Portland's years-long experiment with parking requirements ends in 2018.
A little more than three years after Portland City Council troubled smart-growth advocates by forcing apartment or condo buildings of more than 30 units to provide some amount of off-street parking to residents, a somewhat chastened council voted Tuesday to undo the change.
"I made a mistake," City Commissioner Steve Novick said of his vote to enact parking requirements in the spring of 2013. "Only Commissioner [Dan] Saltzman did the right thing at that time and opposed that proposal."
"I voted for it, and I think it was a mistake," added Mayor Charlie Hales.
Now, effective January 2018, the policy should be a thing of the past. It had been a consistent target of density advocates since its inception.
"We are proud to have moved the conversation in just three years to a place where the discussion is about how to get rid of parking minimums rather than how to require more parking," says Tony Jordan, who spearheaded the "progressive parking" group Portlanders for Parking Reform, and was a central foe of the parking policy.
The actual change, enacted in a 4-1 council vote, comes as officials are solidifying the city's far-reaching Comprehensive Plan for how the city grows. Hales, as part of a list of amendments [PDF] to the plan, brought forward a proposal to scrap the requirements he'd backed in 2013. Those rules had no effect on buildings of up to 30 units. Above that, the city required: 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.
At the time it enacted the requirements, the city was scrambling to address outrage over the large condo projects springing up throughout the city without offering parking—in particular, an 81-unit building at Southeast Division and 37th.
Today, of course, the city's most urgent issue is housing affordability. Building parking is expensive, and Hales has argued that getting rid of the requirements would make projects cheaper, and perhaps therefore provide for lower rents. Even if that doesn't happen right away, other advocates have said that doing away with the parking requirements could result in larger buildings, taking pressure off of the city's tight market and (eventually) lowering rents.
A majority of commissioners agreed with the sentiment, but they weren't willing to simply scrap parking requirements. Instead, the council enacted a change that provides an exemption to the city's parking rules as long as developers include affordable housing. In practice, though, it's likely that will amount to the same thing as undoing the rules altogether.
That's because Portland is almost certain to adopt an "inclusionary housing" policy that was allowed by the state legislature earlier this year. Under the policy, the city could require affordable housing in buildings of 20 or more units. Those mandatory affordable units would automatically waive parking requirements.
"The change made today basically eliminates off-street parking requirements from buildings subject to inclusionary housing," Eric Engstrom, a principal planner at the city, told the Mercury on Tuesday.
If for any reason the inclusionary housing proposal fell through—say, via a legal challenge—the city would still be able to waive parking requirements in return for developers offering affordable units.
"Important to remember that even without zoning requirements, people are still free to build parking, and many will do so," Engstrom said. "Our experience over the past 5 years has been that developers are voluntarily building one parking space for every two units."
Commissioners were somewhat split on the parking decision at Tuesday's hearing.
Novick wanted to completely undo the rules. In an email to reporters he wrote: "Parking minimums are inconsistent with what should be two of our main policy goals: promoting housing affordability and fighting climate disruption... Parking minimums are also a way of continuing to build society around the car—and if we are to prevent catastrophic climate disruption, we need to get people out of their cars."
On the other side of the spectrum was Commissioner Amanda Fritz, who advocated leaving the parking requirements in place—at least until further study had been done. She said she was concerned by the fact that the people advocating to kill the parking rules were predominantly young men, while people advocating to keep the rules were older or women.
"I wonder if any of you have had to think about parking underneath a street light and walking back to your door with your car keys between your fingers because you might get attacked," Fritz said.
In the end, she agreed with the compromise council found, which commissioners likened to keeping a "bargaining chip," they could use to increase affordable housing.
"We’ve all been dealt a hand of Poker, and there’s an ace in our hand," said Commissioner Nick Fish, who put forward the change council ultimately approved. "I’m not going to trade that in right now."
Novick was the sole member of council to vote against the option.
"If we’re going to have irrational requirements that we can waive when we require affordable housing, we should also have a requirement that everyone get a pony when they get a new house," said Novick, who was participating by phone. "Then we can waive that for affordable housing."
There was plenty of indication that council would roll back the parking rules. In July, commissioners declined to extend the parking requirements into Northwest Portland.