Saturday, November 20, 2010

The Case for Article 10

I just tried to watch the Article 10 Town Meeting debate on BATV.  Sadly, the sound was completely messed up.  For that reason, I am posting the text of my presentation here. Special Thanks to all of the excellent presenters speaking in favor of Article 10 at Town Meeting, those who had a chance to speak, and those who did not.  Linda Hamlin, AIA, Brookline Planning Board; Eunice White, TMM Pct. 2; Jim Batchelor, AIA, Preservation Commission; John Bassett, TMM Pct. 6; Brian Kane, Brookline Transportation Board, TMM Pct. 6; Werner Lohe, Conservation Commission, TMM Pct. 13, Rob Daves, TMM Pct. 5; Andrew Fischer, TMM Pct. 13; Anita Johnson, TMM Pct. 8

Well, I guess no one really cares very much about parking in Brookline do they?

Why did I bring this Article to Town Meeting?  I’ve been immersed in this subject professionally and personally for many years. The Selectmen’s Parking Committee was a dedicated and talented group of individuals and as a member of that Committee, I thought it would be unfortunate not to see progress towards implementation of our recommendation to lower residential parking requirements.  I believe this action is necessary to protect the beauty of our neighborhoods and our quality of life.  I appreciate the focused attention and interest so many of you have paid to this topic and look forward to continuing our collective efforts towards achieving better parking policy in Brookline.

Article 10 is a proposal to reduce the minimum amount of parking we require for new multi-family residential construction within ? mile of MBTA T stops.  The new minimums would be 1 space for a studio/1 bedroom unit, 1.2 spaces for a 2 bedroom unit and 1.4 spaces for a three bedroom unit.  Two and three family homes would be required to provide 1.3 spaces per dwelling unit and Single family homes remain virtually unchanged, with a two space minimum.  The requirements are applied to new development and when a dwelling is converted or added onto.

Some have raised concerns that the proposed minimums may not be appropriate for new housing, because high-income buyers want more parking.  That’s debatable, but irrelevant because the proposed rates are only minimums, there are no maximums.  Anyone wishing to build more parking would be able to.  But by not requiring such a high level of parking, we are getting closer to allowing need, market, location and good design dictate the amount of parking to be built for a particular building.  If the choice is to build luxury units, then let the market decide rather than regulate for that.  If the choice is to target those seeking newly constructed units with less parking, lowering the minimums is the only way to allow that option.

What doesn’t Article 10 do?  Article 10 does not increase the amount of building allowed.  It also doesn’t take away any existing parking or change the equilibrium already established between rental parking and the buildings with little or no on-site parking.  It is not about forcing people to give up their car or making them take the T.  But it is a response to the fact that our residents within a 1/2 mile of the T have chosen to live in a transit-oriented setting and don’t collectively need as much parking as we currently make them build and buy.  The key word there is collectively.  Article 10 doesn’t prohibit those households who need two cars from having them, it just acknowledges the fact that not everyone does.

We’ve seen how emotional an issue parking can be.  It’s hard to be objective about it.  Whether you think we need more or less, we all think about parking through the lens of our own experience and observations.  Collectively these observations make up a kind of truth, but we’re not hearing the full range of viewpoints and experiences.  Among those we do not hear from are those who don’t drive.  But, when asked to think about parking policy, we project our own wants, needs and desires onto that hypothetical household we are trying to plan for.  But Brookline is home to a diverse population of individuals all making choices that best suit their own unique situation.  So, as far as prediction goes, the best we can hope for is to observe what has happened and objectively quantify conditions as they are today, which is the approach we took on the Parking Committee.

But there is a bit of the aspirational in any planning policy.  After all isn’t that what the Comprehensive Planning process was all about?  Trying to articulate our vision for the Brookline of tomorrow?  Choosing goals and implementing them through policy is what planning is all about. We set priorities and make trade-offs.  Our Plan articulates a lot of worthy goals. We want to encourage the use of transit. In fact, our Plan cites a Town survey in which Brookline residents identified access to transit as their number one criteria for choosing to live here. We want to preserve our historic structures, streetscapes and neighborhoods.  We want a community friendly to pedestrians and bikes.  We want to support local businesses and preserve open space. We want a diversity of housing types and affordability ranges. We want to limit traffic congestion and yet our zoning by-law requires parking for more vehicles than most of our residents even choose to own. Bringing more traffic into our neighborhoods, making it harder to walk and bike, increasing the cost of housing and threatening open space and historic structures.  So we’ve managed to implement a policy that works against our stated goals.

How we treat parking in our zoning by-law makes a big difference. Today’s parking requirements are twice as high as they were until 1986. The pleasing streetscapes and walkable neighborhoods we enjoy would not have been possible had today’s parking requirements been in place when they were built. Instead, we would have streets lined with garage front houses, underground garage ramps, and surface parking lots and roadways that could not handle the traffic volume.  High minimum on-site requirements mean we must fit all that extra parking onto each tiny lot and it takes its toll.  Beautiful historic structures are lost to new buildings that must be designed around parking, often resulting in first floors that are garage fronts and parking.  Yards are paved, pedestrians harassed and streetscapes destroyed.  When we raised the parking requirements, we threw an additional significant spatial demand into the equation, throwing off the balanced equilibrium designed into the by-law between Floor Area Ratio, Setbacks, Open Space and parking.  We require all these standards be met, but they can’t possibly be, so special permit violations must be given.  There is no special permit provision for a reduction in parking requirements for new residential construction.  Instead, the bulk and height of the building is often increased because it incorporates the parking.  Over time, if left unchanged, these requirements will transform the form of our town, replacing our homes one by one with hybrid garage homes.  There are no design standards that will “fix this problem” or preservation mandates that will protect our structures.

