Phoenix, massive garages and parking minimums

Over the past couple of months I’ve visited downtown Phoenix several times for my day job at the Tribune. When I first arrived, I was pleasantly surprised by the city; my previous impression had been that Phoenix was all sprawl and no city, but the downtown is quite nice.

However, after walking around in downtown Phoenix I was struck by how much vertical parking it has. Salt Lake City also has a lot of downtown space devoted to car storage, but the breadth and creativity of Phoenix’s garages is impressive:

A new tower, built on at least seven floors of parking.

A new tower, built on at least seven floors of parking.

The base of this building is enclosed and looks like it could be offices, but actually it's parking.

The base of this building is enclosed and looks like it could be offices, but actually it’s parking.

The entire, brightly glowing base of this building is parking.

The entire, brightly glowing base of this building is parking.

None of this is especially unusual — many generally car-centric cities do this — but it still represents a massive amount of resources dedicated to cars. Just in the three pictures above, 30 percent or more of the buildings seems to be dedicated to parking.

Imagine if the money that went to this kind of parking went to something else, particularly something that directly generated revenue. Or, imagine if it had been used to build entirely new structures. Much like Salt Lake, only more so, downtown Phoenix feels completely abandoned at night; if the city half a dozen new residential buildings that feeling would radically change.

In any case, I was curious why developers in Phoenix were willing to devote so much of their budgets to parking. Actually I was pretty sure I already knew, but a little investigation confirmed it: parking minimums.

Like so many cities, Phoenix requires developers to include parking. You can read the requirements here (scroll down about a quarter of the way), but here are some of the stand out points:

• One- and two-bedroom apartments must have 1.5 parking spaces.

• Single family homes must have two parkings spaces.

• Gyms must have one space per 150 square feet.

• Movie theaters must have one parking space for every 3.5 seats.

• Skate parks, veterinarians, tennis courts, swap meets and just about anything else all must have parking.

I could go on and on with these highly specific and highly expensive parking requirements. Offices, which abound in downtown Phoenix, also must have parking, though the requirement varies by square feet.

So, is it any wonder that Phoenix is famous for sprawl and car dependency? Or that despite being one of the top 10 most populous American cities it’s downtown just barely compares with much smaller Salt Lake City?

This is probably a good place to point out that parking minimums are among the most absurd and ill-concieved land use policies ever. If people actually want parking, the market will respond; there’s no reason to require supply via laws and ordinances.

Luckily, some cities are beginning to recognize that. In Vancouver — which despite a reputation for good planning also has parking minimums — city leaders are working on a plan to allow condos without parking. Significantly, that move is expected to lower housing costs:

Removing underground parking can slice about $40,000 off the price of a unit, which would help Vancouver tackle its housing affordability problem, Somerville said.

That, I think, is the key: when parking minimums are eliminated, everyone — from developers to home buyers to companies renting office space — have greater choice and cheaper options. Parking will still exist as a result of demand, but those who don’t want it suddenly don’t have to pay for it. It’s a win-win approach that hopefully more American cities like Phoenix and Salt Lake City will embrace.

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