Media Mondays - Parking and the original Portland

Right of the bat, this is not an article about Portland, Oregon... like many an urbanist, I've simply grown tired for hearing, over and over again, about the magical things happening in the great northwest.  I'm talking about that city's namesake, Portland, Maine and the smart decisions being pursued there in the realm of parking, revitalization, and affordability.

As the Portland Press Herald reports, the Portland Housing Authority is proposing a downtown mixed-income development with no off-street parking provided.  It's a great way to keep housing affordable (with a small "a") and shows the PHA understands the impact of parking on it's balance sheet and the urban fabric, so let's hope that when this comes before the Portland Planning Board, they grant the requested waiver of parking requirements.  That said, I'd like to take this post to unpack some of the issues of parking in the urban environment.  

First, let's take surface parking.  It's cheap (though not free) to provide, and because of the fairly simple economics of parking management (as little infrastructure improvement as the municipality will allow you to get away with, a minimally paid attendant, and wads of cash for each hour/day/month that each car parks), it's easy for parking lots to proliferate (or at least remain, seemingly indefinitely, once it's allowed to take hold).  The problem of course is that surface parking as almost uniformly devastating to the urban environment.  In addition to not being active space, the size of many a parking lot makes it a barrier between otherwise continuous sections of a downtown or neighborhood.  Even at that, an entire acre of surface parking only gets you about 150 spaces, which you can get from about a quarter-mile of onstreet parking on both sides of a street, without the deadening impacts.

Of course, if you want to perform better than 150 spaces/acre, you start talking about structured parking.  But even then, the geometric implications are simply devastating.  Think of it this way: office space is being built at about 150-200 square feet per worker these days (down from what it used to be), which means that, generally speaking, a 20-story 200'x 200' office building (accommodating over 5000 people), assuming everybody working there drives to work alone, would require a garage with four times the footprint of the building, standing nearly twelve stories tall.  By the same token, a smaller building (say, five stories tall and 100' x 100') would require a five story garage with double the footprint of the building.  Retail and gussying up of the first floor can help, but garages that size just crush the cityscape.  

And all of that is before we even get into the dollars and cents of it all.  The numbers fluctuate with construction methodology and construction costs (which have come down some in the past few years), but structured parking can cost between $20,000 and $40,000 per space to build.  Either way, the spaces often cost more than the cars that reside in them.  And guess what; that money needs to come from somewhere, be it privately or publicly built - parking fees, office rent, apartment rent, or taxes (in the event that a publicly built garage goes into the red).  It's why weak markets all too often see all their regional growth happen "out there" in the region, where surface parking is abundant. 

Throughout this blog, I'll certainly come back to parking (as most planning discussions tend to do, much to my chagrin), in which I'll tackle some of the solutions for this real conundrum.  But for now, suffice it to say that if we want walkable, sustainable cities and towns, then playing by the parking rules of the suburbs just can't be in the mix.  It's a game you can't win and different types of communities need different strategies to cope with it.