Planning for density, zoning for sprawl

Universal application of parking minimums hampers sensible housing development

In October, Streetsblog New York, a blog on transportation and smart growth issues, posted an interesting story about an affordable housing development under construction in Brooklyn called “Navy Greene.”

The mixed-use, mixed-income project will offer affordable housing for lower-income families, as well as supportive housing for the mentally ill and others from the “hard to house” demographics.

Sitting alongside the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, an elevated freeway that acts as the dividing line between the gentrifying neighbourhoods of brownstone Brooklyn and the vast industrial waterfront of the Atlantic and Navy shipyards, Navy Greene sounds like a good development by any standard.

Remarkably, however, it was only allowed to proceed after New York City’s minimum parking requirements – that mandate that developments in residential districts provide on-site parking for 40 per cent of their units – were waived by New York City Hall.

This exemption from parking minimum requirements will allow the developers of Navy Greene to have the space and money to build a playground and lower their costs, and the residents will not have to pay more for a parking lot they likely will never use.

Parking minimums such as this are nearly ubiquitous in North American zoning codes.

Changes to Winnipeg’s zoning bylaw, which went into effect in 2008, mandate a minimum number of parking spaces per residential unit in new buildings and in expanded or redeveloped old ones.

In a single family district, the minimum is one parking spot per unit. In districts zoned for multi-family apartment or condo developments, there are to be one-and-a-half parking spots for every unit, in order to accommodate guests.

While this rule does not apply to downtown and the Exchange District (which falls under 2004’s more progressive downtown zoning bylaw), it does apply to dense urban neighbourhoods such as Osborne Village and the West End as much as it does to new suburban ones like Waverley West and Sage Creek.

In Osborne Village, the plan to convert the century-old First Church of Christ Scientist building at the corner of River Avenue and Nassau Street into 46 small condos nearly fell through because the city required a minimum of 55 parking stalls.

To build 55 parking spots would have been impossible given the physical restraints of the dense neighbourhood, and the builder’s plans to keep the units as affordable as possible. The project only gained city approval through the development of a car-share program for the residents.

Zoning codes such as parking minimum requirements are often not only arbitrary, but also detrimental to the betterment of cities

A few years ago, parking minimums quashed a plan to convert a fire-damaged and abandoned mixed-use apartment block at the corner of Main St. and Pritchard Ave. into affordable apartments for recently arrived immigrants.

Without the same political traction at Winnipeg’s city hall that Brooklyn’s Navy Greene received from New York’s, the plan was rejected by the city on account of there being no parking spots available on-site.

It is perhaps unsurprising that the city planners saw this parking minimum requirement so narrowly. What was surprising was that so-called housing advocates, who frequently decry Winnipeg’s “housing shortage,” shrugged at this project’s rejection.

“Well,” said one top community organizer who draws his salary advocating for and facilitating renewal in the North End, “you do need some parking.”

That rule, it seems, applies even to residents who cannot afford a car (never mind market-rate housing) and live along a major transit corridor.

Anyway, the plan was abandoned and the apartment building at Main and Pritchard was demolished. It sits as a vacant lot today, housing nothing but litter.

Regardless of the good things planners learned in school and the dense and thriving neighborhoods they broadly envision in Our Winnipeg (the city’s long-term planning document), zoning codes such as parking minimum requirements are often not only arbitrary, but also detrimental to the betterment of cities.

The market is quite capable of providing parking spaces, and abandoning parking minimum codes would go a long way in making this city not only dense and vibrant, but a little more affordable.

Robert Galston is a University of Winnipeg student who blogs about urban issues at riseandsprawl.blogspot.com.

Published in Volume 65, Number 11 of The Uniter (November 11, 2010)

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