The Benefits of Reducing Parking Mandates, Part 2

Ted Sheils
August 15, 2022

Image from http://www.annapolis.gov

This is the second article in a series on parking mandates in Annapolis and proposed bill O-9-22, sponsored by Annapolis City Council member Brooks Schandelmeier, that seeks to eliminate those mandates for bars and restaurants. Part One published in the Capital Gazette (read it here) touched on the tax revenue benefits of eliminating unnecessary parking requirements as well as how those requirements negatively impact the bottom line of restaurants and are applied unevenly throughout the city.

In downtown areas parking minimums prevent infill redevelopment on lots where it’s difficult and expensive to fit both a new building and parking. It also prevents new uses from occupying old buildings because the sites often lack the site area necessary to provide parking for the new uses. In some cases, if an existing building predates the parking code they are not required to provide the minimum amount of parking spaces and they are considered compliant but “non-conforming.” If a new business wishes to occupy that building, and therefore changes the use, they would be required to provide the minimum number of spaces, which can literally be impossible. Therefore, buildings remain locked into one use type, a type that may be underperforming or experiencing low market demand (think office buildings during COVID). This is one reason why the old Fawcett’s building at City Dock was unoccupied for so many years, in such a prominent location – no potential uses could meet the parking requirements given the fixed, limited number of parking spaces on site. The current uses for the building literally required changing the parking code to reduce the minimum spaces required. Infill and adaptive reuse, two very important tools in a historic town, are the primary tools to fight blight, which parking minimums render useless.

There is a staggering amount of waterfront parking along City Dock, shown in yellow. This leaves little room for more productive uses like waterfront dining or a park to enjoy the view. Parking lots are a fairly recent land use and distort the historic landscape downtown.

The alternative to infill development, made difficult by parking minimums, is greenfield development. It’s much easier to fit parking into a site that is unencumbered and can be built to suit parking needs without the restrictions of an existing building. Greenfield development typically occurs on the fringes of a city, where available land exists. Infill is much better for the environment for several reasons, the primary being that infrastructure already exists for infill projects. Infrastructure for greenfield projects needs to be extended to meet the needs of a new building for things including utilities (sewer, gas, electric, water, trash), roadways (traffic lanes, stop lights, curbs, sidewalks, stormwater), and even economic support (supporting uses for new buildings like nearby convenience stores or hardware stores). Since greenfield projects are located farther away from city centers, users must also drive more to reach those destinations. These greenfield sites are also the least likely to be able to take advantage of public transit or even walking or biking. If you’re traveling to a greenfield site, you’re almost certainly driving.

There are 15 public parking garages (not counting Gorman which is under construction) and lots in Annapolis with over 7,000 spaces total available. Image from http://www.annapolisparking.com.

There is no such thing as free parking. Parking may appear free when we don’t exchange money directly in exchange for a parking space but make no mistake, we ALL pay the costs of parking, whether we realize it or not. When we don’t directly pay for parking those costs will be bundled in the costs of other items. It costs a landowner to provide parking – for example, in the case of restaurants those costs are passed down to the restaurant operator, who passes those costs down to customers through increased menu prices. Parking spaces require land and land costs money. According to the American Planning Association, the typical cost per surface space is $5,000 and it’s not just the cost of providing parking that is passed on, it is also the forgone opportunity costs of providing that parking. Because parking spaces take up what would otherwise be revenue-generating dining area, that revenue needs to come from somewhere else to keep a business afloat. It gets transferred to menu prices. So even if you didn’t park at that restaurant, you’re still paying for parking by paying the inflated menu prices. Even If you don’t drive, you’re still paying for parking. In the United States approximately 8.7% of the population doesn’t have access to a car and that percentage goes up for the over 65 demographic. People who don’t own cars typically have lower or fixed incomes and they are precisely the people who subsidize the costs of car ownership for wealthier individuals by paying the hidden costs of parking without receiving the benefits.

On-site parking is especially damaging in a downtown or business district. Those areas are defined by a certain density of housing, businesses, shops, restaurants, etc. and that density is eroded by on-site parking. Parking spreads out uses and creates gaping holes in the urban fabric. Parking also unnecessarily generates more traffic in downtowns. According to the ITE (Institute of Traffic Engineers), an estimated 25 to 30 percent of congestion in a downtown is caused by drivers searching for parking. One way to alleviate traffic is to consolidate parking in certain areas like parking garages. Sometimes drivers cruise for the perfect spot for 15 minutes in order to avoid walking 5 minutes. If drivers head right for a garage, they will save time and reduce traffic.

You might be thinking, why give food establishments a break on parking and not other types of businesses? Although there are benefits to reducing parking mandates for other types of businesses and residences throughout the city, food service is a use that is typically required to provide the most parking and therefore most negatively impacted by onerous parking requirements. Forward Brewing in Eastport, for example, was obligated to dedicate 75% of their total site area to parking. That leaves only 25% of the area to generate revenue. Most restaurants end up allocating upwards of half of their site to parking. Imagine if you were required to convert over half of your property into parking, even if that meant reducing the size of your house. Restaurants were hit especially hard during COVID. Many shut down permanently, and others just scraped by. If any industry could use a shot in the arm, it’s food service. It’s also a large portion of the economy for Annapolis. “Accommodation and food services,” according to the Anne Arundel Economic Development Corporation is the #2 job-creating industry in the City at 3,506 jobs in 194 establishments.  

Restaurants and bars require a much higher percentage of land area to be devoted to parking relative to other types of uses. Note: this graphic is not applying Annapolis parking codes but is demonstrating national trends.

It may be tempting to compromise on eliminating parking requirements and fall back to just reducing parking requirements. That simply will not produce results meaningful enough to affect real change. Setting parking maximums is the preferable position (as evidenced by the recommendations of many urban planners and parking professionals) and eliminating minimums is the compromise. Other cities like Raleigh, Portland, Alexandria, and Boston, to name just a few, have already acknowledged too much parking is harmful and enacted parking maximums. The effectiveness of the current bill before the City Council to eliminate parking minimums should not be eroded further.

You may be reading this and thinking, Annapolis is not Amsterdam. No, we’re not, but the Amsterdam of 15 years ago is not the Amsterdam we think of today. It had some of the very same challenges that we have right now. They thought holistically and ultimately chose change – I think they are probably pretty happy with that decision in hindsight. We are not Amsterdam, we are Annapolis, and we have a specific bill before us that will greatly benefit this city. To date, we have prioritized the car above people, environment, businesses, walkability, financial stability, historic fabric, and livability. As a result, we are reaping what we have sown. As I once read, “We must plan for the city we want, not the city we have.” Let’s choose to follow the data and act boldly.

Call your City Council member or send them an email and let them know you support O-9-22.

Amsterdam wasn’t always pedestrian/bike friendly. They made some tough decisions that demonstrated their priorities.