A blog for better streets and public spaces in Portland, Maine.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

The Free Market Has Spoken: Rich People Don't Need That Much Parking (So Why Are We Still Forcing It on the Poor?)

The Bay House condominium project planned for the old Village Cafe lot in the India Street neighborhood has languished for over five years now.

In 2009, after the housing crash, the developers revised their project to add more parking spaces to a ground-level garage, to offer two parking spaces for every apartment in the complex. The additional parking made the building proposal much uglier and much more expensive, but the developers believed, at the time, that the extra parking spots would lure wealthy buyers.

Turns out, they were wrong. The extra parking added expense to the project, without adding much value. In the three years since then, Portland's housing shortage has gotten worse, with skyrocketing rents. The new condominiums on the top floor of the Hampton Inn building across India Street sold out within months, without an on-site parking garage. 
Now, the Bay House developers are going back before the Planning Board to request changes to their approval to make the building more cost-effective — and buildable. While the 2009 plan called for 159 parking spaces for 82 condos (or 1.92 parking spots for every unit), the 2012 plan calls for only 80 on-site parking spaces for 94 condos (0.85 parking spaces for every unit), with an arrangement to lease parking spaces in the half-empty, city-subsidized Ocean Gateway garage down the street, if necessary.

The laws of supply and demand in the free market for "luxury" housing have spoken: you can't sell new apartments with two expensive parking spaces and expect people (even rich people) to pay the price to justify the huge additional construction costs.

By requesting to build less parking, the developers are spelling it out for Portland planners that there is a demand for in-town housing, but there is a lot less demand for in-town parking. They're saying that they can sell expensive apartments, on the free market, to normal, able adults, at a profit to boot, even though not every one of those condos will have its own parking spot.

However. Portland's zoning codes still generally require developers to build at least one parking spot per dwelling unit on the peninsula; and TWO parking spots per unit off the peninsula, without regard to the laws of supply and demand.

What's especially ironic is that these rules apply disproportionately to developers of "affordable" housing — where even fewer residents own cars. Portland's Planning Board, and MaineHousing, still ask developers of subsidized housing to build at least one parking spot per dwelling unit for putatively "low-income" apartments — apartments for the POOR and DESTITUTE.

A luxury project like the Bay House, for people who can very easily afford to own a car, on the other hand, doesn't receive as many subsidies, has fewer bureaucratic strings attached, and therefore needs to waste less money and real estate on automobile storage areas.

If you still can't see how fucked up this is (don't worry, you have good company in City Hall and Augusta and on the Portland Planning Board), let me spell it out for you with some very basic logic:
  1. Real estate set aside for parking can not be used for housing. 
  2. Money spent on parking garages can not be spent on bedrooms.   
  3. Poor households don't own as many cars as rich households.
  4. Point (3) implies that low-income housing therefore needs fewer parking spaces per unit than high-income housing like the Bay House.
  5. Points (1), (2), and (4) imply that current city and state requirements that force nonprofit affordable housing developers to build as much or more parking than a luxury project like the Bay House are a waste of scarce financial resources, and needlessly deny needed housing to some of Portland's most vulnerable households.
  6. Corollary: any city planners who still can't grasp the five points above need mull it over overnight while lying on a disinfectant-soaked mattress on the crowded floor of the motherfucking Oxford Street homeless shelter. 

Monday, April 2, 2012

Draft budget preserves the city's new bicycle and pedestrian program at City Hall

Portland's new city manager, Mark Rees, released his first-ever budget proposal for the city today. You can download the document here. It calls for a number of sensible management streamlining initiatives, including better IT systems within City Hall and on its woefully out-of-date website. This ought to improve City Hall's responsiveness to civic issues, reduce costs, and increase transparency and accountability among the city government's various departments and committees.

The Manager also recognized the public's calls for streamlined city permitting, which has unnecessarily obstructed worthy new businesses and developments.

But most excitingly for me and for my colleagues at the Portland Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Committee, Portland Trails, and the Bike Coalition of Maine, the city manager also included this tidbit in the draft budget:

"Portland is no longer a community dominated by one mode of getting around, rather we have become a community craving diversity and an infrastructure that supports all. Whether it is safe routes to schools, bike lanes, efficient busing routes or redesigns of busy intersections, people move around the city differently than they did twenty years ago and we need to respond to these changes with a comprehensive approach...

In keeping with this goal and in recognition of the importance that all modes of transportation receive focus and attention, I am making the bicycle and pedestrian coordinator a permanent position. This position was originally funded by a Communities Putting Prevention to Work grant to support the city's effor to prevent obesity. While the grant and its funded initiatives concluded last month, there are a number of bike and pedestrian initiatives from the redesign of the USM-Brighton Avenue intersection to the adoption of a bicycle-pedestrian plan that need to continue.
Keeping the bicycle and pedestrian coordinator position in City Hall has been a top priority of the Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Committee. Bruce Hyman, who currently serves that role, has done a tremendous amount of work in the past two years — he's implemented the city's first Neighborhood Byway on a shoestring budget, ushered a new Bicycle and Pedestrian plan through public hearings on a tight schedule, acted as the city's liason for bicycle and pedestrian issues on large development proposals like Thompson's Point (more on this soon), and generally provided a lot of value to the city for not much money.

It's still too early to celebrate Bruce's continued employment for the city — the budget still needs approval from the City Council, and the city isn't flush with money by any means. But having the city manager endorse it makes a very good start for the idea. Our next steps will be to check in with each City Councilor and get them to affirm their support for the position loudly and often.

You can read more about the budget process here: