lanes. So there is no on street parking within a reasonable distance and there exists a 'you can't get there from here situation.' I have not driven it, but on the maps it looks like about a half mile until you can reach a side street. I ask you, who is going to shop at a business where you park on a neighborhood side street a half a mile away and then walk there? And who would want strangers parking on their neighborhood street to accommodate a business that far away?

It may be true that some of these locations would not offer many on-street curb parking stalls.

But of course nothing in the proposed zoning mandates no off-street parking at all. If off-street parking is necessary for a project to work, a developer can always allocate some of their lot to a parking area. They would also be free to charge a fee for the use of that parking. 

The problem is our expectation that the City or developer is necessarily going to provide some amount of free parking. The problem is our expectation of a parking subsidy.

Moreover, space on a neighborhood street is public, and anyone, any stranger, may use it, and we should reframe and critique the proprietary claim to the spot in front of one's home or to the stretch of one's street.

Additionally, by providing goods and services in a neighborhood, again, there will be traffic evaporation. Access to these goods and services will no longer always require a car trip, and we should not fret so much about "parking around the corner" or on a side street.

Finally, even if you think this is not "realistic," our great exigency is that we reduce driving and emissions. What should our "realism" lead to, that we continue to pollute and heat up our world; or that we curb driving and manage the inconvenience this brings at first? Invoking "realism" can be a dodge and way to avoid the heart of the matter.

Charging Stations and Parking

And in a third comment, even our chapter remains seemingly mesmerized by parking. In comments on the zoning concepts they write

One potential problem with eliminating parking requirements for apartment buildings is it may make it difficult for the City to require or encourage electric vehicle charging stations for the renters who live there.

This is strange. The City can easily require a ratio, "for every x parking stalls, y stalls should offer electric charging stations." If x is greater than zero, if parking seems necessary for a project to work, then some number of electric charging stations will be required. If no parking seems necessary, then we will not have not unnecessarily subsidized driving. 

There is no need to tie the provision of charging stations to parking minimums. The provision should instead be tied to a ratio.

More on harms and distortions from parking

It has been nice to see some conversation around this piece, "How Parking Destroys Cities." It's first headline looks to have been a little different, "How Parking Drives up Housing Prices." Both are true.

Because parking requirements make driving less expensive and development more so, cities get more driving, less housing, and less of everything that makes urbanity worthwhile. This process is subtle. Many mayors today declare their support for walkable downtowns and affordable units. But cities are built at the parcel, not from mayors’ podiums. And parcel by parcel, the zoning code quietly undermines the mayors’ grand vision....

This city, the parking city, can’t have rowhouses and townhouses that sit flush with one another and come right up to the street. It can’t reuse handsome old buildings that come straight to their lot line, so those buildings stay empty. It can’t tuck quirky buildings onto irregularly shaped parcels, so those parcels stay vacant....It is a city with listless streets, one that encourages vehicle ownership, depresses transit use, and exudes antagonism toward people without cars.


Susann Kaltwasser said...

Thank you for picking my comment to feature in this post. However, you missed part of my point because you wanted to talk about parking only.

My concern is more that when we do zone changes for Our Salem that we create options that people will actual take. If you want to create locations within walking distance of where people live that a business can be successful, it is essential that you look at the feasibility of that happening. Putting a zone on a map or property does not mean it will actually get developed as such. A business needs customers and parking is only one aspect of what might be needed.

An example of a low impact service business that like does not need much parking might be an insurance agent, or a dog groomer, or a hair dresser/barber shop. I can see some people setting up a business in a neighborhood HUB or even R4. But frankly, most of those businesses can happen now in a RS single family zone too., so why rezone?

