Alabaster Pizzo

IN LATE 2016, Portland City Council let parking policy in the city’s densest neighborhood off its leash.

For decades, parking permits in the city had been held at relatively low costs, and available to those who lived or worked within a permitted zone. But in bustling Northwest Portland, where transportation officials have at times issued more than two permits for each available parking space, it was no longer enough. Permits in the district are known as “hunting licenses” for the length of time residents and area employees spend trolling for a rarefied free spot.

So on its last day of work in 2016, the city council took action. In a little-heralded move, it gave the Northwest district permission to take up stronger tools for managing its limited on-street spaces. The only problem? Critics say the scheme the city wound up approving is discriminatory, letting homeowners have as many permits as they want while withholding them from some tenants of large buildings.

Now, as the city council prepares to consider spreading similar policies, fans of parking management are scratching their heads at Northwest’s new regulations, and landlords are hinting at a lawsuit.

The Portland Bureau of Transportation (PBOT) “has adopted a program in Northwest that has a very discriminatory effect,” attorney Michael Lilly told the city council recently, speaking on behalf of landlord group Multifamily Northwest (MFNW). “It’s also, by the way, not legal.”

The city of Portland currently has 18 permit “zones,” where visitors are limited in how long they can park on the street, but residents or employees with permits can remain as long as they please. The zones were designed to address the issue of commuters parking in a neighborhood all day and traveling elsewhere, but many say Portland’s outgrown that model. Stronger parking regulations have long been pushed by planning wonks, who say setting a higher price on street parking can cut congestion, increase use of mass transit and other transportation options, and reduce greenhouse gas emissions—to say nothing of making it easier to find a free spot.

In Northwest, the stiffer regulations council okayed took a number of forms. Beginning September 1, permit holders in Zone M—the permitting area that stretches from I-405 to the foot of the West Hills, and from West Burnside to Northwest Vaughn—can now receive subsidized TriMet fares and Biketown memberships if they relinquish their parking pass. Permits now cost $180, up from $60, a raise some hoped would spur people to opt out.

But the changes also pick on residents of large apartment complexes. While homeowners or people in small buildings are guaranteed a parking pass (or even multiple passes), the policy says only 60 percent of units in buildings of 30 or more units can get a permit. And any future buildings constructed with 30 units or more would be held to a stricter standard: Just 40 percent of units will be eligible for a pass.

It’s yet another example of Portland’s struggle with rapid growth. For years, residents near the city’s fastest expanding commercial centers have complained that large new apartment complexes are bringing in car owners who eat up formerly available parking spaces. The outcry was so intense in 2013 that City Council wound up requiring buildings of 30 units or more to provide some off-street parking. The council has since rescinded that requirement, fearing it adds to rising rents in a housing crisis, but the neighborhood angst remains.

The new rules in Northwest have so far had a relatively minor effect. According to PBOT, there are only eight people on waiting lists for parking permits.

Even so, most people the Mercury talked to criticized the new regulations.

“It’s hard to make an argument that people in those buildings shouldn’t have the same access everyone else does,” says Tony Jordan, who founded the group Portlanders for Parking Reform and who frequently presses for more and better parking regulation. “You should find a way to fairly distribute that parking to anyone who’s in the area who wants it.”

Even Rick Michaelson, chair of a parking stakeholder advisory committee that recommended the new regulations, says they’re not great. He concedes it’s not fair that a 29-unit building, for instance, is eligible for 29 parking permits, while a 30-unit building is eligible for just 18.

“That’s just a mistake,” Michaelson said recently. “There is room for improvement in the way it was done.”

And while Michaelson believes his neighborhood will eventually make the regulations more palatable—say, by creating a sliding scale for limiting apartment buildings’ permits—he’s hesitant to speculate on specifics.

Northwest Portland’s experience matters. On January 24, the city council is scheduled to take up a resolution that could expand the bolstered parking tools to other parts of the city—and there are plenty hoping to enact stricter rules. In the last year, at least eight neighborhoods have written city officials urging permissions to use new parking tools.

“Parking availability for our residents and businesses has become scarcer with each new building,” said an April 2017 letter [PDF] from the Boise Neighborhood Association to Mayor Ted Wheeler, “and we believe that applying some of [the] tools in the kit can help ensure that Boise remains a vibrant place to live, work, and play.”

Sam Noble helped write a similar letter [PDF] on behalf of the Buckman Community Association, which he co-chairs. The letter raised the familiar specter of “70 percent of apartment dwellers who have cars, but don’t have a place to keep them except on the street,” but in Noble’s opinion, parking in the neighborhood is underpriced, and all residents and employees should have an equal shot at paying more for it. He’s just not entirely confident many in the neighborhood will agree.

“I don’t doubt for a second that someone will find a way to try to discriminate” if the city enables stricter parking rules, Noble told the Mercury. “I don’t doubt that that will happen as quickly as it possibly could.”

City officials, by the way, appear perfectly at ease with Northwest Portland’s new rules.

Since last August, MFNW lawyer Lilly has argued that the new permit policy violates the Oregon Constitution, which prohibits laws that grant privileges to one class of citizens and not another.

Lilly says a letter to Transportation Commissioner Dan Saltzman sent before the policy went into effect was largely ignored, and that transportation officials downplayed his concerns in a meeting. He’s been trying to set up meetings with individual city commissioners since last week, he says, but hasn’t heard anything back.

Asked whether its new rules are constitutional, PBOT only responded that the program “has been reviewed by city attorneys.” Saltzman’s office says the commissioner plans to meet with Lilly and city attorneys to discuss the issue.

If nothing changes, it’s not hard to suspect that a lawsuit could be in the works. After all, Lilly’s clients at MFNW have not been shy about taking the city to court over its policies.

But when asked about the possibility, Lilly only said, “Instead of just dodging it, I’m going to tell you that I’m not going to answer your question... In almost 40 years of practicing law, I have discovered that threats of lawsuits are usually worthless. You either do it or you don’t do it.”