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Changing Skyline: Curb parking war by tackling demand

We've heard a lot over the last year about how special interests keep trying to sabotage Philadelphia's new zoning code.

Common sight after snowfall: Lawn-chair dibs on a cleared-out parking spot. (David Maialetti/Staff Photographer)
Common sight after snowfall: Lawn-chair dibs on a cleared-out parking spot. (David Maialetti/Staff Photographer)Read more

We've heard a lot over the last year about how special interests keep trying to sabotage Philadelphia's new zoning code. First in line, of course, would be City Council, whose members often behave as if their office gave them the right to exact tribute from development projects. Then there are the developers who bring in legal wizards to jiggle the locks on the system.

Now, add one more interest group: neighborhood associations. You might expect this constituency to eagerly embrace the code's progressive urban ideas, but that's not the case when it comes to the emotional hot-button of parking.

The new code is shaped by the belief that cities like Philadelphia need increased density to thrive. Make things too easy for the car, the thinking goes, and you'll never reach the level of density needed to support walkable neighborhoods with good transit and plentiful retail. To that end, the code dramatically cut back on the parking required for apartment projects. The new ratio - one space for every three units - is one of the Nutter administration's boldest initiatives.

But for many neighborhood groups, it's as if the rules never changed. "We always tell developers that we want more parking than the code requires," boasts Ed Panek, zoning chair for the Logan Square Neighborhood Association. Indeed, he often insists on a surplus of spaces, so the empty ones can be rented to area residents.

This approach not only saddles developers with higher construction costs, but it also dooms any hope of getting decent urban architecture. There are better ways to help people manage parking in their neighborhoods.

Ironically, the clamor for more parking has been loudest in the very parts of the city where cars are the least necessary, in the gracious, intact, pedestrian-friendly rowhouse neighborhoods in and around Center City. Why in the world would those residents want the unattractive garages big-footing onto their streets?

The answer lies in the recent success of those neighborhoods. Over the last two decades, infill houses have been slotted into every available site, from Fairmount to Manayunk, bringing in thousands of new residents, and their cars.

By all accounts, the competition for on-street parking has grown fierce. So when a civic group vets a project, its first objective is to protect its own, by making sure newcomers don't become competitors for on-street spots.

The results vary from the petty to the extreme. At 23d and South, a plan for an 18-unit building has been in a zoning lockdown, in large part because the developer dared to propose a design without parking. Residents are demanding six spaces on site, although it would mean creating an awkward driveway that eliminates two spots on the street. Meanwhile, during the debate over Carl Dranoff's tower at 25th and Locust, some members of the Center City Residents Association called for a much bigger garage so nonresidents could park there. They seemed unbothered by the prospect of concrete decks hovering over the entrance to the Schuylkill Banks.

As the city's population grows, the parking crunch is only going to get tighter. But the solution to the problem isn't increasing supply; it's decreasing demand.

Philadelphia already has the basic tools to do this with its residential permit program, run by the Parking Authority. Right now, residents can purchase a sticker for their cars entitling them to unlimited parking in any legal spot in their immediate neighborhood. The authority issues 40,000 stickers a year for its 34 districts.

But the price is absurdly low: $35 a year. City Council just approved the program's first price hike in 20 years. When the new rates go into effect in January, the base price will remain the same, but the second sticker in a household will cost $50, and the third, $75. Every additional permit will cost $100. As the Parking Authority's Richard Dickson says, it's the cheapest amenity you can buy for your car.

And yet the price still isn't high enough, given motorists' daily battles to secure curbside real estate. Raising the base price to $100 - the rate in San Francisco - might help curb demand a bit. Some Philadelphians barely touch their cars during the week; they're essentially using the public street as their own private driveway. Still, it's hard to believe that $100, dinner for two at a nice restaurant, would be a deal-breaker for the occasional car-user.

The fact is, straight pricing is too blunt a mechanism. Donald Shoup, author of The High Cost of Free Parking, the bible of parking policy, advocates replacing the Parking Authority's system with a more targeted rate system that uses airline-style pricing to nudge people to give up their cars. His approach would free up space for those who can't exist without them, such as reverse commuters and the disabled.

For Philadelphians who must drive to work, he suggests creating a priority permit for a special "overnight parking district." These commuters would pay a premium, but they would get first dibs on spaces when they arrive home in the evenings.

Shoup also likes the idea of offering day permits for nonresidents who work in the neighborhood. Generally, on-street parking is more plentiful during business hours.

Another option would be to designate some streets for resident parking only, and others for nonresidents. That would suit neighborhoods that are popular restaurant or entertainment destinations. The city should also cut a break for scooter users, since they occupy less space than cars and are better for the environment.

Of course, the goal isn't to provide a space for everyone. Parking is supposed to be difficult in cities.

We're fortunate to be living in a time when our travel options are greater than ever. With the expansion of car-sharing, bike lanes, and, soon, bike-sharing, owning a car may soon seem like too much trouble.

And then, what will we do with all those parking garages?

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