Sunday, March 24, 2013

A letter to City Council on Parking Minimums

A letter to Portland CIty Council on proposed parking minimums:

City Council Members,

I'm writing to urge you to reject the proposed increases in parking minimums, or if enacted to allow neighborhoods to waive the requirements in return for alternative design considerations.

Parking minimums are terrible social policy.  They encourage the supply of premium, high-end housing both because larger units will push unit counts down and because more expensive units will more easily absorb the cost of parking.  That has consequences for economic and ethnic diversity.  The market for low-cost housing does not look like the market for high-end housing.  The minimums will in effect further segregate our city.

Parking minimums are terrible environmental policy.  They encourage the use of automobiles, both for apartment residents and for homeowners whose street parking is effectively subsidized.  Because our roads aren't getting any wider they will increase traffic and congestion, making our air more polluted.  Parking minimums discourage people from using alternate transit, rendering our sidewalks less active and less safe.  And because more buildings will have ground floor parking rather than retail they render our streetscapes uglier.

Finally, parking minimums have consequences for regional policy.  Encouraging high density elsewhere, such as urban growth boundary expansion areas, is untenable if we reject density in inner-city Portland.  One way or another housing demand will be met.  If it isn't met by urban housing it will be met by sprawl.

All this, for what purpose?  To protect who?  How many homes lack off-steet parking?  Where are they concentrated?  Virtually every home in my neighborhood has off-street parking, what purpose do minimums serve here?  That's not an idle question, I live [near an arterial street] and apartment development is not unlikely.  Why should those apartments be required to have parking?

Where homes do lack off-street parking why should their occupants be entitled to preferential treatment?  Why should such residents be protected from the consequences of their decision to live in a home without off-street parking?  If they should be protected why should that cost be born exclusively by renters in other buildings?  Why should the resident of a 500 square foot apartment pay for parking so that the resident of a three bedroom single family home doesn't have to?

As a matter of equity, as a matter of sustainability, and as a matter of basic common sense parking minimums should be rejected. 

But what should happen and what does happen aren't always the same.  With that in mind, if parking minimums are adopted I urge the council to include an amendment that would act as a breath of fresh air.  Allow a waiver of parking requirements if the presiding neighborhood association consents to one as part of a broader agreement  with developers on project design.  This flexibility would allow neighborhoods to determine their own best interest on a case by case basis, and it allows the possibility of creating particular amenities or features to meet a particular location's needs. 

If a location needs more parking lots, the neighborhood can sit on their hands and get that by default.  But for neighborhoods with different aspirations, such as a public plaza or seating area, or a lower building height, or a stoplight to improve pedestrian safety, the ability to grant a waiver on parking requirements creates a powerful incentive for developers to take those aspirations seriously.  Maybe a meeting of the minds will happen and maybe it won't.  But if a bargain is there to be struck why shouldn't the city bless it?

If this measure is passed make it one that strengthens the hand of neighborhoods in pursuing their own interest, not one that binds them.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Liberal Portland?

I came across a comment on Portland Transit that got me thinking.  Written by a self-described opponent of density in the city, the author claimed that such opposition did not imply they were right-wingers.  As evidence, they pointed to the overwhelming popularity of the Democratic Party in neighborhoods which had also taken strong stands against density.  I think the answer to that is a well-worn disclaimer:  Past experience may not be indicative of future results.

Corey Robin described conservatism as,
… a deliberate, conscious effort to preserve or recall "those forms of experience which can no longer be had in an authentic way."  Conservatism "becomes conscious and reflective when  other ways of life and thought appear on the scene, against which it is compelled to take up arms in the ideological struggle."  Where the traditionalist can take objects of desire for granted- he can enjoy them as if they are at hand because they are at hand- the conservative cannot.  He seeks to enjoy them precisely as they are being- or have been- taken away.  If he hopes to enjoy them again, he must contest their divestment in the public realm…  As soon as those objects enter the medium of political speech, they cease to be items of lived experience and become incidents of an ideology.  They get wrapped in a narrative of loss- in which the revolutionary or reformist plays a necessary part- and presented in a program of recovery.  What was tacit becomes articulate, what was fluid becomes formal, what was practice becomes polemic.
Movements to erect barriers to ethnic and economic diversity in Portland (parking requirements), and to make living in and maintaining the past a condition of residency (neighborhood preservation districts), embody the essence of conservatism.  They are fear of the new, fear of strangers, and fear of change writ large.  If Portlanders embrace such causes I think a political shift to reflect conservative values is inevitable.   

To pick on the most vivid example, Amanda Fritz cannot continue demanding a housing density of 20 units per acre in urban growth boundary expansion areas where infrastructure and amenities are by definition non-existent, while at the same time fighting to preserve a density of less than 7 units per acre across most of inner east Portland.  Either she changes her tune or she destroys her credibility so much that functionally she says nothing at all.  Likewise if you think it is impossible to live without a car and therefore parking is necessary for a basic quality of life, why fund public transit at all?  A more effective use of public resources would be to ensure that everyone simply had a car.

One way or another, our political actions will align with our political values.  Our "talk" and our "walk" can't go in different directions indefinitely.