Sunday, September 21, 2008

Alice and Jeff Speck didn’t have a car and didn’t want one. But D.C. zoning regulations required them to carve out a place to park one at the house they were building.

It would have eaten up precious space on their odd-shaped lot and marred the aesthetics of their neighborhood, which is dominated by historic row houses. The Specks succeeded in getting a waiver, but it took nine months.

Like nearly all U.S. cities, the District has requirements for off-street parking. Whenever anything new is built - be it a single-family home, an apartment building, a store or a doctor’s office - a minimum number of parking spaces must be included. The spots at the curb don’t count: These must be in a garage, a surface lot or a driveway.

The District is now considering scrapping those requirements — part of a growing national trend. Officials hope that offering the freedom to forgo parking will lead to denser, more walkable, transit-friendly development.

Opponents say making parking more scarce will only make the city less hospitable. Commuters such as Randy Michael of Catharpin, Va., complain they are already forced to circle for hours in some neighborhoods.

“Today I had an 11:30 meeting, and I had to plan an extra hour just to park,” Mr. Michael, 49, said last week. It ended up taking him 40 minutes to find a metered spot.

Advocates counter that parking is about more than drivers’ convenience; it can profoundly affect the look and feel of a city.

“Do you want to look like San Francisco or Los Angeles?” asked Donald C. Shoup, author of “The High Cost of Free Parking.” “New York or Phoenix?”

Mr. Shoup, an urban planning professor at the University of California at Los Angeles, prefers San Francisco and New York — hard to park in but highly walkable.

Parking requirements — known to planners as “parking minimums” — have been around since the 1950s. The theory is that if buildings don’t provide their own parking, too many drivers will try to park on neighborhood streets.

In practice, critics say, the requirements create an excess supply of parking, making it artificially cheap. That, the argument goes, encourages unnecessary driving and makes congestion worse. The standards also encourage people to build unsightly surface lots and garages instead of inviting storefronts and residential facades, they say. Walkers must dodge cars pulling in and out of driveways, and curb cuts eat up space that could otherwise be used for trees.

“Half the great buildings in America’s great cities would not be legal to build today under current land use codes,” said Jeff Speck, a planning consultant. “Every house on my block is illegal by current standards, particularly parking standards.”

Opponents also say the standards force developers to devote valuable land to parking, making housing more expensive.

The proposal would eliminate minimum parking requirements with some exceptions. Caps on parking would also be established.

In old neighborhoods like Capitol Hill and Georgetown, where parking is scarce, opponents of the change fear that if new homes don’t provide off-street spots, competition for on-street parking will worsen.

Ken Jarboe, a neighborhood leader from Capitol Hill, said the way to reduce traffic is to continue improving the transit system and to create incentives for people not to drive.

“Simply saying, ‘Let’s make it more painful to park’ — it doesn’t get you where you want to be,” Mr. Jarboe said.

But Harriet Tregoning, director of the D.C. Planning Department, said the city is already easy to navigate without a car. Nine out of 10 residents live within a quarter-mile of transit, and, according to census data, 12 percent of Washingtonians walk to work, she noted. More than a third of D.C. households don’t have a car.

The Specks say they haven’t regretted their decision to go car-free even after the birth of their son, Milo, in June. They walk to shops and parks in their neighborhood, and the baby’s pediatrician is a short bus ride away. When needed, they can rent vehicles from Zipcar, a car-sharing service.

Adding a garage and a driveway to their house would have forced them to sacrifice the equivalent of a bedroom and their garden. They decided it was worth spending the time to get a variance, especially because they were applying for several other zoning waivers at the same time.

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