I never thought about parking minimums until my favorite pizza place was getting knocked down. A local bank was building a new three-story headquarters across the street and the city of Sandpoint, Idaho’s parking laws required that the bank either provide around 200 additional parking spaces around their new building or pay $10,000 per space in lieu of providing them.
Weighing the options, it was actually cheaper for the bank to purchase the surrounding properties, kick out the existing businesses, knock down the structures, and build parking. So the small pizza stand with the best slices in town closed and was removed.
But that only accounted for a small portion of the parking the bank required. To satisfy the city’s parking requirements, they were eyeing Monarch Mountain Coffee, a community gathering place next door to the new parking lot that was the former home of the pizza stand. Knocking down the local coffee shop, though, would still fall short of the city’s parking requirements and the bank would further have to acquire and demolish multiple other neighboring buildings that were currently used for housing and other small businesses.
All of this was happening in the middle of Sandpoint’s historic downtown. The city’s large public parking lot was only a block away! It was never completely full (not even on Black Friday).
TIME TO TAKE ACTION
In the middle of all of this, I was appointed to the Sandpoint City Council. It had become clear to me that something needed to be done and now it felt like I was the person that needed to be doing that something.
The first vote I ever took, the same night I was sworn in, was to provide an exception to allow a historic building to be internally remodeled and reoccupied without having to provide additional parking. It was a relatively easy win; most people got the idea that reopening an old building shouldn’t trigger requirements for new parking.
The next step was securing a similar exception for the bank. They didn’t want to have to build the parking and we didn’t really want them to build it—despite the fact that we were requiring it. But, unlike the historic building remodel, they hadn’t tried to reach an agreement before they started building.
It was difficult politically, and arguably unfair, to grant them a special exception outright, even if it was in the community’s best interest.
So we headed to the negotiation table to try to work out an agreement where they wouldn’t have to build the parking in exchange for providing the community with alternative benefits. This was a potential win-win-win. The bank would win because they wouldn’t have to build the parking. The city and the community would win because we wouldn’t lose the surrounding businesses and homes. And we would all win again because of the additional benefits.
I don’t recall everything that made it into the final deal, but in the end, the bank was relieved from having to provide any additional parking besides what it had already built, and also agreed to provide space for a small business incubator (that, by the way, proved so successful the bank actually started advertising it as part of their support for the community).
It was a start, but it wasn’t enough. We needed to repeal parking minimums entirely. It was clear that, while the situation with the bank may have been the biggest example of how parking minimums were harming our small town, their negative impacts were felt much more widely.
These requirements were stopping other smaller businesses — the ones that couldn’t afford to buy up and knock down their neighbors — from expanding. The requirements were also making it difficult to build affordable housing and mandating that people build exactly the opposite of how citizens were telling us (through our Comprehensive Plan process) that they wanted our town to look and function.
But even with all this evidence of damage from our parking requirements, we didn’t have the votes to repeal the minimums. It was not an easy journey to get there.
I gathered letters from local business owners who wanted to expand but were unable to do so, due to the parking requirements. I worked with other residents to track just how many parking spots sat empty at the city lot and other locations where parking far exceeded demand. In collaboration with city staff, we discovered that the most beloved parts of our town would be illegal to rebuild under the current code.
It took a while to build enough support – and it was still contentious—but we managed to pass a series of reforms to Sandpoint’s parking requirements. We eliminated minimum parking requirements in Downtown Sandpoint entirely. Everywhere else in the city—for both commercial and residential uses—we greatly reduced them. And, finally, we set parking maximums to prevent even larger empty lots from damaging our community’s economy and quality of life.
The positive impacts were felt almost immediately. A popular Mexican restaurant was able to complete a long delayed expansion that, before the changes, would have cost them more in “in lieu of parking” fees than construction costs. Another restaurant turned their unused off-street parking spaces into additional outdoor seating in the summer. When a big box grocery store moved to town a little while later, the parking maximums left room for other small businesses and housing to also develop around them. And, by the way, they still had plenty of parking.
It became clear pretty quickly that parking minimums had never been protecting us from some dangerous world where no one could park their cars. The market actually wanted to provide more than enough (thus the maximums). In the end, parking minimums themselves were revealed to be the problem. And when we got rid of them, our businesses and community were allowed to gently, incrementally grow; creating more of the same kinds of places we used to build and still loved.
5 Tips for Repealing Parking Minimums in Your Community
Here are some of the lessons we learned from repealing parking minimums in our town that will help you do the same in your community:
1. Stay alert for opportunities. Rarely (at least in my experience) do policies happen in a linear sequence. Look for chances, like the restoration of a historic building, to argue that requiring additional parking makes no sense. Remember your end policy goals and push for them as soon as opportunities emerge.
2. Do what you can, as you can. Another way of saying this is: Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good. We didn’t start by removing all parking minimums. In fact, Sandpoint still hasn’t. But things are a lot better than they would have been if we had waited until we could pass a complete repeal. Take steps forward as you can. Make an exception for the reuse of existing structures, reduce parking requirements where possible, and eliminate them entirely whenever you get the chance for whatever portion of your city for which you can get majority support.
3. Point out specific negative outcomes in your community. Sometimes as advocates, we can get lost in theory and all the reasons why a policy is bad in general. Abstractions and even concrete examples from other communities often fail to persuade those who disagree. Look for examples in your community where parking requirements are causing problems for local businesses or unnecessarily increasing the cost of housing. Point out blocks in your downtown that everyone loves and why they would be illegal to build today. Being specific can often be the key to helping people understand why eliminating parking minimums is the right choice.
4. Build broad community support. Use your specifics to identify and gain the support of new partners who would benefit from eliminating parking minimums: the family that wants to build an accessory dwelling unit for their aging parents but can’t meet the parking requirements; the business that can’t expand; or the developer who wants to reuse an old building. Well-organized facts are useful in supporting the implementation of new policies, but people to demand action based on those facts are even better.
5. Don’t give up. It took a long time after we made an exception for one historic building for Sandpoint to repeal parking requirements for our entire downtown. And during a lot of that time, it didn’t look especially likely that we were going to win. Keep building support, person by person, business by business, and eventually you will get to a new community consensus.
If you'd like to highlight the problem of parking minimums and start your town on the path toward repealing them, join Strong Towns for its annual #BlackFridayParking event. Get all the info about how to participate here.
(Top photo source: Google Maps)