Photo by tedeytan on Flickr.

“It almost always comes down to parking,” said DC Councilmember Tommy Wells at a hearing last week on DC’s zoning update, and he’s right. Wells tried to explain a tricky point to opponents of the zoning update: how higher parking minimums don’t make it easier to park on the street.

Wells agrees with many residents that parking on neighborhood streets has become more difficult, and he wants to do something to ease that task for existing residents. However, he doesn’t believe that requiring new apartment buildings to build more parking, or preventing them from building less, is going to really have any effect.

“In ward 6 we’ve had substantial infill development,” he said, “and the way we’ve managed parking is through regulation” like adding meters and limiting parking on one side of many streets to Ward 6 residents. Residents of some new buildings also can’t get residential permit parking (RPP) stickers. And, Wells argued, it’s worked.

On the other hand, minimum parking requirements along with the existing cheap, easy-to-get RPP stickers won’t dissuade people from parking on the street, said Wells:

If you put in minimum parking and they get RPP, there’s 2 things that will happen. The first is, almost every building charges for the parking… If they get RPP, which are they going to pay for? a $100-200 a month space, or $35 [a year] for the RPP sticker? You know exactly what they’re going to do, it’ll be $35 for the RPP sticker and they won’t buy the parking inside.”

Wells wants to solve this problem with his legislation (which Chairman Phil Mendelson opposed last year) to let developers opt out of RPP eligibility. Before a specific building has anyone living there, its developer can agree that future residents, in perpetuity, won’t be able to get residential stickers.

Some people don’t like the idea of residents of some buildings not being able to get stickers while their neighbors can get them, but Arlington and many other cities do have similar practices. Whether you support this approach or not, Wells is right on the mark that parking minimums won’t make parking on the street easier.

Off-street parking is not the same as on-street

Many people seem to assume that parking is a single market. If you build more parking of any type, it becomes easier to find; build less (or even require building less), and it will get more scarce. But in fact, there are two separate markets.

Later in the hearing, Lon Anderson of AAA made the same mistake. He expressed his incredulity that the Babe’s project, which will have 60 units, only 1 parking space (for persons with disabilities), and a deal with the ANC to prohibit residents getting RPP stickers, would work. Why? Because it’s hard to park in Tenleytown.

In fact, it’s hard to park on the street. It turns out that there are extra spaces for rent in the Whole Foods and Best Buy garages. But people assume that if the streets are full, there must not be any empty space in a garage, and that’s what Wells is trying to rebut.

Allen Seeber, one of the witnesses, claimed that the Office of Planning “can’t produce any evidence whatsoever” that some buildings have overbuilt parking. Wells immediately cited the Loree Grand, a building in NoMA. Seeber pressed on, and Wells again jumped in with the Bernstein property in Southwest where, Wells said, “they built a condo building, they provided a bunch of parking, and it didn’t sell.”

People are renting their spaces and parking on the street

Wells said that in his experience, people on Capitol Hill are actually renting out their spaces and using their RPP stickers to park on the street. “They have parking behind their house, and then they park on the street for $35 a [year], and they can get $100-200 a month for the parking behind their house,” he said. “[Parking minimums] did nothing to protect our parking in that part of the Hill.”

Wells also mentioned a pair of parking spaces on the Hill which just sold for $120,000. The purchaser was an area business, which wanted the spaces after new restrictions reserved more of the neighborhood space for residents. And that, Wells said, was the point. Instead of competing with residents, businesses now have a reason to pay for the parking they need.

Witness and Palisades resident Alma Gates said she’d rather have employees in her neighborhood be able to park on the street. That’s fine, if that is what Palisades residents want. Neighborhoods ought to have input into how to allocate on-street spaces. On Capitol Hill, the decision was for residents.

Whoever gets the spaces, having a scheme which rationally divvies them up among users makes much more sense than leaving them first come, first served, then opposing any new development and insisting on big garages just in the vain hope of keeping the demand low. As Wells explained, the demand for on-street spaces has a lot to do with how many people and businesses there are in the neighborhood, and very little to do with the size of garages since people will usually pick the cheap street parking over the pricey garage.

“I strongly want to protect neighborhood parking in the District of Columbia,” Wells said, but “I am not sure [parking minimums] will protect neighborhood parking in the District of Columbia.” He’s right: we need to fix on-street parking with better on-street parking regulations. Lowering minimums won’t really help or hurt the on-street situation. There’s no reason to hang onto that outdated policy tool when it’s not working.

You can watch the entire 10-minute exchange between Wells and the opponents:


David Alpert is Founder and President of Greater Greater Washington and Executive Director of DC Sustainable Transportation (DCST). He worked as a Product Manager for Google for six years and has lived in the Boston, San Francisco, and New York metro areas in addition to Washington, DC. He lives with his wife and two children in Dupont Circle. Unless otherwise noted, opinions in his GGWash posts are his and not the official views of GGWash or DCST.