Friday, November 18, 2011

Parking parking parking

I attended an interesting community presentation recently. A developer is looking to build another apartment building on a street in the Allston neighborhood of Boston, replacing an old disused factory site. The architect showed some renderings of the proposed building. I wasn't sure what to expect, but they actually looked pretty decent, considering. The amount of setback ranges from zero to a few feet. He explained that it was this way because of the other buildings on the street. Apparently the BRA likes this kind of consistency. While I am in favor of these kind of urban buildings that have little to no setback, I am a little concerned about the process that got to the good result. On the other hand, I have seen new construction go up with zero setback on streets which do have setbacks, so perhaps this isn't a big problem in practice.
Development site (image: Google).

The really contentious issue came about, as it always seems to, about parking spots. The developer is building one off-street parking spot per dwelling unit. Someone asked whether the parking spots were included in the cost of the apartment -- a seemingly innocuous question that I knew would lead to plenty more discussion as soon as the obvious answer was given -- "no". Estimates ranged from an additional $100 - $120 a month. A tad low, based on what I know of surrounding lots, but not unreasonable. The immediate concern raised was that this might drive residents to seek street parking permits and further crowd the already busy on-street parking spaces. Now personally, I think the developer is well within his right to charge for parking, but he opted to respond in an interesting fashion. He gave two answers (and I paraphrase):

  • "Standard response:" Parking isn't free to build, so I need to charge money for it. As it turns out for other apartment complexes on the street, about 40-50% of the residents don't own a car anyway. The building is very close to the Green Line and there will be bicycle parking too.
  • "Enlightened response" (a.k.a. contingency plan): We really want to work with the community on this and don't want it to become a problem in case we're wrong about the car ownership rates. Therefore we're willing to subsidize the usage of our own lots in order to entice residents into using them. There's a lot of advantages to them and they won't want to give it up when we charge full price eventually.
I agree with the first part, the second part not so much. But I can see where he's coming from and it seems to be an expedient approach that strikes a balance. Sadly, in our society, getting development done on private property is as much a political process as it is a construction one.

There is a larger issue lurking in the background but it is left unsaid. Namely: why is street parking so contentious in the neighborhood? The city uses a residential parking permit system which is pretty strict. You cannot leave your car for any period of time in the residential areas without one. In order to get a sticker you must be registered in MA. Therefore, the city should know the home addresses of every sticker user, and hopefully they are also aware of how much curb real estate is available. When I lived in Pittsburgh, they were very particular about this. I noted that they kept track of how many people were expected to use a certain street for parking, and if they had a driveway available. I lived in one apartment building where the city refused to grant residents parking permits because the apartment complex had its own parking lot. They were a pain in the ass (for that and other reasons), but I suppose it did work. I don't know if the city of Boston does this, because I have not applied for parking here ever.

The problem is simple, really: you have a limited resource and many people competing for it. The natural way to solve this is with a free market pricing system. I propose that Boston figure out and charge market rates for its street parking. OK: politically that will never sell. People love parking socialism. However, if you don't charge market rates, then you have to impose permit caps. That was Pittsburgh's solution. Then parking permits are cheap -- until they run out -- in which case they become infinitely expensive. For some reason, people understand this when applied to bread, electronic gadgets, or even cars themselves. But they completely rebel against the market system when applied to street parking.
The Green Line is one block away. (source)

When asked whether he would prefer to trade parking spaces for additional dwelling units, there was a big chuckle all around, of course, and his partner stated that they were already below the BRA requirements. But if he were allowed to ignore those requirements, the response was a shrug, "it'll never happen" was the general gist. Still though, I think the developer understands that he is building in a well-served transit area and lots of people here walk and ride bikes. That is a good sign for the future, at least.

No comments:

Post a Comment