Processing Your Payment

Please do not leave this page until complete. This can take a few moments.

Updated: January 22, 2024 Focus on Real Estate

Parking paralysis: Developers, activists, and city officials say parking requirements are blocking needed development

A five story parking garage sits across a small street from a large apartment building, with a footbridge connecting the two structures. Photo | Matt Wright Alta on The Row, a new luxury apartment complex under construction on Mulberry Street in Worcester, includes a five-story parking garage.

At first glance, it may seem like common sense that new housing and commercial developments should be required by city planners to have a minimum amount of parking spots to accommodate new residents and customers.

Worcester, like many cities, has zoning bylaws requiring a specific amount of accessory off-street parking for new developments. But with concerns over a lack of affordable housing dominating headlines, communities across the country are starting to reconsider the issue of mandatory parking minimums.

From Anchorage, Alaska to Austin, Texas, cities are starting to eliminate parking minimums after determining these often decades-old zoning requirements are having a detrimental effect on growth and may require more parking than is actually needed.

As Worcester looks to increase its housing stock, a reexamination of parking bylaws is gearing up to be a key aspect of zoning reform.

The rise of the strip mall

In the fight against parking minimums, progressive activists are pushing an agenda of climate reform and eliminating dependency on cars, while conservatives take issue with the idea of bureaucrats putting up potential arbitrary barriers to economic growth, said Tony Jordan, president of the Oregon-based nonprofit Parking Reform Network, which was founded in 1998.

Image | Courtesy of PRN
Tony Jordan, president of Parking Reform Network

“These are anti-business, anti-economic growth policies. They are a drag on economic development because they reduce flexibility for business owners and entrepreneurs,” he said.

The concept of parking minimums came into prominence around the 1950s, when the post-war automotive boom led to increased concerns about parking in urban areas, said Jordan. Eager to accommodate the rise of the automobile, municipalities tore down disused buildings in urban cores to make way for surface lots or garages.

Planners often took things one step further, implementing zoning ordinances mandating a certain amount of minimum spots for new developments.

“Almost everything built after the ’50s looks like a strip mall or a shopping center, because that was the only thing you could build to be compliant,” he said.

The City of Worcester has 40 different use categories as part of its off-street accessory parking requirements, with rules ranging widely by use, according to the City of Worcester’s zoning ordinance. A manufacturing facility requires a parking spot for every 11,000 square feet of floor space, but a warehouse requires a spot per 13,000 square feet. A heliport requires one spot per 350 square feet of gross floor area, while a marina requires a spot for every four boat slips. A daycare center requires one spot per staff member, but a club or lodge requires 2.5 spots per 350 square feet of floor area. Single or multi-family housing requires two spots per unit, while subsidized retirement housing requires one spot per unit.

“I make jokes that it’s like planners were using crystal balls or rolling dice,” said Jordan, who noted he’s seen minimums for obscure uses like haunted houses or butterfly breeding facilities.

No such thing as free parking

Worcester has a rental vacancy rate of 2.8%, according to U.S. Census estimates, nearly a full percentage point below the nationwide rate. With rental units in short supply, the parking requirements around housing developments can be particularly impactful.

A map of downtown Worcester with red highlights indicating parking infrastucture
Image | Courtesy of Parking Reform Network
A study from Parking Reform Network found 35% of Worcester's downtown is devoted to parking.

Worcester is a hilly, midsize city lacking the subways, bicycle infrastructure, and other options for transportation available in places like Boston, but the city’s renters do not own as many cars as one might think; 46.2% of renter-occupied units have only one vehicle, and 24.7% of rental units have no vehicles at all, according to the Census.

Worcester’s parking minimums have been a barrier to otherwise non-controversial projects, said Jimmy Kalogeropoulos of RE/MAX Partners - Advance Group in Worcester, who has been in the real estate business for 16 years.

Sitting in his Harding Street office, he pointed out the window to a large building at 22 Waverly St., the former site of St. Casimir’s School sitting on Union Hill and overlooking the Canal District.

The developer who bought the building in December would like to put 24 one-bedroom units into the building, Kalogeropoulos said, but the parking lot associated with the building has 24 spaces, well short of complying with the City’s parking minimums.

He’s not the only one in the city to notice the impact of minimums on housing developments.

“Parking is not free. Requiring more parking than is necessary drives up project costs, and those costs can make an otherwise feasible project infeasible,” Stephen Rolle, commissioner of transportation & mobility for the City of Worcester, said via email. “When projects are constructed, the costs of parking are transferred to tenants whether they are utilizing the parking or not.”

If a solution can’t be found for the Waverly Street project, the developer may have to move forward with building 12 two-bedroom apartments instead, a move Kalogeropoulos said would lead to higher rents and a smaller impact on the city’s housing stock.

“I don’t think the City’s parking requirements are conducive to economic development,” he said.

