Mind The Gap In DC Parking Reform

A blog about business and economics.
Dec. 14 2012 11:34 AM

Mind The Gap In DC Parking Reform

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I went to a meeting earlier this week for discussion of the proposed DC Zoning Update, which is overwhelmingly change in the right direction but doesn't go far enough along a number of dimensions. In terms of slicing the salami, one particular point where I think they should be bolder and where it should be politically viable to go bolder is the "gap" in the map of areas that will be free of parking minumums and that runs roughly in the box between P Street, U Street, 14th Street, and 7th Street.

The way this works is that minimums will be removed in the downtown zone (colored blue on the map) as well as areas that are zoned for either mixed-use (red) or apartment buildings (yellow) and are deemed to be close to either a metro station or a high-frequency bus line. The process is then applied mechanically to the entire cityscape, which leaves the aforementioned space that I'll call the Logan Circle Gap. The gap exists because NIMBY sentiment in the area got it downzoned and so it's classified for short rowhouses. As you can probably guess, if I had my druthers I'd upzone because this is now very expensive land and the cost to the city of preventing denser construction is pretty high. But even leaving the current zoning in place, this gap illustrates a weakness of the mechanical way the parking liberalization is being applied.

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After all, regardless of formal zoning categorization everyone knows this is not a neighborhood of single family homes. In every functional aspect, it's a walkable, transit-oriented mixed-use neighborhood whose structures have overwhelmingly been subdivided into two or three unit structures. As it happens, I'm going to move to this neighborhood in January and though the unit I'm getting will come with a parking space my wife and I don't own a car and have no particular plans to obtain one since this is a very non-auto-oriented neighborhood. I think the politics should be there to fill in the gap.

But the existence of the gap in the first place highlights, I think, one of the downsides to conceding at the outset that parking liberalization is something that should be done in select high-density transit-accessible areas. The implication of that kind of partial liberalization is that in a low-density non-transit neighborhood, market dynamics would be somehow unable to provide parking. But that's absurd. There's no rule that new construction has to come wired for cable, but it almost always does. There's no rule that a new house has to have a bathtub (as opposed to a shower, which I believe is required) but most of them do. Neither homebuilders nor customers are idiots, they're capable of coordinating to deliver things people want at prices they want to pay. The problem arises when the Planning Department tries to come up with broad "reasonable" rules (like we need more parking in an apartment zone than a rowhouse zone) that fail to capture the nuance of specific situations like the Logan Circle Gap. But the real estate market itself really can capture these nuances. And more importantly, it can ensure that the cost of miscalculation falls on specific developers who miscalculate rather than on the city or the neighborhood as a whole.

Matthew Yglesias is the executive editor of Vox and author of The Rent Is Too Damn High.

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