When the DC Board of Zoning Adjustment finally approved the 123-unit micro-unit development in Blagden Alley this week, it brought over two years of lobbying and court battles to a close. Neighborhood residents came out of it with a clear victory; the development, which had been originally approved with zero parking, was now going to include 21 below-ground spaces and a car elevator. They got their parking spaces – but at what cost?
Back in March 2015, the zero-parking micro-unit project overlooking the Convention Center won the green light from the District despite the fact that the area’s zoning requires one parking space for every two units. The developers argued that they were marketing the furnished micro-units to millennials (who own cars at much lower rates than other generations), and that there were so many transportation options in the area – several buses, a metro station, 19 car share spaces, and a pair of bikeshare stations – that the building’s future occupants wouldn’t even need to own cars. The backlash from residents was immediate. A group of them sued, the DC Court of Appeals reversed the project’s approval, and the developers ultimately had to add parking. One perspective is that developers were forced to abide by regulations and to respect residents’ wishes. But another perspective is that a group of residents used the court system to preserve their free street parking – a privilege that will be subsidized by their future neighbors, and that will increase the rent paid by those neighbors by up to a third.
A study in San Francisco found that parking requirements in the zoning code increase the price of housing units by as much as 30%, not only because building parking (especially below-ground parking) is expensive, but because space allocated to parking can’t be used for units. (The Blagden Alley project, for example, went from 132 units with no parking, to 123 units with parking.) Less units means a higher price per unit. Using that rough 30% inflation number, that means that a unit that rents for $1800 a month in a zero-parking building (close to average rent in the District), will go for $2400 if developers are required to include parking. That’s a significant increase that will price out a big chunk of potential renters.
Free parking is so ubiquitous that we no longer think of it as a privilege. Before the Fifties, very few cities had parking requirements on their books. Now almost all do. Parking requirements retrofitted American cities into car-friendly spaces, but that project is essentially complete. Statistics show that nearly 99% of all car trips in the US use free parking. The truth is, we have enough parking now. We don’t need more. Not only that – there’s really no such thing as “free” parking. Only half of street construction and roadway maintenance are funded by car-related fees, including gas and tire taxes and various permits. That means the other half comes from individual taxes, much of which is paid by people who don’t drive or park at all. While most people don’t have a problem paying taxes used for, say, public schools even if they don’t have kids, paying for your neighbor’s BMW space is in another category entirely, especially when you consider that your rent is inflated because that neighbor forced the developer of your building to include parking spaces. If you don’t have a car, you’re basically paying twice for something you don’t even use.
And that situation is becoming more common. After years of decline, the percentage of US households that don’t own a car is now on the upswing. When these carless, cash-strapped households realize why their rent is so high, the political tide is going to fully turn against parking requirements. It’s already happened in other cities; Seattle, for example, has built more than 30 zero-parking developments since 2010. The Blagden Alley hiccup notwithstanding, it will probably happen in the District, too – it’s just going to take a little longer.