Chicago needs to refresh its parking supply requirements

January 27, 2014 at 8:01 pm


For far too long, American cities have enshrined in their zoning codes minimum parking requirements. One result is an overabundance of parking spaces: some estimates put the number at 8 spaces for every car in the U.S. If you’re up to the challenge, you can read all 800 pages of The High Cost of Free Parking
by UCLA professor Donald Shoup to learn more than you thought you needed to know about parking policy.

I recently wrote an article for Streetsblog Chicago about a proposed development in Uptown, Chicago, which will add 554 parking spaces to a now-vacant plot of land. The land will be upzoned to B3-5, which will require 554 parking spaces. The developer is proposing to build the absolute minimum the city permits.

The developer, James Letchinger, said in an email that 60-65 percent of parking in JDL’s other developments sit empty. At tens of thousands of dollars per space in construction costs alone, all these parking spaces drive up the price of housing and the cost of retail goods. Parking mandates also result in less space being developed for more productive uses.

Even the developer himself noted that more than half the parking in his other developments goes unused! In Uptown, half of residents take public transportation to work, and nearly half don’t own any cars at all (see my commute map for a look at Chicago as a whole). We don’t need there to be so much parking supply in this neighborhood.

The 46th Ward Master Plan [PDF] calls for more innovative parking solutions that make use of existing parking “assets” in the neighborhood. I believe a good existing asset is the Truman College parking garage just a few blocks west on Sunnyside. It provides 1,138 free parking spaces for its students despite being directly adjacent to a rapid transit line and two bus routes. When class isn’t in session, the garage sits empty. Many of the spaces likely also sit empty when classes are in session. If there were a daily fee for the garage – say, $4.50 (equivalent to CTA fare), even more spaces would likely be open.

You can see how close a walk to the garage (B) would be from the proposed development (A):

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Currently, “shared parking” like I’m proposing is not possible; the development and the garage too far apart. The city requires the shared parking facility to be no more than 600′ away from the development.

Imagine what our city would look like if we required all new developments to be no further than 600 feet from any rail or bus line. In Chicago, 600′ is approximately a block and a half – this kind of development would be impossible here. It would even be impossible at my old apartment in Paris, which is 700′ feet away from the nearest Métro station.

Yet we require that parking facilities for developments be no more than 600′ away.

Leveraging the Truman College parking garage instead of having the developer build their own parking garage would be a great way to achieve the Ward’s stated goals. It could also have a ripple effect that would improve our streets. During last year’s Participatory Budgeting process, we brainstormed multiple east-west streets that would be good for carrying bike traffic. One street was Montrose Ave.


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It isn’t a very bike-friendly street right now, but it could be. There is no business purpose for the parking, which is not directly adjacent to any business. It really only serves residents/visitors who want to park for free, because there are no meters. One side is adjacent to a cemetery. If we removed the parking on just one side, there would be room for protected bike lanes on the 60′ wide street:

An idea for Montrose Avenue.

An idea for Montrose Avenue.

This is just one improvement we could make if we were able to shift street parking to a nearby, central location. I’d argue it may make parking even easier if drivers know they can find a spot in a garage and walk a few blocks instead of circling block after block for a spot.

Several U.S. cities (many in California) have instituted in-lieu fees where developers can pay a fee to go below the minimum amount of parking spaces required. For example, Palo Alto, CA offers developers the chance to pay $17,848 per space in lieu of building the actual space. This money can then be used to build centralized parking structures. Why would the developer decide to pay the fee? If the cost of building the parking space exceeds the value to the developer of building the space, the developer would be better off paying the in-lieu fee.

For this specific development, assume Chicago has an in-lieu fee of $15,000 per space. If the developer were required to build 554 spaces, but knew that only 35-40% of them would be rented, they could opt to build 220 spaces (about 40%) and pay $5,010,000 in fees for the remaining 334 spaces that would otherwise be required. The city could use this money to pay down the debt service on a centralized garage, to improve pedestrian and bike infrastructure nearby, to renovate the nearby park facilities, etc.

I argue that a better solution for a city like Chicago, and a neighborhood like Uptown which has several transit options, is to instead institute a parking maximum. Developments like this one should not be permitted to build so much parking in the first place. The Ward’s and the City’s goals support this position: Three different policies that “oversee” this development list promoting transit, biking, and walking as goals.  It would therefore make more sense for the city to require the developer provide a certain number of car share spaces, to provide funds to improve the bike infrastructure nearby, to install Divvy stations, to construct bus shelters*, and so on.

I wouldn’t argue that deregulation of parking requirements would work entirely. In some cases, developers who are more familiar with suburban, parking-dependent developments would still overbuild parking. We need to reverse the trend of the past few decades by instead instituting parking maximums.

Our aldermen need to push for new parking reforms – Chicago last did so in 2004. Since then, riding a bicycle as transportation has taken off and is being recognized by the city as they continue to build new infrastructure to support it. CTA service has improved and upgrades to both the track and stations are forthcoming. Many new shops providing daily needs have popped up within walking distance of many Chicagoans. At the national level, we’re driving less, and people are moving back to the city – some without their cars. It’s time we have new parking policies that reflect these realities, and create the city we want to live in.

* There is already one bus shelter where the development will go, and the city’s contract with JCDecaux (who maintains the shelters) may make it difficult to provide more bus shelters.