Friday, February 24, 2012

A Recent History of Parking Requirements

In my last post, I looked at the big picture of how parking evolved from Henry Ford’s first assembly line up to the advent of New Urbanism.  Today, I’ll walk much of the same ground, but with a tighter focus, looking at how parking standards have changed up to and including New Urbanism.

A benefit of being a civil engineer for nearly forty years (my, that seems a long time) is the chance to see how the perceptions have changed.  Including perceptions about parking.

When I first entered the engineering world, most parking standards were for minimum parking spaces.  Many parking standards to this day are of that type.  Given the building size and use, the design team could calculate how many parking spaces were required and then design accordingly.  One standard used by many cities was four spaces per 1,000 square feet of retail space.  Other standards applied to industrial buildings, gyms, etc.

But if the building use didn’t fit into the standard categories anticipated under the municipal codes, the resolution became more interesting.  I remember an extensive effort to determine the required parking stalls for a golf course clubhouse in Oregon in the early 1990s.  The structure had 27,000 square feet and included a restaurant, bar, meeting rooms, pro shop, locker rooms, gym, golf club storage, etc.  But it didn’t have much room for parking.  It required creative accounting to make the parking standards fit, convincing city staff that golf club storage was analogous to mini-storage, etc.

But nowhere in the discussion was it addressed that most of the cars in the lot would be owned by people who were not in the building but on the golf course.  No one said that the parking standards made sense.  I suspect that the parking lot remains undersized to this day.

About that time, a concern began to grow that minimums weren’t enough.   Retailers had decided that oversized lots, which seemed to promise parking even at 6pm on Christmas Eve, were a relatively affordable form of advertisement.  But the early proponents of walkability had a problem with making the customers who didn’t arrive by car traverse acres of empty parking to reach the front door.  They suggested that maximum parking lot sizes should also be established.  Some cities listened and added maximum parking standards to their codes.

Also in the early 1990s, challenges began being made about stores located at the back of sites.  Transit advocates argued that it wasn’t fair for the customers who arrived by bus to be forced to walk further to the store than the customers who arrived by car.  About that time, I worked with a city on an alternative site plan with a streetside building location for a big-box chain.  The chains fought back.  Their public argument was that it was more difficult to prevent shoplifting when customers could leave at two separate points.  The point may have been legitimate, but their underlying concern was keeping the parking out front as an advertisement to drivers.  They won the argument in some towns, but lost in others.

Into these evolving theories on parking came new urbanism.  The Central Petaluma Specific Plan (CPSP) is representative of many of the early new urbanist planning documents.  Minimum parking standards were set at fairly low level, certainly below the experience of most developers.

However, there were no maximum parking standards.  Instead, standards were imposed requiring that parking be isolated from the street by fronting uses such as retail.  (There are reasonable questions about whether these standards effectively require more retail than the market can absorb.  Those questions are still being sorted out.)  A development team could include as much parking as they wished, but had to comply with the architectural requirements and also to prove financial feasibility to the lenders.  Meeting both requirements put a very effective cap on the number of parking stalls.

For the parking wonks out there, feel free to peruse the CPSP parking standards.  If you do, you’ll find an interesting fact.   On January 1, 2008, the minimum parking standards expired.   After that day, if a development team thought that they could build condominiums without parking spaces or rent retail space without customer parking, then the City had no official objection.  The development was to be guided solely by what the development team thought the market would accept.

Lest you think that the Petaluma Planning Department just made an unfortunate typographical mistake, you should note that the City of Nashville recently adopted a downtown plan that also does not require minimum parking with new development.

I should note that a consultant currently working for the City of Petaluma has suggested that minimum parking standards should be again included in the CPSP.  Nevertheless, the trend toward trying to build communities with fewer cars is well underway.

New Urbanism has led us to a brave new world of parking standards.  And more changes are still to come.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. - Dave Alden (

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