The garage in the Ballston Common mall. Image by Ser Amantio di Nicolao licensed under Creative Commons.

Unless they get an exception, apartment buildings near Arlington's Metro stations have to build at least one parking space for every apartment. This is far higher than the actual demand, and in November, the Arlington County Board will consider changing its policy.

In the mid-twentieth century, planners assumed that the future of all transportation was driving. They saw walkable urban places where people did not drive as obsolete, and instituted parking minimum requirements to guarantee that every residence, business, school, church, etc. had enough—often far more than enough—parking space.

This had two negative effects. First, it forced new construction to take a suburban form, allocating a lot of land (or expensive underground garage space) to parking, and driving up the cost of new homes. And second, it encouraged people to drive, tautologically creating more of a need for the policy which hadn't existed before.

Arlington was a very suburban-form place before Metro came in the late 1970s, and much of it still is. But Arlington has been enormously successful at creating walkable urban places where people do not need to own cars or drive, especially along its Metro corridors of Rosslyn-Ballston (Orange and Silver lines) and Pentagon-Crystal City (Yellow and Blue). With Metro, numerous buses, Capital Bikeshare, private bike, car2go, stores within walking distance, and much more, people don't need cars.

The minimum parking requirements, however, are still stuck in the 1960s. Arlington's rule is still 1 to 1.125 spaces per unit, even for buildings atop Metro. A working group, including GGWash contributor Michael Perkins, met for over six months to suggest changes. On Saturday, the county board approved public hearings in November on the task force's proposals, which would significantly lower parking requirements for many buildings near Metro stations in the two main corridors.

How building approvals work in Arlington

Arlington County offers property owners two options for zoning. By-right zoning specifies what an owner can build without special discretionary permission. They still need building permits to ensure compliance with safety codes and such, but what can be built is clear. Almost no buildings in the Metro corridors use this method.

In some parts of the county, including the Metro corridors, there is a second option, called a Site Plan. There, the developer submits plans for review by county agencies and then the Site Plan Review Committee, a group of citizens who represent various county commissions and civic associations. The SPRC makes recommendations to the county board, which has the final say.

The Site Plan process offers much more flexibility, but involves negotiation between community members and the property owners.

What will change about parking rules

The proposal would establish a new policy for parking in buildings in the two Metro corridors that use a Site Plan. For market-rate housing, the minimum would range from 0.2 spaces per unit (one per five units) within 1/8 of a mile of a Metro entrance, to 0.6 spaces per unit more than 3/4 of a mile from a station entrance. 

Buildings with Committed Affordable Housing (CAF) would get lower numbers: CAF at 60 percent and 50 percent of Area Median Income would qualify for lower parking minimums, and any units at 40 percent AMI CAF would not require minimum parking at all (though in a mixed-use building, the higher-income units would).

Michelle Winters, head of Arlington affordable housing group Alliance for Housing Solutions and a member of the task force, said at Saturday's board meeting, "Structured parking is one of the largest individual costs for building new housing today. Developers report that a single space can cost between $30,000 and $60,000 to construct. Reducing the number of spaces required can save significant amounts of money, potentially allowing a greater number of affordable units or a smaller need for subsidy such as AHIF on a project. For mixed-income projects it creates an incentive to provide more affordable units or units affordable at lower incomes such as 40 or 50% of AMI."

The need for parking is much lower than the current rules demand

The board already can grant lower amounts of parking in a Site Plan project, and from 2010-2016 has often granted reductions to around 0.9 or 0.8 or even just under 0.6 (red boxes below).

But the actual demand in market-rate buildings (tan boxes) and affordable housing (green) is often much lower. The staff further want this proposal to be "forward-looking," anticipating the likely future demand. The car ownership rate for new residents of Arlington is much lower than it is for longer-time residents, county parking planner Stephen Crim told the board. And with new technology like autonomous vehicles, it's likely the need will be even lower.

Some residents, including Scott Pedowitz of the Clarendon-Courthouse Civic Association, have said there is too much of a gap between the recently-seen demand in the zones closest to Metro and the proposed parking requirements. However, there are some important reasons this objection is off base.

  • Those boxes are based on the actual numbers of cars in the buildings' garages. Since the buildings were required to have overly-large garages thanks to the current parking minimums, there is incentive for people who wouldn't need a car to get one anyway and use some of that empty garage space. Therefore, the real demand may be much lower.

  • In Arlington (unlike in most of DC), residents of Site Plan buildings are not eligible for residential parking permits. Therefore, people who move into any buildings with less parking will not be able to simply store cars on the street; they will have to find a garage space somewhere.

  • A parking minimum is not a maximum. Especially because residential permits will be unavailable, developers will want to attract prospective residents both with and without cars. If they build too little parking, some people won't consider the building. They're far more likely to overbuild parking, to reduce risk, than underbuild it. New large buildings in DC still frequently include more parking than the legal minimum; that'll likely happen in Arlington too.

