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Is parking the solution that creates a problem?

2012 January 6
by Chris Steele

Yes, I know that this is not as juicy as where Joe Kennedy hangs his jacket at the end of the day, but an article in today’s NY Times, speaks to another everyday issue in Newton: Parking

Much of the story is a slightly frightening celebration of parking lots, but about halfway through the article the author notes “For big cities like New York it is high time to abandon outmoded zoning codes from the auto-boom days requiring specific ratios of parking spaces per housing unit, or per square foot of retail space. These rules about minimum parking spaces have driven up the costs of apartments for developers and residents, damaged the environment, diverted money that could have gone to mass transit and created a government-mandated cityscape that’s largely unused.”
All of which sound suspiciously like some of the local debates here in Newton. How is the availability of parking paradoxically keeping us an auto-dependent community? How are parking rules keeping uses like restaurants out of our village centers?

Any thoughts?

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21 Responses Post a comment
  1. Hoss permalink
    January 6, 2012

    I read the post slowing. I tried. Doesn’t make sense.

  2. Ted Hess-Mahan permalink
    January 6, 2012

    @Chris, I will agree with you that our parking requirements in Newton are antideluvian and need to be reformed. Recently, the Board of Aldermen have approved a number of parking waivers for restaurants in Newton Centre that have little or no on site parking, despite the perceived heavy demand for on street parking. Nextweek, we are having a public hearing on granting parking waivers for Kozina in Waban and the West Street Tavern in Nonantum. There may be other restaurants that have deferred expansion in order to avoid having to come to the board for a special permit but we still see a fair number every year.

    Alderman Danberg and I have docketed an item that would create an option for “payments-in-lieu-of-parking” as an alternative to seeking parking waivers, but at some point the board should revisit the way the city does parking calculations. Requiring parking (or a special permit for parking waivers) for every expansion or change of use leads to more traffic and congestion, and I am sure creates another barrier to locating a business in a village center, which is where we would like businesses to be. But it requires a change in mindset for residents and aldermen who want to preserve the suburban, as opposed to the urban, character of Newton. And there is sort of a chicken and egg thing going on: which comes first, intensification of uses and density in village centers which will get people out of their cars and onto the sidewalk or public transit, or people forsaking their cars so that we can accommodate more mixed-use developments in village centers.

  3. BOB BURKE permalink
    January 6, 2012

    Ted’s analysis is a fine summary of the complicated and perplexing challenges involved with improving parking and transit in a compact and auto saturated place like Newton Center. I helped develop and analyze several measures as part of Rhode Island’s clean air transportation plan back in the 1980′s. The behavioral effects of any given strategy on motorists, pedestrians, shoppers and commuters was akin to mastering a rubik cube or pressure filling a constricted blivet.

    Several measures and strategies we thought would really improve things served only to make them worse. Even the best strategies we finally adopted were far from perfect and others provided only short term benefit because of ever increasing vehicle travel almost everywhere which has been a consistent and troubling trend since World War II.

    Finally, America has never really made the kind of a Marshall Plan type of commitment to efficient, convenient, comfortable and easily accessible public transit that would cause millions to abandon their cars for commuting and shopping.

  4. BOB BURKE permalink
    January 6, 2012

    This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to make things better. We should and I’m certain improvements can be made in Newton Center and in other villages with all of the combustion there is to do so.

  5. Ted Hess-Mahan permalink
    January 6, 2012

    Bob Burke, it is always a pleasure to read your posts. I am particularly impressed by your wholly appropriate use of the word “blivet.” I grew up in the country, where we knew it was 10 pounds of manure stuffed into a 5 pound bag. Thanks for the giggle (and for the trip down memory lane through my misspent youth, when we used to fling dried “cow pies” at each other like a discus).

  6. Chris Steele permalink
    January 6, 2012

    @Ted and @Bob – Thanks very much for being the first ones to post on this. @Ted, I had this on my mind specifically because of the the measures spoken about at the last ZAP meeting, and I do agree that these move us in the right direction. In the near term I also think we need to do a better job of letting people know that they can request waivers if there is a legitimate need.

