Minneapolis is one City Council vote away from enacting a major, nationally-heralded parking reform, authored by Council Member Lisa Bender. I’ve watched with great interest as the debate has unfolded on Channel 79. To summarize the back-and-forth as uncharitably as possible: utopians on bicycles deployed a slew of crowd-pleasing parking analogies* (1, 2), while some of our city’s original inhabitants countered with predictions of the aparkolypse (it’s a “boondoggle” of an “epic fail”).
One misconception coming from opponents of the policy is that it will cause the parking ratio for all housing construction in the specified transit corridors to fall to zero. This mistaken assumption is the basis for the primary argument you hear from parking maximalists: this policy will fail because there are still so many cars and drivers out there. In other words, “Minneapolis isn’t ready for your radical car-free agenda!”
It’s true, cars are still a thing. Which is why developers, and the banks who loan them money, aren’t about to start creating crisis-level parking situations that sink their investments. But I’m just restating Council Member Lisa Goodman’s rebuttal to what she sees as “a lot of misunderstanding” regarding this plan:
We’re not telling developers not to build parking. We’re just simply saying we’re not going to tell you what the minimum or maximum is going to be. I personally think that’s a better role for the city. The people who have their money in the game are the ones who are going to have to determine if they can sell or rent homes.
Goodman went on to explain how the policy will lower the cost of constructing affordable housing, and that “new buildings cannot be required to solve the problems [i.e. lack of parking] of existing buildings.” (Her full remarks are worth watching.)
Then there’s the charge that this policy is corporate welfare, a sop to developers. I hear this a lot, as it’s often delivered Tourette-style right in my ear. (By the way, it’s an honor and a privilege to serve on my neighborhood association’s Board of Directors.) At first, I dismissed this as phony left-wing populism, but just today I saw a note from a parking profiteer on the bulletin board downstairs. Now I’m ready to pretend to take this pretend argument seriously.
Lowry Hill East is fertile ground for parking entrepreneurs, with many parking lots constructed soon after Minneapolis enshrined residential parking minimums into the 1963 zoning code. One of those lots belongs to my apartment building. I regularly and obsessively count the empty stalls; according to my non-scientific analysis, the effect of our city’s 50-year-old regulations is a parking lot that never exceeds 60 percent full. (As a pessimist, I tend to see it as 40 percent empty.)
Extrapolate this surplus parking goldmine to similar buildings in the neighborhood, and you can imagine the potential for ill-gotten gains.**
This is to say nothing of unintended consequences; squeeze the supply of parking too tight, and some “job creator” will capitalize by building more parking. That’s why it’s not a stretch to say that this policy assures even more parking will be built. If you’re a knee-jerk liberal urbanist like myself, the last thing you want is another corporate parking lot. Even so, I’m not pretending when I say this is still a plan worth supporting.
While I’d prefer to live in a city with fewer full-time drivers, I fully acknowledge their existence. Likewise, this proposed policy change accommodates the reality of car ownership. However, what Minneapolis’ existing parking mandate does not do is acknowledge the existence of people who live without a personal automobile. Residential parking regulations are levied against them, like a tax. It’s illegal for developers to cater to them.
A socio-economically diverse city should have parking regulations that actually accommodate diversity. Parking has a cost; it’s as much “for sale” as a hanging hot tub or water stairs. We shouldn’t mandate residential parking in a way that eliminates choice and ignores the needs of so many Minneapolis renters and buyers. On parking, let the market decide.***
* More parking minimum analogies: it’s like a TV/VCR combo; it’s like an apartment with bundled cable TV when you just wanna stream it over the internet; it’s like ten thousand spoons when all you need is a knife; it’s like meeting the man of my dreams, and then meeting his beautiful wife.
** Bernie should be talking about this.