Seattle Policy Honchos Look to Parking Reform to Make Housing Affordable

They look like houses, but they're not for people -- just cars. Photo: ##https://www.flickr.com/photos/smart_growth/3881768618/in/set-72157624500360362/##Brett VA/flickr##
They look like houses, but people can’t live in them. Photo: Brett VA/Flickr

Buried under headlines about Seattle Mayor Ed Murray’s plans to battle “economic apartheid” are little-noticed reforms that would reduce or do away with parking quotas that inflate the cost of housing.

Murray’s Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda (HALA) Committee released its recommendations yesterday. Noting that about “65 percent of Seattle’s land — not just its residential land but all its land — is zoned single family, severely constraining how much the City can increase housing supply,” the report calls for raising height limits in six percent of that area. The rest of the city currently zoned for single family would get “small tweaks” like allowances for mother-in-law units and duplexes to increase the housing supply within existing height limits.

Seeking to make more productive use of available land — even the land zoned for lower densities — HALA also recommends a number of reforms to parking mandates that “act as density limits” and “inflate the average size and price of housing units.”

Here are some of the major changes to off-street and on-street parking policy in the report:

  • Reducing minimum parking requirements for multifamily housing, especially when that housing is served by frequent transit or is in a walkable neighborhood. Much valuable land in Seattle is eaten up by unused parking spaces because of excessive quotas.
  • Maintaining the current ban on parking minimums in Urban Villages and Centers.
  • Removing the parking requirement for single-family homes. At least, the committee asks the city to “consider” it. After all, the report explains, “A 1:1 parking requirement eliminates exactly as many on-street spaces as it mandates off the street, causing no increase in parking supply, bisecting sidewalks with countless driveways, and uses buildable housing space for redundant (and expensive) parking.”
  • Eliminating parking minimums for the “smaller format housing types” that will now be allowed in single-family areas (backyard cottages, duplexes, etc.)
  • Charging more for on-street parking (with revenues going back to the neighborhood) and limiting the supply of on-street parking permits.

You may recognize many of these recommendations, and the thinking behind them, if you read the “Parking? Lots!” series in 2013 by Sightline Institute’s Alan Durning. Durning served on the HALA committee, expecting to be disappointed in the outcome. He was pleasantly surprised with what the 28-member group was able to hammer out, saying the plan “stands a better chance of working, economically and politically, than anything I expected to emerge from our deliberations; it could prove a breakthrough in the quest for equitable, climate-friendly cities.”

Now it’s up to the City Council to act on HALA’s recommendations.

  • Kevin Love

    Wow! I’m impressed. Looks like Seattle might start to consider housing for people more important than housing for machines.

  • morganahouse

    I think these changes would be fantastic, although I’m not yet convinced they would impact the cost of housing since many parking spots are rented out. If nearly all parking spots are currently used or rented, this would have no financial impact on housing affordability but it def would reduce the total number of parking spaces, and that’s a great thing.

  • Josh Kaplan

    A few years back I was opposed to the “war on parking”, but I’ve come around. An additional reason pushing me that way seems unrelated, but I started running on the streets most of the time, as opposed to Discovery park. That enlightened me to how pedestrian unfriendly this city actually is. As you say, our sidewalks are bisected by driveways, compounded by people jetting in to side streets to grab spots they see available. I have to dodge several clueless drivers every time I run. That gets old.

    As an aside, will the council consider any changes to building requirements to encourage diversity in housing appearance? The heart of Ballard looks like soviet era Russia now, with every massive apartment/condo building looking identical. This is happening all across the city. It’s the townhomes too…all of them being the terrible office-park style boxes with the flat roof and textureless siding. Putting the ‘art’ back in to architecture would go a long way to keeping this an attractive city.

  • David Bangs

    As someone who lives in the suburbs, I drive when I come to Seattle and need parking. The bus system is horrible and not an option. Not only are the park and rides full, but I would have to transfer several times and it would take hours to reach most destinations. Are people who just want to get rid of parking missing something big?

    Seattle has transit plans. Eventually, there will be trains that don’t go anywhere near my house. Will there be huge park and rides so that people going to Seattle can park and ride the train? I doubt it. Park and Ride planners think 1000 stalls somehow would allow everybody to take the bus – when in reality they aren’t even supporting the current bus riders.

  • Megera

    The lack of diversity in housing appearance throughout Seattle is a direct response the the Design Guidelines set by City Council. I think that the recommendations from HALA might increase variation in this, as it will be possible to infill residential lots, and the mega-rental blocks (as seen in Ballard, although I would argue not the ‘heart’) will become much less profitable to leasing companies.
    As a side note, aesthetic preferences in architecture do vary wildly, and when it comes to design I think it’s appropriate to allow architects to chose what they think fits the site and area. This will not be attractive to everyone. If this bothers you, I suggest you consider either becoming involved with a Design Review Board or accumulating the education and qualifications required to design buildings.

  • Eric

    Odd, I haven’t read on this or any other article that they are getting rid of or banning the construction of parking…

  • Matt F

    50 years from now people will be walking down the street saying “oh that’s the ‘New Millenium’ style — the ugly townhouse facade that stacks upward with the ‘open concept’ living room. Those are soooooo outdated”

  • Matt F

    so what is your solution?

  • Josh Kaplan

    Megera, I’d say aesthetic preference for a particular style aside, having everything look virtually identical is quite ugly in its own right. I realize I’m painting every architect in the city with a broad brush, but their creativity, by and large, is not showing through in the last decade or so of residential development. I believe you are correct about the design guidelines being the root issue that caused this, and a contractor friend of mine pointed to that same issue. The architects are likely responding to what builders ask for, and certainly the profit motive comes before visual appeal.

    Matt, I agree. In a few decades this style is going to be viewed as we view buildings from the 70’s now…another style that just doesn’t age well.

  • David,
    maybe I misunderstand but I see it as a move to a slightly more supply-demand oriented approach. Parking lots in the city are valuable, but the land used for parking cannot be used for other valuable purposes. It seems as if HALA will give the developers a bit more say in how they prefer to use the land.

    But it is politics, so we never know 😉

  • David Bangs

    They are getting rid of lots of parking. Lots are constantly getting replaced by buildings. Street parking is getting replaced by bike lanes, restaurant seating, “parklets” etc. In Pioneer Square the whole stadium lot, which was $15 a day closed to build new buildings and won’t be replaced. The parking problem is getting very bad very fast in Seattle.

  • David Bangs

    I’m actually an investor in a housing developer, so I understand the economics. My concern is that people don’t realize how hard it is getting for someone living in the suburbs to visit Seattle. The parking lots are being redeveloped and going away at a rapid pace, and people just can’t find parking. When people quote prices, they usually quote the prices of the lots that fill up first rather than the usurious prices charged by parking lots that still have space available after 10am. People need to be honest about the problem – then we can talk about real solutions.

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