    While we inherently need parking to bring people into some of the centers, I also know that parking has a bad habit of creating spaces that are inherently pedestrian unfriendly. I still wonder where Newtonites would like the balance to lie?

  7. Chris Steele permalink
    January 6, 2012

    I also have an inherent need for a thesaurus, apparently

  8. Ted Hess-Mahan permalink
    January 6, 2012

    @Chris, I learned two things this morning in my meeting with the planning and law departments to get ready for next week’s public hearings. One of the city’s lawyers serves on the Waltham City Council which, like Newton’s Board of Aldermen, is one of the few muicipal legislatures that also acts as a special permit granting authority. I am informed that Waltham actually requires a traffic report along with review and appoval from the traffic council for parking waivers.

    Anyone who comes to the Inspectional Services Department to pull a permit which may involve zoning relief is directed to the planning department, which will guide the applicant through the process. A design review team consisting of various departments will review the project with the petitioner to assist and provide relevant information and feedback on the project in an effort to improve it and ensure complaince with our zoning. If zoning relief is required, the Chief Zoning Code Official does a comprehensive review and prepares memo detailing the relief required.

    Where more than 5 parking waivers are being requested, the Planning Department and the Land Use Committee in Newton ordinarily require a parking study, which can be done by a consultant, but at times is nothing more than a count of available spaces at various relevant times, which can be performed by the petitioner itself. The burden on petitioners is usually proportional to the number of waivers needed and the number of onstreet spaces within a designated walking distance from the site. We have also benefitted from the exhaustive study of parking in Newton Centre that was done by the Newton Centre Task Force.

    I am trying to get the word out that the special permit process in Newton is not as onerous as it may seem and that we have gone to some length to streamline the review and approval process. If anyone is interested, there is a forum on zoning reform sponsored by the Lawyers’ Council of the Newton Needham Chamrber of Commerce to be held at 7:30-9:00AM on January 19 at Mount Ida College. Contact the Chamber for more info or visit their website at http://www.nnchamber.com. Yours truly will be one of the presenters.

  9. January 6, 2012

    Has there ever been a CAG-style review of “best practices” in terms of parking spot policy comparing Newton to our surrounding communities? We are obviously not the only city facing this problem.

    I am frankly pessimistic that anything will get Americans out of their cars besides higher gas prices.

  10. January 6, 2012

    the Newton LWV will be holding a forum on parking, economic vitality, traffic and on just the questions @Emily raises. Thursday, May 17, 7 pm at the Library.

  11. Ted Hess-Mahan permalink
    January 6, 2012

    Emily, this may sound like a cop-out, but Newton truly is unique. Waltham, for example, has various commercial developments along the 128 corridor, as well as a downtown and a commercial corridor (i.e., Moody Street).

    Newton, by contrast, consists of 13 villages and as many village centers which all have unique characteristics. It also has its own economic corridors, like Route 9 and Needham Street, each with its own distinct characteristics.

    Urban areas like New York City or Boston have totally different characteristics from both Waltham and Newton, such as public transit and taxis (well, NYC does, anyway) that make it possible to get to where you want to go without as much dependence on the personal automobile. Cambridge has Zip cars, but also has enough demand to make it worthwhile and economically viable. We have looked into doing something like that in Newton and have been told there just isn’t enough demand to make it work. Cambridge, of course, is far more densely developed and lacks the suburban quality of Newton or even parts of Brookline, which have more open space, predominantly single family homes and less convenient access to public transit.

    So, in short, looking at how other municipalities do it may not work for Newton unless those municipalities have multiple villages (which developed mostly around train and trolley stops) that have many of the same characteristics of an Auburndale, Lower Falls, Newton Centre, Newton Corner, Newton Highlands, Newtonville, Upper Falls, Waban, West Newton, etc. And there just aren’t too many places like Newton’s villages, the development of which was influenced primarily by 19th century transportation modes and not the automobile.