There may need to be changes to residential parking (RPP) rules. For instance, in some places the RPP only applies weekdays during business hours, when there was a fear of commuters parking near a Metro station. But parking at night or on weekends is unrestricted. In some areas, that should be changed to limit parking at all times. 

Also: shared parking, visitor parking, reductions, and accessible parking

The new policy would add a new requirement, for visitor spaces, at one per 20 units up to 10 spaces/200 units. 

If a building provides a Capital Bikeshare station (and pays for it for 10 years), adds bike parking beyond what's otherwise required for Site Plan buildings, or includes car share spaces with a service contract, the minimum would be reduced further, but no more than by half. This also can't cut down on visitor spaces (not sure why, though) or accessible spaces for people with disabilities (that one makes sense).

The policy also encourages shared parking. For instance, an apartment building could work out a deal with a neighboring office building to use its unused parking and also let people who commute by car to park during nights and weekends when the office building garage is empty anyway.

As Deputy Director of Transportation Dennis Leach said, "The R-B corridor has over 22 million square feet of office space. Most of that commercial parking is empty on nights and weekends. And the vacancy rate is high in both corridors. There are tens of thousands of spaces that simply aren't being used."

The visitor parking can't be shared, which also doesn't make so much sense to me, but I've asked for clarification on the reason. While it's true visitors will want to park on site, they are also most likely to be visiting nights and weekends when nearby office parking is most plentiful.

Finally, anyone building more than 1.65 spaces per unit (a crazy high amount) would have to arrange it as tandem spaces or with stacking lifts. Or, the owner could pay $3,060 per space—about the cost of an annual transit pass—each year for 30 years as a mitigation.

This proposal would just be a board policy, not a formal zoning rule. The county board has complete discretion to approve or reject a Site Plan. That means the board could still require higher levels than in this policy. However, the purpose of a policy is to create more predictability, so it's less likely the board would do that. And the policy would guide the staff, county agencies, and review committee through the process leading up to county board review.

The requirements could be lower—or zero

Even this big reduction still leaves Arlington's minimums much higher than in DC, which after the 2008-2016 zoning update now requires one space per three units in multifamily buildings anywhere in the District and just one space per six units for buildings within a half mile of a Metro station or 1/4 mile of a frequent bus route (in buildings not eligible for residential parking permits). DC also allows a "special exception" to further reduce or eliminate the requirement. And downtown, the requirement is zero as a matter of right.

With Clarendon about as far from downtown DC as Columbia Heights, there's little reason to need higher requirements. For that matter, DC planners initially proposed lower minimums, only to compromise in the face of some neighbor pushback. Technology will soon be making most off-street parking obsolete, leaving us with many floors of empty garages. They can be repurposed for other uses, but not cheaply if built with sloping floors and no climate control. Cities and counties should stop forcing new buildings to overbuild parking beyond what the owners think necessary. 

Arlington's new policy would not apply to some parcels, called R-C zones, where there's a zoning rule requiring one space per unit. At the board meeting, members asked about changing that as well, and there seemed to be support to do it as a later step.

Other later steps suggested by the working group include expanding this policy to Lee Highway and Columbia Pike, and amending the zoning ordinance itself to lower minimum parking for by-right development as well as Site Plans.

Live in Arlington? Weigh in 

The proposal will have a hearing before the Transportation Commission on Thursday, November 2, then the Planning Commission sometime between November 6 and 13, and finally a hearing before the county board on Saturday, November 18.

You can send in comments using this form to the commissions and county board. You can say what you want, but I'd suggest:

  • Lowering parking minimums as proposed (or more; see below)
  • Amending the zoning ordinance to let the policy cover the R-C zones
  • In the future, amending the zoning ordinance to make this minimum by-right in other corridors (and in site plans elsewhere also)
  • Letting required visitor parking be shared 
  • Potentially lowering the minimums further to zero and fixing RPP. If residents aren't parking long-term on the street, there's no spillover issue and no need to regulate the parking market at all. Developers can decide how much parking is needed to rent or sell the building.

Finally, plan to speak at the county board hearing on November 18. Folks who tend to oppose everything also often attend legislative meetings; at Saturday's meeting, three of six speakers were opposed including representatives from two civic associations (Scott Pedowitz, from Clarendon-Courthouse, and Nia Bagley, of Ballston-Virginia Square). Two had specific comments but didn't seem clearly for or against, and only Michelle Winters spoke in support.

If you submit comments at this form we will remind you, or you can sign up for reminders here. The county board will also be hearing public testimony on the plan to make accessory apartments easier to build, so you can make Arlington better in two ways in one day!

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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.