RICK MICHAELSON was there at the beginning.

It was the late 1970s, and residents in Northwest Portland had noticed a troubling trend: Land that should have been set aside for housing or new business was being paved over instead—given to cars. The city's zoning code required as much.

So Michaelson and other residents pushed back, persuading city council to eliminate parking requirements for certain commercial properties. The move was the first of a patchwork of zoning changes that would mark Portland as a leader in smart growth. It also set Northwest Portland on a path toward the dense urban blocks that define it today.

Now, in the wake of indignation over a sprawling no-parking apartment project on SE Division, Portland's parking debate has come full-circle. These days, neighborhood activists are pushing council in the opposite direction—asking for increased parking minimums, a direction many say is a step back, at odds with how the city should grow.

"I'm part of the reason you're here today," Michaelson, a developer and former longtime planning commissoner, testified at a lengthy council hearing around parking last week.

But there's a bigger issue: The requirements council is expected to approve Wednesday, April 10—which will mandate minimum parking spaces for new apartment projects, depending on their size—will barely soothe Portland's looming troubles. And no one's yet pursuing what many say is the city's best bet: special permit districts for neighborhoods waylaid by growth.

"Portland is moving from a strong leadership position, moving backward to its bad old habits," said Alan Durning, founder and executive director of the Seattle-based Sightline Institute, a progressive think tank. "Parking minima are also just really dumb public policy. They do not achieve the results that neighbors were calling for."

Durning attended last week's hearing expecting only to watch, he said. After listening to the debate, though, he was moved to speak, telling council: "It's a little bit like I've arrived in some nightmare alternative-reality version of Portland."

Rex Burkholder agrees. The former Metro councilor has railed against minimum parking requirements every chance he's gotten, penning an op-ed for the Portland Tribune and testifying before the city's Planning and Sustainability Commission.

"It's not the parking, it's the fact we're backing down from smart policy," Burkholder told the Mercury.

Chris Smith, a local transit activist who serves on a host of city panels, including the planning commission, put it this way: "We have to take away the illusion of that free space. That's a discussion we need to be having."

Common in larger cities, permitting districts assign a value to residential parking spots (in Portland, a parking sticker is $60 per year). In the much-debated Richmond neighborhood—where the 81-unit development at SE Division and 37th has drawn outrage—permits would limit access for people visiting the neighborhood's ever-expanding array of restaurants and cafes, and prevent overnight parking for those without a valid sticker.

Durning's argument hews closely to one by Donald Shoup, a professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, and widely regarded as an expert on parking policy. Both advocate narrowly drawn permit areas that could exclude the large apartments people are so upset about, heading off overflow problems.

"There's a giant failure if we don't regulate management of on-street parking," Durning says. "If you restrict and/or meter or price on-street parking, developers are going to figure out for themselves what the rational choice is."

The city disagrees somewhat with this approach. In a response to an op-ed by Shoup that ran in the Oregonian earlier this year, the Portland Bureau of Transportation (PBOT) wrote: "Dr. Shoup seems fairly unconcerned that the permit program he proposes would discriminate against residents of new buildings. For the City of Portland, any foreseen discrimination is unacceptable, especially if the discrimination perpetuates inequities of the past along racial, income and ability lines."

Still, a lot of people around the parking debate support permitting districts as a solution.

Council has long known they are effective. The city's Area Parking Permit Program, begun in 1981, has created 10 zones to date, all but two west of the Willamette. And the city made it easier to establish districts last year, creating a more-nimble "mini" version of the program in August.

"I really hope that option will be considered," Commissioner Steve Novick said at last week's hearing.

The only problem: The mini districts are neighborhood-initiated and, despite the outrage that's swept the city in the past year, no one's applied.

"We think it's a good tool," generally, not with apartment buildings carved out, said PBOT spokeswoman Cheryl Kuck. "We just haven't had any takers on it."

Even in Richmond, the epicenter of the current debate, umbrage-apt neighbors disagree. At a contentious meeting of the Richmond Neighborhood Association on Monday, April 8, residents had a fresh chance to lob concerns at developers of the controversial 37th Street Apartments. A woman asked both a project spokesman and critics whether they'd support a permit zone.

"I'm a big fan of it," said David Mullens, the spokesman, calling permits "a very reasonable way to limit what could be the abuse of the public right-of-way."

Residents had no concrete answer.

"Everyone has different opinions about it," said one member of the group Richmond Neighbors for Responsible Growth.

"It's definitely an option that we've discussed and it remains on the table," RNRG member Judah Gold-Merkel told the Mercury. "I really would have to look at what was implemented."

It's also worth noting that there isn't, objectively, a problem with parking near parking-free buildings that have been completed, according to the Portland Bureau of Planning and Sustainability (BPS).

A BPS survey found many residents own cars, and park them on the street. But the study also found "there typically is adequate on-street parking within a one or two block walking distance of each building studied."

Council's expected vote Wednesday largely will placate angry constituents and ensure Portland has more parking spaces. Whether it creates a meaningful solution amid the city's projected population boom is less certain.

"I'm pretty sure that even in making these adjustments we haven't gotten it right," Mayor Charlie Hales said last week. "I'm not sure the amendments that we're going to adopt will tune the performance of our zoning code in the ways most of us are hoping for."