Prune the asphalt jungle

Larry James Jr. | Partner, Faegre Baker Daniels LP

The Idea: Eliminate minimum parking requirements in order to more efficiently use existing infrastructure, spur neighborhood revitalization, make housing more affordable, and reduce stormwater runoff.

No great city is known for its abundance of free parking.

A recent Mortgage Bankers Association study found that Des Moines has 1.6 million parking spaces. 1.6 million. This equates to roughly 19.4 spaces per household or 28 spaces per acre. While it may be difficult to find that perfect spot in front of your favorite East Village restaurant, the sheer number of spaces suggests that we have more than enough. Nonetheless, Des Moines and its surrounding communities continue to require parking for every development.

It’s time for Des Moines to eliminate minimum parking requirements. Of course, parking is needed, but instead of the city dictating what’s required, we should let market demand determine the number of parking spaces.

Parking requirements were initially adopted in the years following World War II. As new developments were largely accessible by car, planners created standards to make sure each car had a parking place. This makes sense in theory, but these standards are largely arbitrary and based both on national average peak parking rates and on adopting the standards of neighborhood communities. Essentially, we require parking because everyone else does. In so doing, we’ve made sure that free parking is always available, but at a substantial cost to our city.

In terms of taxable valuations, free parking is hardly free. Property tax generated from surface lots is a fraction of their adjoining buildings. By requiring a certain number of spaces, regardless of the actual demand, cities limit the taxable value of real estate by mandating inefficient development.

A 2015 study of regional development patterns and impact on property values commissioned by the Iowa Economic Development Authority and the Des Moines MPO shows a dramatic difference in both property taxes and sales taxes per acre between downtown and Jordan Creek mall. You may need to walk a few blocks to park your car, but that has not discouraged business in the booming East Village. In fact, the East Village – one of the few places where the number of parking spaces is not mandated – generates over four times more sales taxes and 37 percent more property taxes per acre than Jordan Creek mall.

This doesn’t mean that parking isn’t essential for shoppers, but each additional city-required parking space that isn’t needed by shoppers is land that cannot be developed into a more productive use. Imagine the increase in property tax valuations and sales tax receipts if parking requirements were eliminated citywide to allow denser development. Parking would still be built, as it is for new development along East Grand, but it would be up to developers to determine how much parking is needed.

In addition to creating economically inefficient land use, parking requirements hinder neighborhood redevelopment. Many buildings along Des Moines’ older commercial corridors have their zoning “grandfathered in,” which waives current parking requirements.

However, if there is a six-month interruption in occupancy, or the building is destroyed, or the use changes (e.g., from retail to restaurant), the current zoning ordinance applies. In such an event, a business or property owner must either pay a $500 fee and petition the Zoning Board of Adjustment for a zoning variance or exception or redevelop the property pursuant to current standards.

Such bureaucratic hurdles, in addition to the significant cost of acquiring additional property and building new parking, often discourages businesses from locating in our older neighborhoods. Why should the city be the party to determine if a business has enough parking if someone is willing to take a risk and invest?

Parking minimums increase the cost of multifamily housing as well. The average cost of a surface parking space is about $10,000, a cost that is passed on to tenants in the form of higher rents. Forced to comply with parking requirements, it is more expensive to build housing that is both plentiful and affordable. By requiring 1.5 parking spaces per unit, millions of dollars are added to project costs, which further exacerbates our affordable housing crisis.

Finally, parking minimums increase stormwater runoff. With flooding events increasing, addressing stormwater is a growing concern. The more spaces required, the greater the amount of impervious surface. When water has nowhere to go, floods are a predictable outcome.

By eliminating minimum parking requirements, the city of Des Moines could make more efficient use of existing infrastructure, ease neighborhood revitalization, make housing more affordable, address stormwater runoff, and correct the disparity between parking supply and parking demand. >