Parking Minimums are Strangling the Downtown Area

There is an overwhelming amount of data out there that tells us parking spaces are crazy expensive, they are a terrible burden on this country, they actively interfere with making anything pedestrian-friendly and they actively murder historic, walkable, mixed-use downtowns like Aberdeen is fortunate to have.

Yet America continues to do little or nothing about this.

Parking minimums also actively deter the development of market-rate housing that would be genuinely affordable and make sense in terms of lifestyle for a great many low-income people in this country. And in downtown Aberdeen they actively deter a whole lot of development, both downtown residential and downtown commercial.

Although the general idea that Aberdeen needs to somehow find a viable solution to the current burden that parking minimums impose on the historic downtown is extremely sound, this specific proposal (below) is more for illustration purposes. If someone wanted to act on this idea, it would need a lot more work to take it from the idea stage to a viable plan.


Aberdeen, Washington has a tattered and torn but somewhat intact historic downtown area that is more than a hundred years old. This means it was built before cars became all the rage. It was built with commercial on the ground floor and residential above and it was built to be walkable.

Tentative proposal: The city (or Grays Harbor Transit) should build a parking garage on ideally lot #1 (below) or potentially either lot #2 or #3. Tentatively, this parking garage could rent spaces by the hour to tourists or whomever wishes to use it and also has space set aside to for long-term leases to serve properties on the mostly empty 200 block of Wishkah.

This would allow this densely developed block to spring back to life instead of either remaining mostly run-down, empty store fronts or bulldozing half of it to provide the parking required to develop the other half.

Click to Enlarge


Lot #1 is currently a gun shop with (unoccupied) residential above it. Informal information gathering suggests the residential development above it will never be occupied because it fails to meet fire codes (no fire escape) and it is too expensive to try to meet code.

Lot #2 is probably currently owned by the city. Google Maps shows it as having two buildings on it, but they were torn down some months ago. It is tentatively slated to become a visitor's center.

Lot #3 is currently owned by the Grays Harbor Transit Authority. They have tentative plans to develop it to enhance the existing transit station next door. They have also expressed interest in buying the lot marked #1 should it ever come up for sale.

There is also a regional Tesla Supercharger station between lot #2 and the Transit Center. Wishkah is the West-bound part of the Pacific Coast Scenic Highway and Heron is the East-bound part of it.

So they each have two lanes of briskly-moving traffic for much of the day, all headed the same direction, while preserving the walkability of the downtown remarkably well. This is a huge positive for the downtown area but isn't being capitalized upon.

Concentrations of population, such as the historic downtown area of Aberdeen, came about largely due to concentrations of traffic. When the Interstate system was built, it bypassed a lot of historic development because the Interstate system is a limited access roadway. This de facto killed a lot of historic downtown areas.

An old highway that still passes through a downtown area is a very good thing in terms of still directing traffic to the area, but Aberdeen does a somewhat poor job of capturing that traffic. Like so much of the US, walkability and pedestrian-friendly urban development has suffered as the car has reigned supreme.

But the car needs to stop reigning supreme. For a very long list or reasons, we really need to find some way to accommodate the reality that individual car ownership is very popular without relegating non-drivers to a second-class citizenship, as we currently do.

"Non-drivers" is a category that includes most children, some seniors, some handicapped people and some poor people who simply cannot afford a car. They are all relegated to a lesser life because they can't drive or don't drive.

The need of non-drivers to access things is wholly dismissed as irrellevant and "not my problem" by the American cult of the car -- this includes most city planners. Most city planner jobs require a driver's license to apply at all and when I was on Cyburbia, although transit-oriented design was a buzz word, most professional planners there openly mocked some members who lived without a car and bicycled most places.

The 200 block of Wishkah is the block next to the block holding the Transit Center and two of the three lots marked in the photo as potential sites for a city garage. If residential development on that block were exempted from on site parking requirements and a garage were right next door where people could rent a space or lease a space long term (with priority given to people on living on the 200 block), then you could uncouple parking requirements from residential development and make peace between current car culture and historic pedestrian-oriented designs with residential above commercial and keep it affordable.

One way to help make this viable is that residential development on this block could target seniors, remote workers and lower income individuals. The city already has a lower parking burden for residential development aimed at seniors and poor people.

