Townhouses in Colesville. Photo by thecourtyard on Flickr.

Montgomery County is rewriting its zoning code, but the proposed draft leaves old minimum parking requirements largely in place. This obstructs the very growth the county wants to encourage.

Outside downtowns with parking districts, almost all new housing will still need 2 off-street parking spaces per dwelling, even in mixed-use or multi-family residential areas.

Parking minimums drive up the cost of housing unnecessarily. Developers want to sell what they build; they will include parking to meet the demand from future residents. Extra spaces just add costs.

The added expense bites hardest in the less affluent sections of the county, where a transit-riding populace struggles with infrastructure built for cars. Parking minimums could stymie the needed revitalization of corridors like New Hampshire Avenue, University Boulevard, and Veirs Mill Road.

Formulas for Bethesda and Silver Spring won’t work countywide

Parking minimums like these did not impede the county’s first wave of transit-oriented development, centered on the expensive downtowns of Bethesda and Friendship Heights. Rents and condo prices there are high enough to cover the cost of underground parking even if it goes unused.

In Silver Spring, where rents are lower, the county lifted the parking burden off developers’ shoulders by building massive garages at taxpayer expense.

But the county can’t afford to endlessly replicate the vast subsidies that went into downtown Silver Spring. Nor can the Bethesda model of luxury housing and expensive retail be copied everywhere. It would drive out current residents, and in any case there are only so many places where the market would support it.

The county needs a new model of revitalization, one that upgrades existing neighbor­hoods without displacing their population. This will not happen as long as off-street parking requirements make anything but luxury residences too expensive to build.

Decaying strip malls illustrate the problem. Planners hope that the strip malls can be rebuilt in a more urban style, with stores that open onto the sidewalk, a few floors of apartments above, and a parking garage behind the buildings. A row of duplexes, facing the single-family homes across the street, could complete the back side of such a development. Duplex housing, now very rare in the county, is more affordable for both the tenant and the owner (the rent helps pay the mortgage).

But under the zoning code, a developer cannot sell a duplex unless it has 4 parking spaces of its own. The cost of building 4 spaces in a parking garage is over $100,000 — enough to put an otherwise affordable home far out of reach for a middle-class buyer.

Parking minimums serve a different purpose in single-family neighborhoods

Regardless of whether parking minimums are good policy, planners have sound political reasons for keeping them in Montgomery’s single-family zones. They preserve the bargain that underlies the county’s land use policy: keep single-family neighborhoods the way they are while promoting smart growth near transit.

Parking requirements serve a different purpose in suburban neighborhoods than in cities like DC. While the District’s debate over minimums revolves around “spillover” that deprives residents of places to park, Montgomery homeowners would have space to put their cars with or without minimums because of two other laws.

The minimum lot sizes in the zoning code guarantee that every house has at least 60 feet of curb space. That is more than enough room for two cars, if there were no driveway. The resident parking permit program ensures that outsiders cannot park in those spaces.

Instead of guaranteeing space for cars, the rules effectively ensure that on-street spaces will usually be empty. Except in a few older neighborhoods where houses don’t have driveways, mostly around Takoma Park, that’s what housing subdivisions have always looked like in Montgomery. For many homeowners, car-free curbs are an essential element of their neighborhoods’ suburban character, and the county has promised to preserve that for single-family zones as it becomes more urban elsewhere.

But minimum parking rules apply to commercial and apartment zones as well. There, off-street parking requirements are counterproductive. Left to its own devices, the real estate building and lending market will provide all the parking that is needed and more. The planning department should abolish parking minimums for mixed-use and multifamily residential zones, as DC is doing.