The Incinerator Building, now the Ritz-Carlton Georgetown. Photo by Monika & Tim on Flickr.

At the Zoning Commission hearing on parking minimums a month ago, opponents of parking reform argued that removing minimums would cause widespread chaos. Barbara Zartman, of the Committee of 100, used her neighborhood of Georgetown as an example of a neighborhood built without minimums. She was trying to argue that Georgetown’s traffic and parking difficulties were a consequence of low minimums, but as I’ve written, we can also thank the lack of minimums for Georgetown’s human-scale streets and walkable, vibrant commercial corridors.

Parking doesn’t exist in a vacuum. If you require parking when it’s not necessary, you don’t simply get the same great neighborhood with better curb space availability, you get a more car-oriented neighborhood with streets looking like this.

Zartman defended her points with this comment:

The same could be said of the construction of large residential or mixed-use buildings constructed in Georgetown in the last several decades between the C & O Canal and the river: The Paper Mill, The Flour Mill, the PEPCO building at 3303 Water, the Incinerator Building, and granddaddy of them all, Washington Harbour. All provided parking for their respective uses. Had they not done so, these residents would be competing with the employees and patrons of the restaurants and bars and shops of the Georgetown commercial zones. ... Building new large-scale projects with inadequate (or, heaven help us, no) parking will do just this.


Zartman may be right that building all of these developments with no parking at all might have made parking difficult. But there was no danger of that. In fact, the parking minimum requirements had no effect on these projects. A least for the ones where I could find hard numbers, all exceeded the minimum requirements, sometimes by huge amounts.

Last night, I finally was able to get numbers for three of these buildings (the other two, the Flour Mill and Paper Mill, are older, dating from the 1980s, and information is less readily available):

3303 Water Street: 72 residential units. Current zoning calls for 24 spaces (1 per 3 apartments); the building has 140 spaces, or almost six times the requirement.

Incinerator Building: Now the Ritz-Carlton, the Residences on South Street, and the movie theater. Current zoning requires 1 space per 3 residential units, 1 per 2 hotel rooms, one for each 150 square feet of the largest function room, and 1 per 10 theater seats. There are 28 condos, 86 hotel rooms, and 2,900 theater seats. I don’t have the precise figures for the Ritz’s largest function room, but their Web site claims 952 square feet of meeting space. If we assume that’s all in a single room, then the building would need 349 spaces under the current rules. It has 575.

Washington Harbour: This has 35 condos and 117,409 square feet of commercial space. Zoning requires 1 space per 3 units and one for each 1,800 commercial square feet beyond the first 2,000, for a total of 76 required spaces. They built 100.

In short, our parking minimums had no impact on these projects. Clearly, they built parking based on their own estimates of demand, not based on the rules. If we had taken away the minimum years ago, they still would have built the same amount of parking. Meanwhile, there are projects where these minimums do force parking—and in those cases, like DC USA, it usually turns out to be excessive.

Georgetown’s waterfront projects were probably right to build parking. But we didn’t need zoning laws to make them do so. Maybe one day we will have a Metro station in Georgetown, and suddenly fewer people will drive to Washington Harbour or the movie theater. If one of those projects is subsequently renovated, or a new project built nearby, and the existing garages are no longer being fully utilized, shouldn’t they be able to build the amount of parking the market calls for instead of an arbitrarily imposed minimum?

Opponents of parking reform are confusing removing parking minimums with removing parking altogether. If we passed a law stating that no more off-street parking shall ever be built in DC, I would agree that would cause pain. But that’s not what DC proposes. Some opponents claimed we are scheming to rid the city of parking.

Nothing could be further from the truth. I own a parking space. Parking isn’t inherently evil (unless it causes a curb cut). But laws that force developers to build parking when it’s not appropriate are dangerous and wrong, and they—not freedom-creating reforms—are the true “social engineering.”

David Alpert is the founder of Greater Greater Washington and its board president. 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.