I assume that the designers of this zone HUB and R4 were thinking that the services might bring in more people than the occasional customer. They give examples of things like neighborhood restaurants or a fruit stand. But when you ask if they did any market analysis of such businesses, they say no. They assume the market will determine what will succeed. And therein lies the rub. Why rezone a whole row of properties to a different use when you have no data to support the need or the viability of such a thing happening. Salem is not going to reach its goal of reducing GHG by just changing a bunch zones on properties. It is going to reach that goal by enabling behavioral changes. Why not just say to all property owners along arterials or collects that they can ask to rezone their property when they need to in order to create a business? Then reduce the costs of that rezoning to help facilitate it.

And your comments about Sunnyview show me that you have not been to that area. Please take a bike ride out there some nice day...there are plenty of bike lanes...and find where you think a business could be located or a four-flex without parking or limited parking can be built. Some of the lots earmarked for upcoming are pretty small. All of them are currently developed, so any changes would need to be profitable, because no one is going to tear down a perfectly good house to build something that is not going to pencil out for them.

This is my main point about the flaws in the proposals, not lack of parking per se, but how can we get people to change their ways. I do not even get any sense that the planners have looked at building codes for these proposed businesses. They show pictures of a regular older home with a shop sort of slapped on the front of it where flowers or vegetables are sold. Did they actual cost out what that would require? They said, we would coordinate that with code department at some point. Well, I happen to know a bit about that because a friend wanted to create such a building in that area. She was going to have a green grocer in the front part of the building and her house in the back with a garden on the rest of the property where she would grow the organic foods. She went through a lot of torture meeting all the building codes to satisfy the needs for a commercial operation. Stronger beams, thicker glass, safety exits and so on. In the end it cost her about $20,000 more to build the structure. And when she was done meeting all the requirements, she still could not get the building certified as a business and then she was out of money to actually open the store.

My point is we need to think a lot harder on what is being suggested. Not just about parking, but uses and fees and what will actually go into such a location.

Susann Kaltwasser said...

Salem has had the option to put in duplexes on single family lots for decades. But do we see a lot of them being built? Salem has allowed Planned Unit Developments (cottages or small houses) for decades, but do we see a lot of them in Salem? Mixed use has been zoned in several places around town and yet after decades nothing has happened on those lots. I'd like to see some time examining what works, what we tried and did not work, and then do more of the what works projects. I know I keep harping on the committee I served on 25 years ago when we last did the huge rezoning to increase land for higher density, but there were lessons learned during that process and there were lessons learned since.

One big lesson we learned along the way was taught to the planners and the neighbors by Larry Epping, one of Salem's largest developers. He said, all I care about is can I build it and make a profit. Bottom line, create zones and development codes that get you what you want, but also create them so that they will happen. That changed a large part of what the committee did. They looked around Salem and said, what is working well and meets our goals. Evaluate why it worked and then do more of that. I see none of that in this process.

It will be a waste of time to create a document with a vision for change that does not actually result in change. I do not argue for more of the same, but for real change and not just paper that looks nice, but produces nothing useful.

Salem Breakfast on Bikes said...

Re: "Why not just say to all property owners along arterials or collects that they can ask to rezone their property when they need to in order to create a business?"

Yes, we should expand by-right incremental intensifications of use! This is central tenet of the Strong Towns philosophy, as you likely know.

Re: Sunnyview, I have biked it often.

You may have a kind of zoning determinism: If we rezone a parcel, it will necessarily be redeveloped that way.

The argument here is that we need to have a surplus of candidate sites so that market forces can zero in to optmize locations. If we make neighborhood hubs widely available, or R4 zoning widely distributed, the places where it will actually work are more likely to be discovered. If we have a restricted application of these kinds of zoning, we will likely miss viable spots or try to force it in non-viable places. We should zone more generously, not more restrictively.

Re: "Evaluate why it worked and then do more of that. I see none of that in this process." Yes, very much. Total agreement. That was an important point in this post in talking about evaluating the Fairview project.

Evan said...

"We suggest building flexibility into zoning related to parking by setting a minimum" is one of the more amazing lines I've seen in testimony.

I'd suggest the Realtors check out the TGM publication on managing parking in residential zones. Lots of smarter approaches than just requiring lots of parking with each development.