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Colorado lawmakers seek ban on local parking requirements — drawing pushback as they aim to bolster housing

For years, minimum parking requirements in urban areas have served as a white whale for some in Colorado’s coalition of housing advocates and land-use reformers. They’ve looked at those vast seas of concrete and asphalt with a combination of distaste and a desire for what those spaces otherwise could be used for.

Instead of more places for people to live, it’s parking spot after parking spot, sometimes stacked in parking decks and often fulfilling a formula set by local governments.

“I’m convinced it’s one of the most impactful policies — this hidden force that makes all of our communities less walkable. It hurts economic development, hurts housing prices, reinforces car dependence,” said Matt Frommer, a senior transportation associate for the Southwest Energy Efficiency Project.

After an initial glance at parking minimums last year, state lawmakers now are training their harpoons on a more sweeping solution: eliminating the parking requirements in many of Colorado’s cities and suburbs. A bill proposing that sweeping change has already cleared its first committee.

HB24-1304, sponsored by Democratic Reps. Stephanie Vigil and Steven Woodrow, is part of a broader land-use legislative package supported by Gov. Jared Polis and a coalition of Democratic lawmakers, transportation officials, and housing advocates and developers. Another bill in the package that would allow for the building of more accessory-dwelling units also includes a ban on associated parking requirements.

Parking minimums, set through local policies that dictate how many spots a new apartment complex, office building or movie theater must provide, are ubiquitous across Colorado, as they are across America.

While some local governments — including Denver — have taken steps to roll them back, such changes often face passionate local resistance over worries about parking availability. And many local officials now are lining up against HB-1304, arguing it would take away their authority on the matter.

But Frommer and other critics say the cost of convenient parking is higher rents and fewer housing units built.

Just one off-street parking spot can cost between $5,000 and $50,000, depending on whether the spot is in a surface lot or in a garage, according to the Colorado Housing Affordability Project.

Those costs, in turn, get heaved onto renters or commercial tenants in the form of higher rents. High parking requirements also can mean that projects include fewer apartments. For subsidized projects built to house low-income tenants, the squeeze is even tighter, since developers can’t increase rents to offset parking costs.

Reformers also point to air pollution as a side-effect of accommodating cars on such broad expanses of land, as it encourages more driving, rather than alternative forms of travel like public transit.

“It’s an incredibly pernicious policy,” Frommer said of parking minimums. “It kind of flies under the radar because in America, we’ve come to expect there will be ample and free parking wherever we go to store our cars.”

Parking space standards based on units or floor area

Parking requirements — and the standard of maintaining ample parking — are defended and desired by many local residents and their leaders. Concerned about endless circling for spots while shopping for groceries or trying to park near their own homes or apartments, defenders of parking minimums tend to cast the issue as a question of locals’ control over livability and neighborhood character.

Several years ago, concerns from vocal residents in parking-strapped neighborhoods led Denver’s City Council to water down a parking exemption that was aimed at aiding development on smaller lots in urban districts.

Across the state, parking requirements are as varied as they are ubiquitous.

In Thornton, an apartment-builder must include one space per 500 feet of floor area, with a max of three spots for a unit. Littleton requires between one and 2.5 spaces per unit, depending on its size.

Denver varies by neighborhood: Some areas, like downtown, don’t require that new developments include parking at all, while parts of southeast Denver mandate more than one spot per unit. Much of the city has some minimum in place, though requirements have been reduced for affordable housing projects.

It’s not just for housing, either: There are requirements for bars, restaurants, strip clubs, movie theaters and other places — all seeking to ensure that there’s space for tenants and customers to quickly get through the door.

Like other land-use bills this year, the parking reform bill would apply only to cities in metro-planning organizations, which generally means municipalities on the Front Range. The bill would also require a study to determine “optimal parking supply” in those cities, though that would occur after the minimums are eliminated.

Also like other housing measures, the parking bill seeks to sidestep local rules and create a standardized approach in a bid to address the state’s housing crisis and address climate concerns.

Will Toor, the executive director of the Colorado Energy Office, told legislators Tuesday that it was one of the most important climate bills of the session, given sponsors’ goals of urging drivers to use alternate modes of transportation.

Opponent: Focus instead on funding better transit

The measure’s encroachment on local authority has drawn broad opposition from local governments. They argue the measure would strip away their authority while harming day-to-day life for their residents and pushing drivers toward a public transit system that hasn’t been adequately developed.

Republican lawmakers have voiced similar complaints.

“We hope the state could focus instead on providing adequate funding for safe and reliable public transit, which is severely lacking, to help communities reduce their dependence on cars and need for parking,” said Heather Stauffer, a legislative advocacy manager with the Colorado Municipal League. The CML represents Colorado cities and towns and has opposed most of the land-use reform proposals, including the parking bill.

Some U.S. cities, including in Colorado, have limited their parking minimums. If passed, Vigil’s bill would be the most sweeping approach in the country.

Lawmakers in Minnesota are debating a similar bill, though that measure would apply to the entire state. Last year, new rules in Oregon spurred several cities to eliminate parking requirements as part of a broader statewide reform effort.

According to a study by the Parking Reform Network, 21% of Vigil’s native Colorado Springs is eaten up by parking, and Denver sits at 17%.

Facing residents’ nightmares of endless spot-searching as part of any meal or shopping trip, lawmakers and other supporters have hurried to note that the bill wouldn’t eliminate parking.

Supporters say that, without minimums, developers can independently decide how much parking they reasonably need, balanced against the number of units they want to build or commercial space they want to develop.

For now, supporters argue, the requirement of too many spots has limited development.

Peter LiFari, an affordable housing developer in Adams County, said he haggled with a local government over how much parking he needed to offer for a proposed project. Local officials, concerned that street parking would spill into nearby neighborhoods, wanted two spots per unit. But that would curtail how many units LiFari could build.

Eventually, the two sides settled on one spot per unit, LiFari said, and 116 new units were built. But the associated costs and space constraints meant 45 units had to be scratched.

“When it takes five years to produce 116 units, losing 45 sucks. It really hurts,” he said. “Was I extremely grateful that I got to 1:1? You bet I was. … But when we talk about parking minimums and why an intervention like this is necessary — we just don’t have a critical mass.

“Enough local governments haven’t adjusted their zoning laws. And when they do, they move at a snail’s pace.”

What’s more, supporters argue that the market will decide: If an apartment complex or commercial area doesn’t have enough parking, it won’t get rented out, and developers will have to adjust.

That argument hasn’t assuaged local governments or other opponents.

“That is concerning to us — letting the developers basically determine their own parking needs, not knowing the environment of the city,” said Allison Wittern, Centennial’s communications director. “So it’s really the local control piece. I mean, it’s not that we’re not for things; it’s the how that’s … the challenge.”

Supporters of the bill acknowledge that the state’s public transit system isn’t sufficiently developed yet.

“I would agree it’s not there yet,” Vigil said. “I would just counter that it never will be there if we double down on car dependence. … It’s uncomfortable to break a vicious cycle. We’re talking about something (where) we can’t do it forever. It’s unsustainable. At some point, it has to be interrupted.”

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