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In the basement of the Watha T.Daniel/Shaw Library early last month, Advisory Neighborhood Commission 2C came up with a wish list for everything it wanted in a new development that would go on a long-vacant, city-owned lot across the street. The last plan had foundered in the recession, and this time, the city was offering a blank slate. Why not ask for the works?

After a quick brainstorm, the list included architectural excellence, high density, lots of neighborhood-serving retail (“such as a Trader Joe’s”), and very green construction. The ANC also wanted as many units to be priced for low-income residents as possible. Oh, and the maximum possible number of parking spaces—at least two levels underground, and preferably more.

It all made sense, except for those last two items.

Parking and affordable units add more to the price of building housing than any other choice a developer can make. An underground parking spot costs between $30,000 and $50,000 to build, and residents pay for it one way or another—either directly, or because the price of every apartment rises to cover the cost. Adding parking on top of rent for an apartment means fewer affordable units, not more. And this building is across the street from a Metro stop, which means the land is more expensive, and getting by without a parking spot is that much easier.

Depending on their zone, residential buildings are required to have one spot for between one and four dwelling units, unless they get special permission not to. Those rules are being rewritten to get rid of that minimum requirement for buildings around Metro stations, which means developers could build no parking if they wanted to, with no extra fuss. But there won’t be any maximum number of parking spots, so developers can still build as many as they want.

Here’s the question: Will developers keep building large parking garages anyway? Neighborhood activists can cause a lot of hassle for construction plans, and building plenty of parking is an easy way to reassure residents terrified of newbies taking up all the on-street spaces. At the same time, skipping parking is still seen as a risk. It wasn’t that long ago that prospective renters and buyers wouldn’t consider going without it.

But there’s an obvious way around that: More development with less parking will prove the concept of a car-lite future, while also adding density, which supports retail that brings more amenities within walking distance. And you might just be able to get a cheaper apartment, too.

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It’s easy to forget that the District’sbuildings didn’t always require parking. Many large towers built in the early years of the automobile—like the Windermere at New Hampshire Avenue and Swann Street NW, or 2000 Connecticut Avenue near Dupont Circle—have no garages at all, yet command some of the highest rents in the city.

That all changed with the 1958 zoning code, which required minimum amounts of parking for all kinds of buildings, from churches to tennis courts. (The writer of the car-friendly code also proposed parking garages to ring downtown as a buffer between residential and business zones. That idea, mercifully, didn’t make it.)

But the effect of the rule is that the cost of building is raised by as much as a third. And though developers can recover some of that money by renting spaces to those who want them, there are usually spaces left over. That boosts the price of each unit—which means that you’re paying more for parking, whether you get a space or not.

“Let’s say it’s $100 per month. If you built the parking space, and it cost you $40,000, $1,200 per year doesn’t cover it,” says Four Points Development’s Stan Voudrie, who’s behind the mixed-use Progression Place project in Shaw. “Then you have to spread that out over the whole project.”

With smaller buildings—the five to 25-unit projects that dot the city’s neighborhoods—the parking requirements can just kill plans altogether. For example, Level2 Development eventually gave up on one 12-unit project on Florida Avenue off 14th Street NW because the sloped site made building six parking spots prohibitively expensive. The lot sat for years until somebody else made a go of it.

If it doesn’t torpedo projects outright, the parking minimum rule can limit the number of units in a building. At Justice Park, a Columbia Heights project on city land comprised entirely of affordable apartments, there was only room for 12 spaces, so developer Dantes Partners could only build 28 units—even though the site could have taken more.

Sure, developers could go get a zoning variance. But that takes money for a lawyer and about six months of fighting, which means it’s not worth it for most builders.