Local flood insurance costs are on the high side, but don't believe anyone who tries to tell you this is the reason downtown Aberdeen has so many empty storefronts. Parking minimums are a much bigger burden.

They not only cost more, they involve more logistical burden to resolve. Plus they are an upfront cost that the developer must bear beforehand which is especially problematic.

Simply having deep pockets doesn't, per se, cure this ill the way it potentially resolves the issue of the high cost of flood insurance. If you simply don't have the space to put in the required parking and cannot acquire it, whipping out your checkbook doesn't fix it.

Cost of Flood Insurance

This section is here because a local whose job duties boil down to economic development of downtown Aberdeen once stated in front of me that the high cost of flood insurance was what was killing the downtown. I looked into that assertion and concluded it is wrong and that's not what is killing the downtown area.

A quick google indicates that the average annual cost of flood insurance is about $700. In contrast: Aberdeen, WA Average Cost of flood insurance $1,537

So flood insurance is genuinely expensive here. It's more than twice the national average.

However, there is at least one project the city is working on that I know of which aims to mitigate that to some degree. This could bring those costs down.

Aberdeen could probably stand to do more about the issue of flooding. However, historical information suggests that the worst floods, with multiple feet of water in the downtown area, are likely already a thing of the past.

Aberdeen has already done some things to mitigate flooding because the last serious flood in the downtown area was several inches deep and not several feet deep like historic photos show. People could still drive through it and did (though it created a wake that pushed water up under first-floor doors).

Cost of Parking

Some quotes from some sources:


Findings: Minimum parking requirements increase the cost of constructing a shopping center by up to 67 percent if the parking is in an above-ground structure and by up to 93 percent if the parking is underground. In suburban Seattle, parking requirements force developers to spend between $10,000 and $14,000 per dwelling to provide unused parking spaces.

From: The High Cost of Minimum Parking Requirements


parking minimums—local laws requiring private property owners to provide and maintain a certain number of off-street parking spaces—do not belong in a strong city or town.

Seth Goodman at Reinventing Parking did an analysis in 2015 of how much a parking space adds to apartment rent, finding (with much variablility) an estimated average of $225 per month.

Parking minimums put national corporations at a large competitive advantage over local businesses, because those large companies are more able to swallow the expense of providing mandated parking.

Parking imposes indirect, but real, costs by reinforcing car dependence. The "spreading out" effect of devoting much of our land to parking lots means that walking, bicycling, and even public transit become less viable modes of transportation. Parking, especially mandated, ample, free parking, is a powerful inducer of more automobile use.

Parking minimums often make the traditional development pattern impossible. Even where the zoning code allows a mix of uses (like an apartment above a store), allows buildings to come right up to the sidewalk, and allows a fine-grained mix of smaller structures, parking minimums make an old-fashioned Main Street all but impossible. The parking simply takes up too much land.

Structured parking isn't an easy answer. The term structured parking refers to enclosed parking in a garage, either underground or above-ground. Structured parking saves land relative to a surface lot, but it is up to ten times more expensive to build, so it may not be an option except where a development opportunity is valuable enough to justify the expense.

Parking requirements can price otherwise viable development projects out of existence. It's not just that rent in a new building must be higher to cover the cost of building parking. Often, that cost drives the necessary rent above what the market will bear.


From: The Many Costs of Too Much Parking


Residential parking standards are calculated per unit, so parking land costs are a greater percentage of total costs for smaller units. For example, increasing parking from one to two spaces per unit increases land requirements for a small 1,000 square foot, two-story apartment or condominium from 800 to 1,100 square feet per unit, a 37% increase, resulting in more land devoted to parking than to housing. The same doubling of parking requirements only increases the land requirement for a 2,400 square foot one story house by 12.5%.

A study found tha San Francisco housing prices increased significantly (an average of $39,000 or 13% for condominiums, and $46,000, or 12% for single-family units) if they include off-street parking (Jia and Wachs 1998). Only unit size andnumber ofbathrooms have a greater effect on sales price. Based on standard mortgage requirements, a typical household would need to earn $76,000 annually to purchase a single-family home with off-street parking, compared with $67,000 for the same housing without parking.


From: Parking Requirement Impacts on Housing Affordability

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