CITIES:

Should a 'Walker's Paradise' save plenty of room for parking?

A luxurious life awaits the residents of 891 14th St., a condominium tower now selling in downtown Denver.

The 41-story building, called Spire, will feature a private pool deck, gym, dog park and movie theater. Plush restaurants and bars sit downstairs.

If they wish, the denizens of this mini-world can step outside into the arts district, or they can walk fractions of a mile to three of Denver's light rail lines. Spire scores a 91 on WalkScore.com, earning the label "Walker's Paradise."

To reach paradise, though, Spire residents won't have to give up their cars. The 33 floors of residences sit atop a "parking podium" eight floors tall. It contains bikes and cars for rent, but most of the room is for 600 parking spaces. The building has 500 condos.

As the Denver region embarks on a plan to contain sprawl and embrace mass transit, "transit-oriented" developments are starting to appear. But one thorny issue has come up again and again: If Denver is committed to transit, how much parking should it build?

"There is a pervasive feeling, I think, in a lot of communities in the Denver region that by not having enough parking, people are going to overflow and park in front of their house or in front of other businesses," said Catherine Cox Blair, a program director with Reconnecting America, a pro-rail group.

That nervousness takes form, in part, in the zoning policies that exist in the Denver area and most cities in the United States. These policies require a certain amount of parking with any new development. In the Denver area, individual cities set their own standards, and they apply whether a development is far from any transit or right by a train stop.

Parking requirements didn't apply in the case of Spire -- in Denver's central business district, no such requirements exist. But its eight floors of parking -- considered a significant downsizing in the Denver market -- highlight the challenges of committing to lower-carbon modes.

Curbing sprawl or adding to it?

In 2004, Denverites voted for one of the largest transit projects in the United States: 122 miles of commuter and light rail, 18 miles of rapid buses and 57 transit stations. That took after a 2002 plan, entitled "Blueprint Denver," that said the region wanted to "move people; not just cars."

The advocates of so-called "smart growth" hoped for a conversion moment. They wanted transit stations to bloom with homes, offices and shops all within a short distance. Not only would this relieve traffic, in their view, but it would make many trips possible by foot, bike and transit, resulting in less carbon dioxide emissions.

Real-estate developers were excited about these opportunities but wary of giving up parking, according to Cox Blair.

Scott McFadden, a principal with Prospect LLC who has worked on transit-oriented developments in Denver, said "it's a location where you can't live without a car, per se."

For example, a Denverite couldn't take the train to the grocery store, his friend's house, work and Target in succession. For at least some of those trips, he'd need a car: "You still need it to go to work and to shop and, quite frankly, to take it to the mountains, which is why you live in Denver in the first place."

So when McFadden plans a new transit-oriented development, or TOD, he looks at what people living in that area would probably want. A couple living in a condo could probably get away with owning one car, but a pair of roommates would likely want one each, he said. A rule of thumb is that a rail stop in the suburbs would mean about one parking space per bedroom; in the urban core, less than that.

But some smart-growth experts see a troubling trend. They speak of rail stations that leave passengers with nowhere to walk but a cavernous parking garage.

They say parking requirements, like those in the Denver area, have resulted in cities having much more parking than they need -- sometimes, by the very train stops that are supposed to offer an alternative to driving.

Michael Kodransky, global research manager at the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy, said he's seen "parking podiums" in Dallas and in Jersey City and Newark, N.J. Dallas has begun a significant light-rail extension, and the New Jersey cities are also well-networked with New York-region rail.

He said parking podiums are still appearing in these cities "because the intention was to stimulate development around transit stops, but at the same time, there wasn't a review of the zoning related to parking, or at least not the political will to change it."

Outdated zoning or social engineering?

Others blame federal policies for stacking the deck in favor of parking. Jeffrey Tumlin, a principal at Nelson\Nygaard and a parking expert who has consulted for Denver, said federal funds come with conditions that can result in unneeded spots.

In a paper last year, he cited a case from East Portland, Ore. There, a major development with medical offices was replacing a a flat, 830-space parking lot by the train station. The plan already included 600 parking spots, but to meet federal requirements, it also had to build another 230 spots at a station farther down the train line.

"That lot -- constructed at great cost to the region -- now sits empty on most weekdays for lack of demand," Tumlin wrote.

Critics of TOD, like the Cato Institute's Randal O'Toole, see this conversation as misguided. O'Toole thinks cities should abolish their parking standards -- whether they're maximums or minimums -- and let developers decide how much parking they want to offer in a given neighborhood.

"More parking means more commitment to the economic reality that, even if you build at a light-rail station, most of your residents and customers will still drive," he said in an email.

When cities try to set maximum parking standards, like Portland has done, people either avoid those developments -- leaving them vacant -- or just park illegally.

"This all gets back to trying to socially engineer Americans into living the way planners think Europeans live," he said. "Ironically, even most Europeans don't live that way: they drive for 80 percent of their travel (compared with our 85 percent) and most of them live in suburbs rather than central cities."

Back in Denver, local governments are trying to push for parking reform. In a 2007 study done for the Denver Public Works Department, researchers looked at parking use, at peak hours, in 11 of Denver's most popular neighborhoods. They found that overall, at least 25 percent of parking went unused, and in some neighborhoods the number was closer to half. The study suggested that giving many buildings their own parking lots was resulting in excess parking -- a waste of money and space.

Findings like these didn't send city officials on a crusade to end free and widely available parking. But now, they say, they at least want to be more conscious of how much parking a neighborhood needs -- and whether that fits into that neighborhood's other needs.

Birth of a 'parking podium'

"You have a big surface parking lot, that can basically make an area sterile so that nobody actually wants to be there on foot," said Tom Boone, a program manager with the Denver Regional Council of Governments, the metro area's planning organization. "But ideally, it's integrated into communities so it doesn't make it so that people can't walk from one destination to another."

So instead of abolishing parking minimums, Denver-area cities have tried to loosen them, giving developers more flexibility to decide how much parking they want to include.

One suburb, Greenwood Village, requires four parking spaces for every 1,000 feet of office space and five spaces for every 1,000 feet of retail. But the city grants exceptions -- for more parking or less -- depending on the negotiations with the developer, said Boone.

Aurora, another suburb, has considered building a large parking structure next to its train station so it wouldn't have to require any parking from developers.

"Parking can kill a development deal. And it has many times," he said. "If you can remove some of the parking from the equations for a developer, you can make deals pencil."

Boone and others cite the high cost of building parking -- $15,000 to $25,000 a space, as a ballpark. Flat, paved lots are the cheapest, but when a city wants denser development, the builder has to consider building in other, pricier ways: vertically or underground.

That's what happened at Spire, where the lead developer, Nichols Partnership, wanted about 1.2 parking spots for every unit in the building -- a bigger ratio than one would find in New York City, but also lighter than the Denver standard of one parking spot per bedroom, according to Chris Crosby, an executive vice president at Nichols.

Crosby knew the building had to contain its footprint within a tight downtown square, but building underground parking cost two to three times more than above-ground. To control the project's budget, he proposed a parking podium.

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