District policymakers started to see the folly of those minimums in the last five or six years, as the zoning rewrite got going. Around the same time, over-construction of parking reached its greatest height of absurdity in a set of District-subsidized projects by the Columbia Heights Metro station: Along with a retail parking garage at DCUSA that’s sized for traffic on the day after Thanksgiving, two apartment buildings and one condominium have 382 units and three quarters as many parking spaces between them. Years after the condos sold and the apartments leased up, Donatelli Development is still having trouble renting the parking spaces, and the District is keenly aware of having wasted $46 million on a 1,000-space parking garage that only fills up when it’s open for free parking before a blizzard.

On that project, says architect Brian O’Looney of Torti Gallas, the only data on how much parking people would use came from suburban locations, and banks wouldn’t risk going lower on something that might not be marketable in an emerging neighborhood. But Columbia Heights is a valuable lesson: It’s turned into exhibit A for how much parking is too much. “This is so new,” O’Looney says. “Right now, the rules are so screwed up, you couldn’t figure out the math if you wanted to.” When the rules disappear, it’ll become easier to figure out what kind of customer will want how much parking in a given area, allowing developers to rationalize how much they build.

O’Looney has turned into something of an evangelist on the subject, and makes the case that requiring more parking leads to the construction of less housing, since it raises the cost of development. “That is causing a lot of residential that might be built to not be built,” he says. “If you take that out, a lot of projects that didn’t pencil will start to pencil.”

* * *

On the supply side of the parking problem, costs are fixed: You can’t dig a hole and line it with concrete on the cheap. Demand is more dynamic, and to some extent, it responds to price. Unlike in suburban areas, most District landlords don’t pair spaces with the unit, which means that tenants pay between $100 and $300 more per month for their cars. And some choose not to.

But parking ratios are usually higher for condos, because even people without cars want to have a parking space to boost resale value—which doesn’t make sense. “People don’t really make rational economic decisions about their parking,” notes Sam Zimbabwe, the associate director of planning, policy, and sustainability at DDOT who came to the job last October after heading up the Center for Transit Oriented Development.

So what would developers build, given their druthers? One market-rate developer and property manager, Keener Squire, has a lot of parking garages with empty spaces in its Northwest D.C. markets. At the 304-unit Hamilton House on New Hampshire, for example, only 55 spaces in a 77-space lot are used at any given time. Michael Korns, who manages new developments, says he’d probably build parking spaces for 15 percent of the units in a given new building if he could. Outside of downtown, that number rises. At Rhode Island Station right off the Red line—where neighbors insisted on a high parking ratio—developer Urban Atlantic built one space per unit, and actually has been able to lease nearly as many, while renting out vacant spaces to commuters during the day.

The problem with providing lots of parking is that somebody will usually use it, even if not the building’s residents, which makes overparking less of a financial risk. In order to shift that calculus, DDOT has started to recommend that the Zoning Commission prevent landlords from leasing their excess parking to somebody else (like Donatelli’s Kenyon Square does with Washington Hospital Center, a quick ride on the H line buses from the parking lot).

To head off neighborhood opposition, developers can also promise to prevent the people who live in a new building from parking on the street by coordinating with DDOT to make sure they can’t get residential parking permits. That’s what Level2 Development did at its new project at 14th and T streets NW, where groundwater issues would’ve made underground parking prohibitively expensive.

And when it comes to affordable housing, like what ANC 2C wants across from the Shaw Metro station? Forget parking altogether. People who qualify for such units tend to have fewer cars anyway; also, their rent is capped at 30 percent of their income, and there are lots of other demands on the rest of it. That’s why the D.C. Housing Authority got a zoning exemption to build almost no parking at its 344-unit Sheridan Station project right by the Anacostia Metro station. And it’s why Vicki Davis, president of Urban Atlantic, says she’s got 300 people on a waiting list for a spot in one of her affordable housing projects at Capper Carrollsburg, and “none of them said please don’t call me if I don’t have a parking spot.”

Besides, the government isn’t throwing around gobs of money for affordable housing these days. Would you rather it spend $10,000 on a parking space? And for that matter, wouldn’t you rather spend your own money on something else, too?

Illustration CC 2.0 Attribution/Share By Exothermic

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