Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Indy Parking Policies Fail its Citizens

Many people are now familiar with the MDC hearing examiner's recent denial of a variance.  Current coverage on IBJ's Property Lines, Huston St Racing (w/photos), and Urban Indy.  This variance would have allowed a renovation of an old urban property consistent with its original and proposed use.  Basically, the developers wanted to eliminate the requirement for off-street parking.

The neighboring property owners were worried this would force the tenants to park illegally in nearby surface lots.  After review of the case and a private meeting with the interested parties, the Hearing Examiner concluded that no compromise was forthcoming and denied the petition for a variance.

I think the Indianapolis planning staff summarized the issue quite well in their analysis, which recommended *approval* of the petition.  Here is the planning staff's opinion:
Urban sites should be developed to the highest intensity possible. To require this site to meet the required off-street parking standards, would require the demolition of a portion of the building or acquisition of adjacent sites. A practical difficulty is met by this request since the site is fully developed. Additionally, there are several IndyGo bus routes that travel along Meridian Street and nearby streets that substantially reduce the need for parking. Finally, it is a common and preferred planning method that little or no off-street parking be added to a reuse of an inner city site. If residents require off-street parking, there are three off-street parking sites directly adjacent to the site to the north, northeast and east that could meet that need.

MDC documents are here (p. 85), results from the hearing are here (p. 3).

I think it is time that Indianapolis accepts that off-street parking requirements are the bane of true urban renewal.  The minimum parking requirements are a senseless way to devalue our CBD.  They are an existential threat to urban life, and therefore the core identity of Indianapolis.

Someone raised an interesting question on the IBJ website:  What are the requirements for becoming a hearing examiner in Indianapolis?  I suggest we remake the qualifications process, and that it only have 1 component:  survive in Indy for one month without a car, and then we'll take you.  A human's eye view of the city might do some of these people some good.

One of the commenters on Huston Street Racing offered an apology of the Examiners actions, stating:
He is a thoughtful and even-handed person, and a thorough lawyer. He is not a dolt or hack, as portrayed on the IBJ comments thread. ...  It appears to be his belief that someone will part with some parking spaces if offered enough money to do so. 
All of this may be true, I won't dispute it.  But off-street parking should *never* have become an issue with this property.  I am not sure the examiner even read the planner's report, because it pretty clearly laid down the rationale against parking requirements and why they wouldn't apply in this case anyways.  Just in case anyone didn't want to read the full report, or even my summary, just read the part in bold above.  One sentence is all you need to know.

This situation is yet another lost opportunity for a representative of the City of Indianapolis to address the real infrastructural problems that have ruined the city.  Indianapolis I love you, but you're bringing me down.

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Blogger W. K. Lis said...

"'Car-free' condo: 42 stories, no parking.
A controversial 42-story condo building that will be built without permanent parking spots cleared a key hurdle yesterday.

The Toronto-East York community council overruled city staff skeptical about the dearth of parking to allow a plan that provides for only nine car-share rental spots, plus 315 spaces for bicycles."

See for more information.

February 24, 2010 11:01 AM  
Anonymous Curt said...

Good job on the research sir! Im impressed! The more information that comes out about this, the more frustrating it becomes.

Can we collect all the blog posts that have been made about this, and send them to someone to get this RE-examined???

February 24, 2010 11:48 AM  
Blogger Alsatian said...

In Washington, DC historic districts parking requirements are waived when adapting a historic building to new use. The waiver is done at the staff level without need to go to the Zone Board for a full hearing.

February 24, 2010 11:52 AM  
Blogger Jason at said...

Thanks for the story. I lived 3 blocks from there and my building had off-street parking but I rarely used because it was easier to park on the street. There is *always* ample parking in that neighborhood.

Indy has so many beautiful buildings that are at in disrepair or worse. Big reason why I left.

February 24, 2010 12:27 PM  
Blogger Kevin said...

Congrats on getting linked to Streetsblog!

February 24, 2010 3:22 PM  
Anonymous Curt said...

Seconded. I saw that today as well

February 24, 2010 3:57 PM  
Anonymous cdc guy said...

To be very blunt: The objections aren't really about parking. They're about low-income people living in the building.

February 25, 2010 3:54 PM  
Blogger Graeme said...

Thanks everyone! I'm kind of late to this parking party so I hope I passed along some of the interest to the original people who covered it.

@ cdc guy: My hope is that Indianapolis will remove its minimum parking requirements altogether. Then remonstrators would not have inappropriate leverage they use to kill worthwhile projects.

February 25, 2010 5:20 PM  
Anonymous cdc guy said...

Our zoning laws have so many tape-measure features that almost every re-use or redevelopment requires variances. If it weren't parking, it would be dumpsters or signs or landscape buffers or clear-sight triangles. (This project requires a variance for dumpster and sign locations also.)

I do not imagine that doing away with parking requirements in zoning will eliminate much parking. CVS at 16th put in MORE parking than the zoning would have required. I've never seen it full.

February 25, 2010 6:55 PM  
Blogger Graeme said...

@ cdc guy: Minimum parking requirements are a land-use issue, and result in many projects being killed (or never started) near our central core. There will always be red tape for property owners, but no other requirement poses such a risk to projects.

The CVS at 16th St may have put in more parking than necessary, but cherry picking data points doesn't prove your point that eliminating parking requirements won't benefit the city. Your argument ignores the successes that many cities have had upon rolling back these detrimental policies and replacing them with more appropriate ones.

February 26, 2010 8:15 AM  
Anonymous cdc guy said...

Graeme, I disagree, and I think you're guilty of being non-specific (asserting that parking requirements result in "many" projects being killed without naming any) when I am being very specific.

