Joni Mitchell sang, “They paved paradise, put up a parking lot,” but some parking lots in South Burlington could get smaller. Whether that is paradise is another question.
City Councilors will hold a public hearing on Sept. 16 to possibly approve amendments to five Land Development Regulations the planning commission submitted for their review at the Aug. 19 meeting. One amendment calls for the citywide elimination of minimum parking requirements.
It’s a decision the commission believes will remove obstacles for developers trying to appropriately size their parking, Planning and Zoning Director Paul Conner said. It doesn’t mean they can’t build the parking they need; it just eliminates a minimum that might not be appropriate for the business, he said.
Conner gave the example of restaurants: currently all South Burlington restaurants must meet the same minimum parking requirement per square foot of building, but not all restaurants attract an equal amount of business. Eliminating minimums would allow developers to create an appropriate amount of parking without applying for a waiver or change of use permit. That process can take nearly three months from application to verdict, Conner said.
“The planning commission discussed how it’s not always the best use of everyone’s [developers, city staff, the commission and Development Review Board] time,” he said. The commission hopes eliminating minimums will create efficiency for developers.
It would also help reduce stormwater runoff, support evolving transportation patterns, move away from the notion that parking should be designed for the busiest days of the year and take steps to affect climate change, according to commission chair Jessica Louisos.
“This isn’t trying to pretend that cars won’t be a significant part of South Burlington’s future,” Conner said. “It’s removing obstacles to other modes of transport.”
The commission has discussed parking minimums since summer 2017, investigating keeping them as is, reducing them, eliminating them, or even examining maximums. Following research on municipalities like Buffalo, N.Y. – which eliminated parking minimums and after speaking with several property owners and businesses, the commission felt eliminating parking minimums was the way to go.
“The numbers that various municipalities, including ourselves, have are numbers that were developed but, it’s not very strongly rooted science,” Conner said. “[They’re] all over the place across the country and it’s sort of, ‘Because that’s the number, that’s the number.’”
Indeed, while Conner wasn’t sure when parking minimums were first set in the city, he was able to confirm that they go as far back as 1964.
But some opponents believe elimination is premature. They contend that affordable housing near a commercial center and reliable public transportation would have to proceed the amendment. They are concerned developers, without a minimum requirement, will not create an appropriate amount of parking spaces near their businesses, and without reliable public transport, leave no efficient alternative transportation to shuttle residents to local businesses.
“In speaking with the community about the subject ... we received a variety of perspectives,” Conner said. “There were some folks who had feedback that perhaps the lesser parking should take the form of either reducing the minimums or establishing a greater waiver authority for the DRB.”
Indeed, development review board member Frank Kochman – speaking for himself – said he’d prefer to see the city investigate a different option like establishing greater waiver authority for the board. Currently, the development review board can grant waivers shaving up to 25 percent off the minimum parking requirement, Conner said.
Kochman believes that a densely developed, pedestrian-friendly city center with open space surrounding it is a good goal for South Burlington. But, he said, eliminating parking minimums to achieve it may be akin to putting the cart before the horse.
He felt that affordable housing in the city center and efficient public transportation around South Burlington would be needed before eliminating parking minimums could be successful.
But according to Conner, developers will likely still create adequate parking.
“It’s in their own business interest to want to provide sufficient parking for their potential customers,” he said. “If a particular tenant space did wind up not having enough parking to meet its customers’ needs then I would imagine that that tenant would likely choose to go somewhere else.”
But Kochman doesn’t advise depending on the developers to create enough parking.
“To rely on the developer’s perception of his or her best interest as the standard for determining sound public policy is an extreme articulation of laissez faire philosophy that has been proven wrong many times,” he said.
“To consciously create a situation in which developers are tempted, for example, to add 1,000 cubic feet of retail space where there might have been a couple of parking spaces, is bad policy under the current circumstances,” Kochman said. “Particularly where there is no actual plan for improving the public transportation situation, or any realistic plan, that I can see, for the large-scale production of affordable housing.”
According to Conner, the planning commission weighed options like expanding the development review board’s waiver capacity, and felt they were fair suggestions. But in the end, they decided eliminating the minimums was best.
“It’s not to say that those are bad ideas,” Conner said. “They’re all valid ideas. Ultimately the planning commission decided that there were more benefits to be gained by eliminating the parking minimums all together.”
At the Aug. 13 meeting, developers and residents who spoke during the public comment period were in favor of the amendment.
“I’m glad to see that on there, I think it’s a step in the right direction in reducing the reliance on automobiles,” resident Keith Epstein said.
“We see this as a step forward that helps with promoting other modes of transportation within the city,” said one man who stated that he was representing VHB engineering and design company and Larkin Realty. “We support that change.”
Eliminating minimum parking regulations also simplifies the process of one business purchasing a retail space for a completely different use. Currently, if a business with larger parking minimums wants to buy a space from a vacant building that has lesser parking, that business must apply for a site plan to add parking, or a waiver to decrease its minimum requirement
Corey Gottfried, owner of the Parkway Diner, was unable to attend the meeting but wrote a letter in support of the amendment. Parking minimums made it difficult for him to expand the size of his kitchen as the addition triggered a higher minimum for parking spaces.
But during the city council meeting on Monday not everyone was on board. Councilor Thomas Chittenden said he was on the fence.
“I just feel like we’re taking a sledgehammer when maybe we need to use a scalpel and define certain areas where we could reduce the minimums,” he said. “I could be convinced [otherwise].”
Indeed, he feared that five or 10 years after enacting the elimination of minimums, the city could feel negative effects. His concern was that the city would then need to create parking to cover that shortage, using taxpayers’ money.
But Louisos said parking minimums in South Burlington are designed for the busiest day of the year scenario –like for shopping crowds the day before Christmas. The planning commission’s study found that on average parking lots in South Burlington, less than half of parking spots are used working days.
“We often have (land development regulations) that nobody really comments on at all or they only comment because they’re upset about it,” Louisos said. “This one, we got a significant people of many different backgrounds coming in support, just showed up at our public hearing the 13th, to say ‘I’m in support of this.’”
She added those supporters came from a range of places from businesspeople, to residents, lawyers to a conservationist.
Riehle asked the councilors if they’d like to further discuss the amendment before the public hearing. The councilors agreed further discussion would be beneficial.