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CNT: There’s Only One Parked Car for Every Three Units at Local Buildings

Screen Shot 2016-03-28 at 7.40.40 PM
Ontario and State in River North. Due to pre-TOD ordinance minimums, many downtown buildings have large pedestals of garage parking, much of which is unused. Image: Google Street View

A new report from the Center for Neighborhood Technology quantifies something that we already suspected to be true: Apartment buildings in the Chicago area tend to have way too much off-street car parking. The report, titled Stalled Out: How Empty Parking Spaces Diminish Neighborhood Affordability, points out that, since parking spots are surprisingly expensive to build, this surplus of spots drives up housing costs.

CNT has done similar parking studies in the San Francisco, Seattle, and Washington, D.C. metro areas, including the creation of development of tools for predicting “right-size parking” in the latter two cities. This time around, they looked at 40 multiunit buildings on the North, South, and West Sides of Chicago, as well as northwest, west, and southwest Cook County suburbs, according to transit-oriented development manager Kyle Smith, the report’s author.

As in the other regions, the researchers did parking counts at the Chicagoland apartment buildings, both market-rate and subsidized, at 4:00 a.m., the peak time for parking use. Similar to what was observed in the other regions, they found that:

    • While the 40 buildings averaged two parking spots per every three units, only one space was being used per every three units.
    • The more parking spaces a building had, the higher the percentage that sat unused.
    • Apartments within a half mile of a high-frequency transit line, such as a CTA ‘L’ branch tended to have fewer spots, with only one space per two units. But even at those buildings, one-third of the spots weren’t used. Again, there was only one parked car for every three units.

The excess number of spaces reflects the fact that, while Chicago and many suburban municipalities require a minimum number of off-street spots in new developments, these minimums are somewhat arbitrary and don’t necessarily reflect actual demand.

This situation has improved somewhat in Chicago in recent years. In 2013 City Council passed the city’s first transit-oriented development, which halved the usual one-to-one parking ratio requirement for new buildings near rapid transit stops. Last year, a beefed-up version of the ordinance passed, which doubled the size of the TOD zones and completely waived the parking minimums. However, the usual parking minimums still apply outside of the TOD districts.

The 1611 West Division tower has zero parking spaces for tenants. Photo: John Greenfield
The tour group discusses the 1611 W Division Street building with Jamie McNally.

CNT points out that parking requirements for new buildings tend to be influenced more by existing residents’ fears that on-street parking will become more difficult than by realistic predictions of parking demand. This results in an opportunity cost. The price of building a single parking space in Chicago ranges from $4,200 for an outdoor lot space to $37,300 for each space in an underground garage.

That can add up to hundreds of thousands of dollars wasted on unused parking spaces. That drives up the cost of housing for everybody, but it’s especially harmful to the cause of creating affordable housing near transit, since land near a station is particularly valuable.

CNT’s Kyle Smith says that one of the most of the most surprising things they learned from the study is that there tended to be lower supplies of parking, as well as demand for parking, near high-frequency bus line, with buses arriving 15 minutes or less, not just ‘L’ lines.

The study also found that, while parking demand tends to be higher for building where many units have two or more bedrooms, parking spaces were still underutilized in these buildings. “So our study suggests that, contrary to the conventional wisdom, TOD is a strategy that can be used to supply housing for families, not just single people in micro apartments,” Smith says. “That’s really important, because TOD is not just for reducing car dependency, but also to facilitate affordable housing.”

Smith noted that, in the past, parking minimums have forced affordable housing developers in Chicago to provide more parking spaces than it was likely their low-income or working-class tenants would use. “That’s not a good use of our limited affordable housing funding,” he says.

The CNT report also highlights 21 different policy and development solutions for reducing parking demand, and examples of where these strategies are working. For example, the 1611 West Division tower in Chicago has 99 units but zero parking spaces for tenants. Due to the building’s excellent access to the Blue Line, bus routes, bike routes, car-sharing, and bike-sharing, residents have many options for getting around without owning a car, and the developer has no problem renting out the apartments.

Smith says CNT would like to create a parking calculator for Chicago, similar to what they did for Seattle and D.C., if they can find a funding source. He adds that in the future it might make sense to partner with Chicagoland’s Regional Transit Authority or the Chicago Department of Planning and Development to secure federal dollars for the project.

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