Saturday, August 18, 2012

Off street parking requirements in Boston

This is a bit of a dry subject so bear with me. Article 23 of the Boston Redevelopment Agency's zoning code establishes a base for rules about minimum off-street parking requirements, although it is subject to revision by neighborhood or other overlay districts. The basic code is fairly vague and only considers uses in a few broad categories. Minimum parking requirements are poisonous to cities, and these BRA requirements date originally to 1964: a remnant of the hideously destructive urban renewal era that lives on today. Still, there are a few interesting features. For example, it appears that they've made an effort to reduce, if not outright eliminate minimum parking requirements, for higher density areas. Check out the table of requirements for Residential developments, indexed by Floor Area Ratio (FAR), which is a measure of how efficiently a particular lot is utilized:

  • Maximum FAR = 0.3 or 0.5: 1.0 space per dwelling unit
  • Maximum FAR = 0.8 or 1.0:  0.9 spaces per dwelling unit
  • Maximum FAR = 2.0:  0.7 spaces per dwelling unit
  • Maximum FAR = 3.0:  0.6 spaces per dwelling unit
  • Maximum FAR = 4.0:  0.5 spaces per dwelling unit
  • Maximum FAR = 5.0:  0.4 spaces per dwelling unit

There are some additional details: if Maximum FAR is 8.0 or 10.0 then there are no minimum parking requirements. And if the formula would produce only 2-4 parking spaces, then the requirement may be waived in some cases. So, it appears there has been some effort to mitigate the negative effects of parking requirements in the more densely populated areas.

Unfortunately, it does not go far enough. Minimum parking requirements should simply be abolished completely. They have an overall negative effect on the city, and also destroy a perfectly viable private market for parking. To get an idea of why this attenuation isn't sufficient, consider the North End. There, the zoning code specifies a maximum FAR of 3. According to this basic code, if the North End were being built today, then they would have to build 0.6 spaces per dwelling unit. Many of the blocks in the North End have dwelling unit densities ranging up to nearly 180 per net acre. By these requirements, there would have to be provided 108 parking spaces per net acre as well. The code also specifies that each parking space must be 8.5' x 20' (fairly large) which means 18,360 sq feet would have to be devoted to parking spaces, not including access lanes. A FAR of 3 means that there is 130,680 of square footage provided in a net acre.

Example North End block after minimum parking requirements applied.

So, according to these rules, approximately 20% to 25% of the residential space available in the North End would have to be devoted to parking! It is utterly inconceivable that the North End could be the friendly, walkable neighborhood it is today if it had been built under this regime. Luckily, much of it was built up long before the advent of poisonous zoning codes. What's even more curious is that even though the North End is now protected as a Restricted Parking District, there is still a 1 parking space per dwelling unit requirement in the neighborhood-specific zoning code. This is actually worse than the generic code!

Shifting to another neighborhood, Allston-Brighton, its code has non-density sensitive parking requirements specified in Table J for a wider variety of uses. For example, restaurants are required to provide 0.15 parking spaces per seat. And residences are required to provide 1.75 spaces per dwelling unit, unless there are 10 or more dwelling units in the building, in which case, the requirement goes up to 2 spaces per unit. So higher density forces more parking on the site, which is rather strange. At least it does not seem to specify parking requirements for bars explicitly, though I would not be surprised if they are grouped under another category.

I have to wonder about the relevance of this zoning code however. There are some decent parts contained within, to be sure. For example, there is an emphasis on creating a "street wall" in various districts and some like-minded attempts to keep the neighborhood walking-friendly. In other ways, it is far too restrictive and overly burdensome. I know of apartment complexes on land zoned for "3 Families" which also do not abide by the parking requirements (thankfully!). It is possible that they predate the urban renewal era, like much of the remaining decent housing stock in Boston. But what's even more questionable is the list of permitted uses in Table B. Supposedly, the following uses are banned in every case: bars with live entertainment, dance halls, and restaurants open after 10:30 p.m. Yet, a quick walk in the commercial district would confirm that all of these types of businesses do exist and thrive in Allston. The zoning code is very much out-of-touch with the reality of the neighborhood, as any static document would be. It needs to be reformed greatly, with an emphasis on removing the overbearing and intrusive prescriptions on usage which do not serve any public safety interest, but only the moral agenda of a few stodgy busybodies.

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