When neighbors want to stop a project or close a business, parking is a convenient complaint.
Neighbors of a long-standing “community healing center” in Northeast Portland may succeed in forcing the business to shut its doors due to a lack of dedicated parking. Occupancy studies indicate the impact from The Everett House on neighborhood streets doesn’t justify a parking lot, but a reliance on ill-fitting parking generation and demand ratios provides cover for regulators to side with complaining residents.
The Everett House is actually a complex of several large homes in a neighborhood bordered by restaurants and shops on NE 29th to the west, more restaurants and shops (and a bus line) on NE Glisan to the north, and more commerce (and a 24 hour bus line) on E Burnside to the south.
For the last 36 years, the business has operated under a conditional use permit that allows the commercial activity in the residentially zoned neighborhood. That agreement, negotiated in June of 1982, requires the facility to provide 30 off-street car parking stalls within 300 feet of the spa for patrons. In the past, the business has contracted with nearby owners of parking to meet the requirements, but recently the lot they leased was closed to be redeveloped into 118 apartments with no on-site parking, and as a result a new conditional use permit, without parking requirements, was sought.
These requirements themselves “lacked evidentiary and legal reasoning” according to the Hearings Officer in the current case. In fact, a previous conditional use from 1981 required only 20 car parking stalls and 10 bicycle parking stalls.
Nearby residents of the complex have, apparently, considered the business a nuisance for decades. A comment, purportedly from neighbor Fred King, on the Willamette Week’s coverage of the story, says “the real problem was that management has constantly tried to expand the business … the opposite of what the conditional use permit required.”
Ultimately, it is the expansion of services, specifically a desire to host up to 12 events per year at the facility attracting approximately 95 patrons, that the Hearings Officer felt did not meet the conditions of approval. Estimated peak occupancy of 65 members at the facility was shown by occupancy studies to not unduly congest parking. An additional 30 visitors two dozen nights a year, and particularly the cars they might drive to the neighborhood for those events, was enough to sink the petition to continue operations without off-site parking.
Parking is an unfortunate proxy for “livability”
A business operating in a residential neighborhood under a conditional use may be a bad neighbor. Neighbors of Everett House have cited noise, unauthorized structures, and other problems with the business. But parking is a proverbial “ace in the hole” when it comes to concerns about livability in a neighborhood. Because parking concerns are nearly always taken seriously and met with sympathy from other people who drive (including nearly every elected official), raising concerns about car parking is an excellent strategy for slowing down or killing a project (or business) that one doesn’t like.
This case highlights the general problem with parking requirements and a reliance on parking generation and parking demand worksheets. The transportation study provided in the application justified the removal of the parking requirement via several lines of argument and evidence. Transit access to the facility and strategies to implement better transportation demand management were mentioned, but the crux of the report depended on parking generation and demand calculations combined with observed parking occupancy.
Peak hour occupancy near the facility was shown to max out at 81%, less than the 85% the city considers congested. The engineer makes the very valid point that if the facility is operating and peak occupancy is below 85%, then the area is clearly able to absorb the demand from the spa.
But because the general assumption is that parking demand should be accommodated with off-street parking, the business is required to prove that special events will not cause parking congestion when calculated demand from those events is added to the current conditions observed at the site. Current conditions likely include “hide-and-ride” commuters who park and take transit, rarely used second or third vehicles owned by residents, and employees of nearby businesses (including the Everett House) who are, rationally, taking advantage of free and convenient parking.
A better approach would be to put the onus on the city to manage the public parking supply with demand based permits, metering, time stays, and other restrictions. A neighborhood permit system could allow much more efficient use of the public resource, potentially raising revenue that could be used to subsidize the transit costs for low-income residents and make capital improvements for pedestrians and cyclists.
Such a system could allow patrons to buy virtual permits for their visit to the spa. Residents of the upcoming 118 unit apartment building would have an opportunity to pay market rates for parking, if they need it, just like anyone else in the neighborhood. All may park, all must pay (with proceeds going to subsidize transportation for the poor).
Time for a complete shift in thinking
Car culture brought with it an expectation of cheap and ample parking in our cities. As society faces threats from climate change, traffic carnage, and wealth inequality, this expectation stands in the way of progressive policy. As long as parking complaints are assumed to be legitimate livability concerns, cities will continue to implement backwards policies. In the worst cases cities will maintain parking requirements, but even in cities without parking requirements, pandering to parking demand will hinder effective action.
Car parking is not a community benefit. It leads to traffic that pollutes the air and endangers pedestrians. Car parking takes up space that could be used for housing, transit, parks, and more. Developers who want to build parking should be the ones defending themselves to Hearing Officers for conditional uses. Developers who provide parking should be the ones providing transportation demand management, planting trees, and providing additional affordable homes.
We’ve had things backwards for a long time, it’s time to deweaponize parking and get on with the serious business of solving our problems.