June 1, 2022
Auburn, Maine, is a quaint, picturesque river town dating back to the 18th century, with a Main Street historic district of Victorian-era homes. There's also a riverwalk, a hockey arena, and even a mall. But like lots of smaller towns all over America, COVID ravaged some of its businesses. A Ruby Tuesday restaurant closed. So did a locally owned brunch place. And a Chinese buffet. And a French café. And others.
Something had to be done to replace the restaurants and encourage new businesses.
So in June 2021, this city of 24,000 people eliminated all minimum parking requirements for commercial developments, thus reducing upfront costs for new businesses and expansions. It had an immediate impact. Later that autumn, the Olive Garden restaurant chain looked to open in Auburn and eyed the Ruby Tuesday's site, but the company wanted to build more square footage. Under the old parking regulations, Olive Garden would have had to supply more parking spaces. But now it didn't. The deal was done and approved.
"With COVID, we were searching [for] any way that could help businesses," says Eric Cousens, Auburn's longtime planning director. "This worked for us, and it's setting us apart from other communities."
Indeed, municipal parking reforms to reduce or eliminate parking minimums are such a major movement now across the U.S. that they're even spreading and taking off in small town America.
"It's such a small but significant step that any city can take to reduce development costs and encourage more commercial and residential growth," says Rachel Quednau, program director at a Minnesota-based nonprofit called Strong Towns that focuses on sustainable community initiatives such as parking reform. "I don't think there's any small town in America that doesn't want more businesses."
'A tidal wave'
To quantify the nationwide movement to reduce or eliminate parking minimums, a couple of advocacy groups — Strong Towns and the Portland, Oregon–based Parking Reform Network, made up of planning professionals — collaborated to compile a list of all the North American cities that have implemented or proposed parking minimum reforms in certain districts (like a downtown) or citywide.
The early-adopter big cities that were at the forefront of the parking minimums movement are all there: Buffalo, New York; Minneapolis; Portland; San Francisco; Seattle. So are the most recent big cities to join the movement: Boston; Raleigh, North Carolina; San Diego. Overall, a recent version of the Strong Towns–Parking Reform Network list contained 73 cities with populations of at least 200,000 people.
The compilation of parking minimum reforms contained even more locales — more than 130 — with populations under 100,000. There are college towns, industrial cities, metropolitan suburbs, rural hamlets, retiree hubs, and resort communities. Some 40 states are represented, and Florida, Idaho, Minnesota, North Carolina, Ohio, and Washington have five or more communities on the list. It's a geographic cross-section of rural and suburban America.
"I've been surprised at how many there have been," says Tony Jordan, president and cofounder of the Parking Reform Network. "It's been a tidal wave."
Smaller cities may not have the same congestion issues or transit alternatives as big cities, but they're pursuing parking minimum reforms for some of the same reasons — to promote downtown and commercial development, reduce barriers to small business growth, and encourage more housing.
That potential is certainly what's led Cutler Bay, Florida, down the path of parking minimum reforms. A town of 45,000 people and eight senior living facilities, the AARP "age-friendly" community south of Miami has had a waiting list for senior units for years.
Town officials talked to developers about what was holding them back. One common refrain: parking costs. So, in 2019, the town reduced parking minimums for senior housing, cutting the requirements in half from two spaces per unit to one. This move immediately led to a 99-unit senior project proposal.
Now Cutler Bay is doubling down on parking reform. A new metro bus rapid transit line is being built on the edge of town, and in April 2022, the town council passed new reductions in parking minimums for mixed-use and multifamily developments in a special transit zone.
"This is the town's way of incentivizing development," says Town Manager Rafael Casals.
Benefits of reforms
So what's so wrong with parking minimums, anyway?
Parking minimums tend to be controversial because they can be inconsistent and unpredictable. The requirements in one city aren't necessarily the same in another city. And some standards aren't always efficient, such as locales dictating two spaces per chair at a barber shop when a barber's chair can only hold one person at a time.
In today's age of environmental sustainability concerns, there's also more awareness about the spatial costs of parking — the fact that suburban parking lots can be larger than the square footage of the buildings they serve, and a string of downtown parking lots can look like a mouthful of missing teeth on the face of a walkable public realm. There can also be water quality costs, as rainfall lands on all that asphalt and then runs off into nearby waterways or storm sewers, taking oil and other surface contaminants with it.
Then there are the direct costs of building parking — estimated by industry analysts at roughly $5,000 per surface space and up to $50,000 per space in multilevel garages. This of course escalates the costs of real estate developments, sometimes to a point of making a project financially unfeasible.
"Parking requirements do so much harm," says Donald Shoup, FAICP, a distinguished urban planning professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, and a longtime evangelist for parking reforms, as the author of several books on the issue. "They add costs to the building of housing, and they increase the usage of cars and greenhouse gas emissions. They seem to work against almost everything that planners want."
Even the National Parking Association, the industry's trade group of parking operators, now supports reducing or eliminating parking minimums and instead favors allowing communities and developers to make market-based decisions on parking supply and demand.
But do parking minimum reforms actually produce their expected benefits? So far, there hasn't been much research on this topic, but some new studies have begun to be published that appear to answer that question with an emphatic "yes."
In Seattle and Buffalo, separate groups of academic researchers in 2020 and 2021, respectively, found that after policy changes concerning parking minimums, a large portion of developers did build less parking than previously required, and they particularly took advantage of the cost savings to build mixed-use projects. And in San Diego, another group of academic researchers in 2021 found that in the first year after parking reforms, proposals for affordable housing units jumped fivefold.