Some Hybrid Garage/Homes

The Selectmen’s Parking Committee was appointed in 2008. With the help of Town Planning staff we undertook an in-depth study of our parking requirements and existing parking conditions, and we learned a great deal.  Based on our research:

We know that the average multi-family household, including two and three family dwellings within the overlay zone owns about 1 car.   23% of these same households own no car.

We know that 47% of commuters living in the overlay take public transportation, walk or bike to work.

We know that the total number of cars in Brookline has declined since 1998 while the population has increased.

We know that Brookline Zipcar membership has increased from 40 to 3,300 in the last decade.

We know that existing buildings with parking requirements matching Article 10’s meet the parking needs of their residents on-site with the amount of parking they have. Some have extra spaces that they rent.

We know that the multi-family parking lots surveyed by the Committee had an average vacancy rate of 25% and some of those locations are actively advertising spaces for rent.

We know that of the 300 or so publicly available resident overnight parking spaces less than half of them are occupied and that the prices for private overnight rental parking have not increased beyond cost of living increases in the last decade.

We know the Article 10 proposed rates are consistent with other peer communities who also have over night parking bans, including Newton’s 1.25 and Arlington’s 1.3 spaces per unit.

We know the proposed rates are consistent with professional standards for similar settings, such as the Institute of Transportation Engineer’s 1.0 to 1.2 per unit and the Urban Land Institute’s 1.2 – 1.4.  Our current parking requirements exceed even recommended suburban standards for multi-family housing.

We know that some multi-family buildings predate the auto era and were built without parking, we also know that enterprising property owners have creatively met the parking needs for these buildings. Signs asking for parking or selling available parking are a sign that spaces in the underground market are turning over, not of desperation.

Requiring extra parking to be built in new buildings is not an effective or efficient means to add to the public parking pool.  New building parking is not necessarily built where extra parking is needed.  Many new buildings limit access to their garage areas, so that expensive extra parking represents a huge waste of money and resources.  It passes the cost of parking onto the buyers and residents of the new buildings.

The Parking Committee’s recommendation to lower residential parking rates was based on the totality of all these findings and more.  The recommended requirements in Article 10 are above the minimums that were in the primary proposal considered by the Parking Committee’s regulatory sub-committee. They are based on the number of vehicles residents say they own, sorted by housing type and size, and include a 25% positive margin of error.

The proposed rates work because a building’s population is a microcosm of the population as a whole, containing singles, couples, families and friends at different stages in their life, with varying needs for parking.  Building to the average, with a moderate upward cushion factor built in, is how we meet resident’s parking need without over or under building parking.

It seems every time Brookline’s parking requirements are assessed by transportation professionals, the recommendation is the same, they are too high.  For instance, in the Coolidge Corner District Plan pg. 67, which reports the consultants findings it says:  “Coolidge Corner typifies what is meant by TOD, with the exception of parking standards for new development.  As outlined earlier in this section, zoning amendments to reduce parking requirements for new development…should be considered as revisions to the Zoning Bylaw.”

At the well attended Brookline Parking Forum held on June 9th 2008, Jason Schrieber of the Transportation Planning firm Nelson/Nygaard noted that Brookline’s residential parking rates were 25 to 50% higher than other greater Boston communities. He then presented examples of recent residential projects built in Boston neighborhoods, the Alewife area of Cambridge, and Arlington, all of which were within 1/2 miles of transit. Parking provided for these projects ranged from .69 to 1.23 spaces per dwelling unit.

Research has been cited that concludes that removing or lowering parking requirements allows for increased density and that areas putting in new transit lines see an increase in land values, drawing wealthy residents who bring vehicles.  Well this is precisely what happened in Brookline at the end of the 19th century.  The trolley line was put in down Beacon St. and suddenly it became possible to live in an apartment building close to the T.  Land values increased and new development possibilities were created.  Those case studies are about areas that are trying to create new areas of transit oriented development, not places like Brookline where history has built the form for us.  But, the point of needing to match the parking requirements to the built form still holds true.  Imposing suburban parking requirements onto an already densely built setting wrecks havoc to the built form.

Yes, parking is a complex subject.  Yes, we will continue to debate and study it. Yes, there are other zoning reforms we should undertake.  But re-setting our minimum parking requirements to levels in harmony with our built form, vehicle ownership and peer communities will not bring Armageddon and it is ultimately a policy choice.  The intent of Article 10 was to restore the balance between space for our cars and the spaces we live in.  Resetting our parking requirements will give our regulators the ability to demand better design, preservation and protection of our neighborhoods.

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