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Alex DeSpain

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What a difference a housing crisis makes.

A little more than three years ago, faced with neighbors beset by new apartments and tightening on-street parking availability, Portland City Council took what many felt was a step backward. The council enacted requirements for how many parking spots large apartment and condo buildings in most neighborhoods had to provide.

This afternoon—beset by the same complaints—the council declined to enact those standards on one of the only neighborhoods left out: the densely packed Northwest District.

After a 2.5 hour hearing that touched on concerns over housing affordability, greenhouse gas emissions, and the complex economies of parking, commissioners put off neighborhood groups that have been clamoring for parking minimums. Instead, commissioners seemed to prefer experimenting with a bevy of tools to modify the parking situation in Northwest—already one of the more innovative neighborhoods for on-street parking in the city.

"I think we would be ill advised to adopt the minimum here today," said Mayor Charlie Hales, who'd given conflicting accounts in past months of how he felt on this issue (and told the Mercury this morning he still hadn't decided). That sentiment appeared to be shared by at least two other commissioners. Amanda Fritz, who'd pushed hardest for Northwest parking minimums, wound up withdrawing them from consideration.

The NW District, one of the few neighborhoods in the city with a parking permitting program, has thousands more permits than it has spots where permitted cars can park. Permits in the neighborhood are sometimes known as "hunting licenses" because of the time people spend cruising for free spots.

"In Northwest, almost every hour of the day the on-street parking is fully occupied," said Joe Zehnder, the city's chief planner.

To address that, neighborhood groups had clamored for a policy that assigned a sliding scale of minimum parking spaces to buildings that are more than 30 units: 1 space for every five units in buildings with 31-40 units, one for every four in buildings with 41-50 units, and one for every three in buildings with more than 50 units. They argued that was only fair, since other neighborhoods in the city abide those policies.

"At this point what we’re asking for is simply parity with the rest of the city," said Rick Michaelson, chair of a stakeholder committee tasked with studying parking in the Northwest District (and a former foe of parking minimums). "Allowing some buildings to dump their parking load on the public is inequitable."

He continued: "If we don't build the spaces now, we can never use them."

The city's Planning and Sustainability Commission had already rejected that idea in a 5-2 vote earlier this year, citing concerns that expensive parking lots would make housing more expensive and wouldn't help the city with its goals for reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

There are some other reasons people oppose minimums—many of them laid out in a lengthy BikePortland piece earlier this week. That story noted that most developers in Northwest Portland are including parking spaces in their buildings even though they don't have to. And some of those that aren't would have built buildings of 30 units and under—or even never built at all—if they were required to include parking. That means less housing in a city that desperately needs it.

"It’s simple math," said Frank Stock, vice president at MDC Construction, during this afternoon's hearing. "If this is passed, what you’re going to do is continue seeing [buildings with] 30 units or less. Math is math."

He was the lone developer to speak, in a sea of planning wonks who opposed the change—many citing concerns of reduced or more-expensive housing. Among those to testify was former mayoral candidate Sarah Iannarone, who works at a Portland State University program that showcases Portland innovations to people from around the world.

"There’s nothing innovative or novel about" parking minimums, she told council. "There are many, many things we should be trying first."

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That argument, repeated again and again, wound up sealing the fate of Fritz's proposal (an amendment to a separate, non-controversial bit of parking policy). Transportation Commissioner Steve Novick is planning to bring a "parking toolkit" before council in coming months, offering up a bevy of up to 25 policy changes that could influence parking behavior throughout the city.

Until it explores those, and better understands what the parking requirements it enacted in 2013 have wrought, a majority of council (at least Hales, Novick, and Nick Fish; and maybe Dan Saltzman) advocated postponing a decision for Northwest.

"We ought to do that evaluation of what has actually happened in the marketplace and on the streets," Hales said. "Is it working, and does it need to be tuned?"