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GreenTrip Parking Program Supports Infill Redevelopment in The Bay Area

Jan 13, 2012

by Katherine Howe, Urban Planner, VIA Architecture

Transform, a non-profit advocacy group in the Bay Area recently developed the GreenTRIP program. This is pretty interesting stuff for those of us who practice smart growth, because most everything in an infill development – a project’s design, feasibility and use can revolve around the amount, placement and cost of parking.

Cities have codes that regulate how much off-street parking a developer must build. Out of date, and often based on suburban standards set to the highest possible usage, these codes are at best, a blunt instrument. They can overestimate the amount of parking needed, and ultimately encourage people to drive by effectively subsidizing the cost related to storing your vehicle for free. This of course is not new information, much ink has certainly been spilled in the discussion of the high cost of free parking. After multiple decades of this approach, many communities from Issaquah to Bothell are looking around to realize that they now have 50% -75% of their existing developed commercial land area in one kind of use, surface parking.

The off-street parking cycle is hard to break because it requires a paradigm shift, switching our framework from accomodating personal mobility via cars to other modes, compelling a retrofit of the land uses already in place.

To do so requires a headlong push in the other direction. It’s too expensive to go half way, i.e. to keep on building lots of parking at suburban rates, but in structure or underground. This doesn’t work except in the most valuable areas, like a strong downtown. Even there, building all that free storage space for your car, makes that future project’s lease rates too high to cover those costs, and no longer competitive with whats already there. A new urbanist solution such as Kent Station or Mill Creek tuck the oceans of surface parking behind retail establishments along a “walking main street.” This superficial solution just masks the problem and is an aesthetic fix.

Rather, removing City requirements for parking altogether (known in the field as “un-bundling”) is often discussed in TOD plans as one of the first strategic moves City can make to support incremental infill development. This allows projects to begin to pencil economically and allows them to be designed in a more compact, transit friendly way. A developer can charge separately for what it really costs to build parking (from $35,00-$45,000) per space. Neighborhoods are skiddish about moving in this direction, when people look at new developments all they see is traffic! I’ve heard this over and over again. Even in our existing, very transit oriented environments this change to take on the parking problem is slow. In part, it is due to a failure of imagination and because reversing course takes a lot of work. It requires setting up a whole new system, where all stakeholders can see the end point, with options that work for each party.

This is where a GreenTrip program I think will be most useful. Green Trip effectively creates something like a LEED awards program for infill development in already transit friendly locations. It provides an alternative and pre-validated set of choices to reduce our dependence on the provision of new parking spaces as our only solution for mobility.

The program has been designed to allow a developer and its City partner to participate without taking on added risk, or taking a a lot of public flack for “giving away something for free” by reducing parking requirements. It is also intended to reassure neighborhood residents and financiers by clearly showing exactly how urban design (read street edge development that you want to walk to, and closely mixing together uses) can when combined with support for particular behaviors such as free transit passes,  access to a car share and un-bundling your parking space from your unit (you rent it separately) results in less overall driving by residents. That means less congestion on already busy roads, more transit riders and and the beginning of a cycle of people who will positively support transit.  More likely than not, it might also mean better living spaces because dollars and invested in the building and not in the parking garage. The program frees up private sector dollars to support something other than new car infrastructure.

At VIA we’ve been looking at and working on similar issues for sometime. We are looking forward to participating with King County on their upcoming Right Sized Parking Project, which will tackle a similar question. How can we help Cities to better adjust their parking requirements in support of transit? How can we elevate this to a broader question about solving for personal mobility at a regional level, and give real options that don’t require a fight in each neighborhood? Perhaps its really just about adjusting what we can realistically take for granted.  Combining smart urban design with different transportation result in some big changes about how people choose to travel, hopefully the puget sound region can devise a new way to reverse the parking cycle.