  12. nathan phillips permalink
    January 6, 2012

    Timely post, Chris, with respect to the Riverside Development. Traffic there is a huge concern, but there is no real discussion about the link between parking and traffic, including in the recent docket item, which spells out building square footage in detail, but leaves unmentioned the single largest allocation of space, parking.

    Every parking space converted to building space increases density, decreases traffic, and promotes transit.

  13. Kim permalink
    January 6, 2012

    My life long dream is to own a parking lot in Boston.

  14. BOB BURKE permalink
    January 7, 2012

    @Ted. Yes and that was another finding from my time in Rhode Island. Before going to Rhode Island, I worked in Washington on a task force which developed 56 (I think that was the number) of measures each state had to look at to reduce air pollution from motor vehicles.

    We developed these almost exclusively from measures that were being successfully implemented in California. They looked like good examples in Washington, but most of them turned out to be “bummers” in a small, compact state like Rhode Island. Nevertheless, we still had to examine and analyze them for submission to various committees and councils in the state.

    At one meeting, a very gruff representative from East Providence asked me, “Bob, who were the idiots that thought these things up.? I didn’t think it prudent to give him a totally honest response.

  15. Ted Hess-Mahan permalink
    January 7, 2012

    @Bob, my family is all originally from Rhode Island (and Ireland and Portugal before that). It’s a small state, but you wouldn’t want to have to paint it, as they say.

  16. Steve Siegel permalink
    January 7, 2012

    Hi Ted,

    Can you describe more fully how “payment in lieu of parking” would work, and what the thinking is behind it?

    Thanks, Steve

  17. Ted Hess-Mahan permalink
    January 8, 2012

    @Steve, here is an article published in the Ann Arbor Chronicle which describes how a PILOP works. It is a payment in lieu of a required parking space for a special permit which can be used to pay for new parking meters, structured parking, or other parking mitigation. Many communities in other parts of the country have adopted similar programs. In Newton, we envision either lump sum or annual payments for uses primarily in village centers where the parking demand is greatest but where it is either not possible or not desirable to create more parking spaces. This serves several purposes. As the blog post suggests, creating parking spaces also creates problems by encouraging more people to drive to and through village centers. The PILOP would go toward parking mitigation and not create more spaces. At the same time, it can provide an effective and efficient alternative for businesses that want to locate in village centers but cannot provide the number of parking spaces required by ordinance.

  18. Jerry Reilly permalink
    January 8, 2012

    @Ted – “In Newton, we envision either lump sum or annual payments for uses primarily in village centers where the parking demand is greatest but where it is either not possible or not desirable to create more parking space”

    In that case, why would the business be charged “in lieu of” fee, if the city believes no additional parking is required or desirable. Unless I’m missing something in the explanation, it sounds like in the case described the city has a regulation requiring the business to have more parking spaces than the city really wants it to have. Rather than changing the regulation, the city charges a fee to the business to be exempted from the regulation – a regulation that the city doesn’t want them to comply with.

  19. Ted Hess-Mahan permalink
    January 8, 2012

    @Jerry, a fair question. Particularly with restaurants and mixed use developments, shared parking can satisfy the need for parking without creating additional spaces. That is, parking used for commuters during the day can serve restaurants at night, daytime commercial uses may overlap with nighttime residential parking, etc.. Many parking spaces are private (and absent agreement are therefore not available for shared parking) so municipal municipal spaces for shared parking may need to be created. The city also may need revenue in order to regulate the parking to optimize use without adding spaces through meters or other parking mitigation measures. (Something Brookline does that Newton could also do is variable rate parking, which charges a premium at peak demand times.) So it is not that the parking is not required, it is. But creating additional spaces may not be desirable because it eliminates open space or goes unused or both.

    So optimizing available publicly owned spaces and adding only as many privately owned spaces as are truly needed are mutually consistent goals.

  20. Max Goldsmith permalink
    January 21, 2012

    I know it’s late for commenting on this thread, but I just came across this piece on parking:
    http://www.lamag.com/features/Story.aspx?ID=1568281

  21. Sean permalink
    January 21, 2012

    It’s never too late. I have been meaning to post something about the LA Magazine article.

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