Bottom line, these studies indicate that more commercial and residential development occurred after parking reforms than would have happened without the reforms.
As the Buffalo researchers — planning professors from the University at Buffalo — wrote in the Journal of the American Planning Association article "Minus Minimums" last year, "Cities of all types stand to benefit from undoing constraining parking policies of the past and allowing developers to transform parking lots into 'higher uses.'"
But all that parking research so far is from bigger cities. Can the same impacts occur in smaller towns? A couple of experiences in different parts of the country are already showing it can.
The college town of Fayetteville, Arkansas, is believed to be one of the first cities in the U.S. to have eliminated parking minimums citywide, which it did in 2015 for commercial properties. In the seven years since, Fayetteville officials don't claim that it spurred a frenzy of new development or redevelopment. But they do maintain it led to some projects that likely wouldn't have happened otherwise.
Take the Feed & Folly restaurant just off the downtown square. Its owners took over a building that had been vacant for decades, but the parking lot only had room for a half-dozen cars — some 30 less than the city's old parking regulations would have required. But under the new rules, it was able to open in 2020 while adding just a handful of parking spaces, and it instantly became a buzzworthy hotspot with its rooftop bar.
Similarly, Matthew Petty was on the Fayetteville City Council when the parking minimums reform was passed, and as a planning consultant and developer, he eventually wanted to take advantage of the rule change. He and his partners developed what's called 495 Prairie, a three-story project with nine apartments on upper floors, plus offices, a craft beer bar, and a smoothie shop at the street level. The project built just nine parking spaces — less than half of what would have been required before 2015.
"We wouldn't have been able to do mixed-use without the new parking policy," Petty says.
A thousand miles from Fayetteville, a town in Idaho called Sandpoint experienced some of the same benefits from parking minimums reform.
Sandpoint is a resort town with less than 10,000 residents that swells with visitors who come for its lake, beach, and nearby skiing in pine forests. The town first did away with parking minimums for its downtown in 2009. Nine years later, it reduced the minimums citywide. Why? To make building renovations and redevelopments more affordable for small business startups.
Aaron Qualls, AICP, saw it all. From 2010 to 2021, he served as a planning commissioner, city planning director, and a city councilmember in Sandpoint, and he documented what he called "success stories made possible by parking reform." There was MickDuff's Brewery that remodeled an old library and Pend d'Oreille Winery that took over a vacant old furniture store. A tech startup renovated a dilapidated lumber supply building. And on and on — and Qualls says they wouldn't have happened under the old parking requirements, because local business startups often don't have extra capital to devote to parking.
"We've always assumed that more parking is better," says Qualls, now a project manager and planner for SCJ Alliance, an engineering and planning firm, "and what we found in Sandpoint is that's not always the case."
The lesson: A flexible policy
The countrywide parking reform movement is, of course, not a single-issue crusade. Boston and San Diego have also established parking maximums, or limits on how many spaces a new development can provide in transit-accessible neighborhoods. Los Angeles and Washington, D.C., have technology-driven programs that adjust parking rates based on demand, like higher rates during the morning commute. And Chicago; Kansas City, Missouri; Philadelphia; and several other cities have allowed businesses and neighborhoods to repurpose on-street parking spaces into restaurant seating, parklets, and other public gatherings during the pandemic. In many cases, those temporary changes are becoming permanent.
But parking minimums are by far the most popular form of parking reform — they're even spreading to state legislative efforts in California, Connecticut, and Oregon — and they're usually the focus of smaller-town policies.
In Jackson, Tennessee, an industrial hub of 68,000 people, leaders are trying to encourage more infill development. Eliminating parking minimums for commercial projects last October was "an easy decision," Mayor Scott Conger says, because it didn't require any government funding or subsidies.
Nevertheless, it's not always an easy plunge for smaller cities to take.
Proposals to reduce or eliminate parking minimums are sometimes met with skepticism and apprehension in smaller towns. There, people are used to parking right by a store's front door. "There still is trepidation in these communities," says Carl Schneeman, managing principal of Walker Consultants, a Minneapolis-based parking design and planning firm that works with cities of all sizes. "A lot of them simply fear a change."
And it usually turns out that such fears are overblown and don't come to pass. "Every time these reforms are put in, people go to meetings and say, 'This is going to be terrible.' And it never is," says Parking Reform Network's Jordan. "The sky doesn't fall."
If there's a lesson for how smaller communities can avoid or lessen such fears of parking minimums reform, it's by providing flexibility in the new policy. That is, don't necessarily apply the reduced parking standards to all types of properties or all parts of town. Be targeted in the approach.
That's what Auburn and Fayetteville did, applying reduced parking standards for commercial projects. Same with Cutler Bay, which lowered parking minimums first for senior housing only, then for mixed-use and multifamily developments in a transit zone. And the city of Alameda, California, was one of the latest communities to officially join the movement, passing an ordinance that eliminated parking minimums citywide in November 2021.
In Alameda, the Planning Board for years had been passing parking variances to reduce parking spaces for new projects. So the decision to eliminate minimum standards simply reflected the community's evolving attitude toward parking, plus the realization that this city — an island without room to sprawl — needed more room to devote to new housing growth.
"We have space for people and more buildings," says Andrew Thomas, AICP, director of the city's Planning, Building, and Transportation department. "We don't have space for more automobiles that need to be stored.
"We've come a long way."