By David Marcus
Have you ever been walking through one of the world's great cities and wondered why we don't build anything like that anymore? What has happened in the era of automobiles that has made great places so hard to create? The demand of cars for big, noisy roads is a part of the problem, but the Champs-Élysées in Paris or 5th Avenue in New York show walkability can exist even on those big roads.
No, the biggest blight introduced by cars is the parking lot. Imagine how the Champs-Élysées (see the picture attached to this article) would be eroded if all those stores were providing ample off-street parking.
You might assume that businesses are building big parking lots because of free-market forces, to meet consumers' demands. But why do businesses tend to provide so much more parking than customers will ever use? Those sprawling, half-used lots are mandated by a "parking minimum", a zoning requirement that all businesses provide an over-abundance of parking. Thanks to parking minimums, we are "saved" from anybody building a new Champs-Élysées or 5th Avenue.
For any business of a given type and size, Planning & Zoning has a formula spelling out much parking to provide. These formulas ensure, for example, that even during the Christmas Eve rush, Toys R Us will have more than enough spots for everybody. For the rest of the year those spots sit empty, collecting litter, generating runoff and blighting the neighborhood. Nobody likes to live by a parking lot, least of all an empty one.
Google the phrase parking minimums and you'll find nothing but studies and articles decrying their impact on communities. It is hard to find any planner who will stand up for them. Parking minimums inflict fields of asphalt on the streetscape. They make it so stores are so spread out that it is no fun to walk between them. They drive up the cost of development--some 20 percent of a development's cost is often spent on parking--and this cost is then passed on to customers in higher prices. They also make it difficult to build in dense city centers, where land is too valuable to be used for parking lots. Essentially, parking minimums mandate that new development should either follow a strip mall model or contain an expensive $25,000 per spot parking structure.
Slowly, this relic of 1950s planning is being repealed around the country. Many cities are even replacing parking minimums with parking maximums. However, suburban communities like Norwalk will likely be the last to see them go. Why? Because it can be hard for many of us to look beyond the convenience of easy parking.
Having sat in on a few developer presentations, some percentage of our community will always voice concerns about whether a development provides sufficient parking. Many people--one gets the sense--would rather stop a great business from opening than run the risk that it may be hard to park.
So we have Cafe 507 on West Ave unable to relocate because, apparently, the new location doesn't have enough parking for a bar. (Yes, parking minimums also promote hassle-free drinking and driving.) And today in the news we have Beach Burger in East Norwalk . The concern isn't lack-of-parking. There is a ton of on-street parking and the owner also owns the spacious Mr. Frosty's lot next-door. But on-street parking doesn't count toward parking minimums. Nearby parking doesn't count either. No, every business must provide ample off-street parking right on their property. Fortunately, Beach Burger already has some pre-existing parking that can be approved as customer parking, so customers will get their chairs back soon.
The larger question remains though ... what do we want for Norwalk? If we want to have side-by-side businesses generating foot traffic with attractive sidewalks lined by on-street parking, our zoning code should reflect this. It's time to get rid of the parking minimums.
Editor's note: This article, originally a blog post at David Marcus' "Livable Norwalk" blog, is reprinted with permission.