The proposed Starview Plaza. Image from the PG County Planning Department.

Minimum parking requirements in zoning codes nationwide are almost entirely arbitrary, plucked out of thin air by 1960s planners who were guessing at how much parking they’d want for each kind of development. The result is a crazy patchwork of requirements with little basis in fact. The proposed “Starview” project in College Park shows the folly of slavish adherence to parking ratios.

Rethink College Park has drawings of the project, a 6-story, 550-bed student housing development on Route 1 with ground-floor retail along the street. (I predict that UMD students will consider the building’s food options inadequate and start calling the building “starve you”.)

In compliance with Prince George’s County zoning requirements, there are 2.5 spaces per 2-bedroom unit and 3.5 per 4-bedroom unit (why?) They then get an automatic (and arbitrary) reduction of 10% for being downtown, and another (arbitrary) reduction of 20% because students are expected to use “Alternative Modes of Transportation,” like the UMD shuttle which would stop there, or bicycling or walking the 1 mile to the center of campus.

Nevertheless, we have 355 spaces for 550 people, meaning planners expect 64.5% of students to have their own cars. I don’t know the current ratio at Maryland, but for people living right on the main commercial strip and a moderately short walk to campus, that seems high.

This also seems like a perfect opportunity for car sharing. And the PG Planning Department recommends it… “a minimum of two”. How about more like twelve? Zipcar has 40-45 users per car. Even the 195 students who definitely won’t own cars (because there are fewer spaces than students) could support 4-5 Zipcars; if there were more, more students would use them and not drive.

The arbitrary parking ratios of the PG zoning code become more absurd when we look at the shared parking provision. To its credit, this development does not have dedicated parking for the stores (which will probably serve mostly walk-in customers and residents anyway). To fulfill the requirement of 48 spaces for this much commercial square footage, they set out a schedule of times of day when commercial parkers should be able to use the residential spaces. That assumes that only 60% of spaces are filled during the day.

I’m sure at most 60% will be filled, because I doubt 355 students will fill up all of those spaces. But if they did, which the zoning code assumes, that also assumes that 40% of them will drive. For a building housing workers, that might make sense, but it strains credulity to believe 40% of students will drive one mile to park on campus. But 60% is the standard, so 60% is what the planners use.

I wouldn’t be surprised if 40% of students bike to campus, though. That’s why it’s nice the PG Planning Department is recommending the developers add bike parking. Unfortunately, they’re only suggesting a minimum of 40 spaces for both residential and commercial—way too little. DC’s proposed rules would mandate 1 Class A (indoor, locked) space per 3 units, for a total of 184 bicycle parking spaces, and 1 per 20 Class B (outdoor) spaces, or 28. Plus, the 10,000 commercial square feet would require, under DC’s proposal, 2 more Class A and 1 more Class B. That sounds much better than 40 spaces on “two standard bike racks”.

The building itself looks okay, though Rethink College Park commenter Kevin Fallon points out the missed opportunities for a nice outdoor deck and walking/biking trail facing the creek. Instead, the building has a large and very vertical blank facade on that side.

There’s a lot to praise about this project. It’s fairly dense in a downtown area near campus, and will have street-facing retail. But laboring under completely arbitrary and excessive parking requirements leads to ridiculous outcomes. RCP commenter tt puts it aptly: “The empty lower parking level will make a good skate rink - they should be careful where they put the columns.”

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.