A typical vast parking lot at a Forestville, Maryland shopping center. Image by the author.

Traditionally, communities have approached parking by building so much that it never becomes an issue for a driver looking for a space. Generally, this is a very political response. Residents contact their elected leaders to complain when they cannot find parking, and the elected officials respond by mandating that more parking be built.

Unfortunately, this approach is very detrimental to when it comes to building walkable, dense, and economically productive places. As Prince George’s County increases in population and becomes more urban, these impacts become much more apparent.

However, as the county overhauls its zoning code, they now have the opportunity to enact more forward-thinking parking regulations.

Commercial parking lots, shown in red, are detrimental to dense walkable development in Largo. Image by the author.

Here's why the current parking regulations can be detrimental

The physical space that parking lots take up ensures that no building is ever convenient to walk to. Parking lots also take up space that could be more productively used as housing, shops, offices, community parks, or just open natural areas.

Parking is also expensive. A parking structure built alongside an apartment building means that each apartment costs a little more because it must absorb the cost of the parking. A vast parking lot in front of a shopping center requires repaving, lighting, security, and cleanup — all which make the goods in the store more expensive so that the store can afford to maintain parking.

This isn’t to suggest that all parking should be removed. However, we should readdress the regulations that mandate an oversupply of parking.

Except in a few locations like Prince George’s Plaza and College Park, where recent Sector Plans have reduced parking minimums and allowed shared parking, the county follows the old model in requiring all developments to provide a high level of parking regardless of expected use.

Under the current ordinance, a retail establishment requires one parking space per 150 square feet of the building’s Gross Floor Area (GFA) for the first 3,000 square feet of space, and then an additional one parking space per 200 square feet of GFA after that. This means that for the first 3,000 square feet of store, the County requires 3,610 square feet of parking, which doesn’t even include the driveways and the parking aisles. That’s a lot of space.

(The City of Ottowa made this great video when they were reviewing their minimum parking standards back in 2015 that neatly explains the issue.) 

Here's what could change in Prince George's

Right now Prince George's is rewriting its entire zoning code, including the laws that deal with parking. Under their proposed new parking ordinance, both the location as well as the use of the retail establishment will determine how much parking is required. (Previously only the use was considered.) 

For example, if the store is an Activity Center Zone, the parking minimum is one space per 500 square feet of GFA. If the store is in any other zone inside the beltway, the parking minimum is one space per 333 square feet of GFA. Finally, if the store is outside of the beltway — traditionally the more suburban and rural parts of the county — the parking minimum is one space per 250 square feet of GFA.

Best of all, if the store is located in core of the Transit-Oriented Zones which are generally a quarter mile from the Metrorail station, they have no parking minimums. This will allow new businesses and homes to fully leverage their proximity to transit. This does not mean there will be zero parking spaces, but it does mean that business owners can choose the amount of parking that is best aligned to their business.  

The proposed ordinance considers location, as well as use, when determining parking minimums. This makes intuitive sense, as different places in the county have different transportation needs and options. Zones that are designed to encourage walking, bicycling, and dense activity (like Transit-Oriented Zones) have the lowest parking requirements. Developments inside the Beltway, where there is less available land overall, have a lower parking requirement than developments outside the Beltway.

The parking lot at Capital Plaza. Image by the author.

The proposed ordinance also includes several measures to better address parking management. Developments can use off-site parking, street parking, or share their parking with nearby buildings in order to reach their minimums. Overall, the changes mean lower minimums, allowing builders to spend more effort making the development as good as possible and less time fitting in all that parking.

Developments can further reduce their required parking minimums by implementing a Transportation Demand Management Program. These programs include incentives like parking cash-outs, where employees who choose not to drive are given financial compensation. Other examples include unbundling parking from leases (where the cost of a parking space is removed from monthly rent and leased separately,) prioritizing carpool and vanpool parking, and instituting off-peak work-schedules.

If you care about these changes, make your voice heard

The proposed ordinance is still a draft and has not yet been adopted by the County Council, nor endorsed by the Prince George’s County Planning Board. Both the Council and the Planning Department are soliciting comments and suggestions from the public until mid-December.

To weigh in on the proposed ordinance, you can add your comments directly on the project website, or you can contact your county councilmember.

Bryan Barnett-Woods is a transportation planner in Prince George’s County with the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission. In addition to bicycling and rowing, Bryan likes nothing more than a good walk in the city. He lives in Barney Circle with his wife and young son. The opinions expressed in this post represent Bryan’s opinions only and do not represent the opinions of his employer.