There are variances to reduce parking requirements all the time. I think it is far more likely that a developer will self-kill a project if sufficient parking to meet his/her client's stated need is unavailable. That was my purpose for citing CVS: the zoning-imposed parking requirement didn't drive the project at all. The developer had to have enough land to meet their client's own parking requirement, which exceeded the zoning minimum. In that specific case, with expensive land and some left over, they would have had an economic incentive to reduce the parking and increase the remnant outlot size.

My "all the time" assertion is based upon variances for no or limited onsite parking granted routinely in Broad Ripple. Neither developers nor city planners believe there's a need, so projects move forward.

In short, I don't think the parking requirements built into zoning by themselves are necessarily an obstacle to redevelopment in most parts of town. Sometimes NIMBYs seize on them as a convenient way to prevent a project which they don't want for other reasons, as in this case. All that said, I do agree that they should be reduced or removed.

As I wrote elsewhere, it is rare for a zoning board or official to turn down such a variance which has both DMD and neighborhood organization support as this one does.

February 26, 2010 11:56 AM  
Blogger Graeme said...

@cdc guy: I don't think that me providing anecdotal evidence to counter your own anecdotal evidence would make for a constructive debate. It's obvious that we both agree minimum off-street parking requirements are a bad idea.

@ everybody: Those who are curious about minimum parking requirements and their effects on urban redevelopment, I encourage studying the body of literature that has developed on this topic. At the top of the list is Don Shoup's "High Cost of Free Parking."

Parking lot policies are one of the key issues facing urban areas, but very few people are willing to handle such a politically charged issue. Unfortunately, the effects of transportation policies are tightly integrated, so sometimes it is difficult to argue that any single change will be useful when several are necessary.

But the need for change is real. Anyone who has taken a stroll through Indy's downtown can see that all buildings have a parking lot or garage next to them. Every single one of these represents an historic building that was demolished to accommodate parking requirements. And the parking lots will never go away until the zoning code is repaired or a variance is approved for every future project - a risky, expensive, and time consuming process.

February 26, 2010 5:40 PM  
Anonymous cdc guy said...

Graeme, I guess in analyzing a problem, an engineer is likely to look at codes and requirements while an economist is likely to look at market forces. With all due respect, this isn't an engineering problem, it's an economic one.

Simply put, downtown parking lots cannot go away unless (1) the people who work and spend leisure time downtown go away, (2) those same people all ride public transit, or (3) they live downtown and walk to work. Clearly that will not happen in our lifetimes. Clearly cars need to be accommodated in the city. This is a car-commuter city, in a car-commuter society. Downtown Indy simply won't function without parking.

The expressed choice of the marketplace is car ownership and daily commuting by car. Absent massive economic forces to dent that reality, removing local parking requirements won't remove parking from downtown anywhere. As in the CVS case, businesses will figure what they think they need and arrange to accommodate it without anyone telling them they must do so: CVS wasn't required to have 78 parking spaces, but they chose to build them anyway.

To put it in structural terms, we can't wish away the load-bearing wall when we want a new door or window there. We have to make structural changes to accommodate our preferred vision. Parking requirements aren't structural in this case; what's structural is public transit supply and gas prices.

"Too much parking downtown" is not a code problem, it's an economic problem with two facets: government fund allocations to public transit, and gasoline prices. Both are too low to cause people to choose to make cars and parking go away from Downtown.

February 26, 2010 7:50 PM  
Blogger Graeme said...

@cdc guy: It's okay to disagree with me. I'm glad we now have our ideas out in the open.

While I typically discourage comments that are based on personal information, I think you have identified some common misconceptions about this topic that I would like to address:

Engineers and economics
I'll begin with saying that every engineer has a solid background in economics, as it is one of our core subjects. Because of our strong logical reasoning skills, high ethical standards, and our background in statistics, engineers make great economists.

Many of my classmates now work exclusively as environmental economists and public policy analysts. My own qualifications include academic and professional experience in economics, marketing, finance, and accounting. Inherently, I consider economics in every analysis I undertake as it is my one of my basic tools as an engineer.

However, I am not blinded to the fact that economics is only a guide, and not a final answer. Just as with any engineering analysis, there are hidden aspects of the problem that are never known, and this uncertainty requires careful consideration.

Finally, if you were to review the literature on this subject you would find that economists strongly support my arguments. The minimum parking regulations shift demand and subsidize prices in favor of automobiles. Restoring the free-market signals that would naturally regulate parking policy is the proposed solution, and the City of Indianapolis is currently working on this right now because they already understand the issue.

The Effects of Rational Parking Policies
Nobody wants to rid downtown of parking spaces nor automobiles. Market pricing in lieu of minimums is a successful way of matching supply and demand. It also allows much of the parking lots to be restored to their highest and best use classifications.

Purpose of the website
The purpose of this website is not to rigorously defend my opinions. That would be antithetical to the blogging genre. Instead, understand that everything has been well thought out and researched in advance.

The website is named "A Place of Sense" because I look at the evidence before coming to a conclusion, my ideas are never prejudiced by ideology or personal interests (which I always disclose). If you disagree with what is presented, I strongly encourage independent research equivalent to the time I have invested on the topic myself.

Also, I cannot provide supporting evidence to contradict everyone who disagrees with me. There is not enough time in the world for that exercise.

As this debate should not be about you (cdc guy) or I, but about the broader issue of parking policy, please address any future responses on this topic to my personal email. Alternatively, you can post a response to Skyscraper forum and link to it from here. I want the channel to remain open and clear for others to have their say.

February 27, 2010 10:33 AM  

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