A chart showing Worcester's off-street accessory parking requirements
Worcester's off-street parking requirements

As the economy shifts, Kalogeropoulos is already seeing financing and loans for new developments will not be as available as years past, meaning the City is going to have to take bolder measures to bolster the housing stock.

“During COVID, banks were very bullish on the economy,” he said. “The next few years are going to be completely different. So what’s the City going to do to set itself apart and continue growing?”

Potential changes

While elected officials and city planners have so far shied away from calling for a complete elimination of parking minimums, smaller reforms have happened, with bolder changes potentially on the horizon.

Downtown Worcester already has no parking minimum requirements, and reforms implemented in 2015 led to the creation of Commercial Corridor Overlay Districts, where parking minimums are reduced.

Further change could be on the agenda. The Worcester Now | Next Citywide Plan, a two-year-long planning process aiming to provide a coordinated master plan for development, found the City has had an outsized prioritization toward off-street parking, and land-use patterns are centered around automobile use, according to draft documents produced by the plan’s working group.

Image | Courtesy of City of Worcester
Peter Dunn, Worcester chief development officer

"There is a preponderance of evidence across the nation to support the notion that parking minimums have contributed to the lack of housing supply,” Peter Dunn, chief development officer for the City, said via email.

While there seems to be agreement on the need to reform minimums, specific proposals may bring out opposition in some of the city’s older neighborhoods.

“Some residents express concern because there are areas of the city where it can be difficult to find parking. This is generally the case in residential neighborhoods that were developed prior to the automobile, and not a result of current or past zoning,” Rolle said.

When the average person is asked if developers should be required by officials to designate a minimum amount of parking spots to support a new development, it can seem like it would be obvious to say yes, said Jordan, the parking reform advocate.

A pie chart showing poll results
60% of WBJ readers said parking minimums should be kept the way they are.

But developers are unlikely to build a project if profitability would be prevented by a lack of transportation, and that sort of framing is missing the point, he says.

“This is where we go wrong. We do community surveys asking if we should get rid of parking minimums and people go ‘Hell no!’ without thinking about what they actually mean,” Jordan said. “The questions for the world we live in today are ‘Would you trade parking for walkability? Would you trade parking for affordability?’”

Sign up for Enews

WBJ Web Partners


January 28, 2024

Although we claim to be proud of our "free enterprise" economy, we're addicted to free parking and free access to public roads. Although we claim to abhor homelessness (for people), we tolerate it. But homelessness for cars is so much more frightening that we legislatively mandate that each car have multiple homes -- at the residence, at the office, at the grocery store, the theater, the restaurant, etc.

In the early 2000s, I was working for the District Department of Transportation (DDOT). We were trying to introduce "performance-based parking fees." In other words, we would price parking according to demand. Where and when demand was high, parking would be more expensive. This would encourage some to take transit instead. And this would free up parking for those who drove and paid the price for it. Bottom line, more people would be able to access popular places with performance-based parking than with the current system where parking demand exceeded supply.

Needless to say, I was in fear for my life at the first public meetings where this was discussed. "The Mayor's just trying to grab more money!" was one of the more polite comments that I heard. So I changed my approach.

I began public meetings by announcing that DDOT was considering the idea about making curbside parking free. Surprised smiles would break out across the audience. "I can see from your happy faces that you'd like to build a monument in DDOT's honor. But, before you do, let's think about how this will work."

"You want to go downtown to see a museum exhibit with Aunt Sally, or have lunch with a friend, or have a meeting with a client. You could take transit. Roundtrip would be about $6. But parking is FREE! So you drive downtown. When you get there, you realize that everybody else who wanted to go downtown also drove. Curbside parking is free, but all of the spaces are full. You're driving around and around, looking for a free space that just isn't there. You're missing the exhibit and you're late for your lunch or your meeting. So you shoe-horn your car into the curb, run through the exhibit, gulp your food, or try to figure out why the client meeting isn't going well. After you're done, you return to your car and find a pink slip in the windshield because you were a bit too creative in parking. Did you have a good time? Are you going to come back downtown again?"

"Now, imagine how this would work out if we were charging $5/hour to park downtown. You'd save $4 by taking transit, so that's what you'd do. You'd be on time for your exhibit, your lunch or your meeting. You'd get in. You'd get out. You'd pay for what you get and you'd get what you paid for. Not so bad!"

"OR, imagine that Aunt Sally has a bad knee and can't ride the bus. Or that you have a delicate architectural model to show a client - and it might get damaged on transit. Well then it would be worth it to pay $10 for parking. And, when you got downtown, there'd be an empty space because other folks were taking transit to save money. You'd pay for what you get and you'd get what you paid for. Not so Bad!"

As people listened to the story, you could see little light bulbs going off in their minds. Parking prices weren't just a money grab. It was a way to get the system to work better. I would close by saying, "Parking prices aren't just about money. They are information that help people make better choices. It's more about getting into your head than into your wallet."

Order a PDF