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Thought Leadership Sustainable Communities

Unraveling the codependent relationship between development and parking

Urban Land Institute

By: Jonathan Gelber, Bleakly Advisory Group and Co-Chair of ULI Atlanta’s Technical Assistance Programs Committee

ULI Atlanta’s Technical Assistance Programs (TAPs), the local advisory services arm of the Urban Land Institute was recently asked to convene a panel through the American Cities Climate Challenge (Climate Challenge), an ambitious commitment in U.S. cities who want to deepen and accelerate local action around climate change and sustainability. Under the umbrella of the Climate Challenge, the Urban Land Institute partnered with the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC) to focus explicitly on parking policy reforms and enhancements in 9 cities, including Atlanta.

One inescapable truth in the development world is that the increasing cost of parking is making it more and more difficult to get projects financed and built.  This is especially true for innovative projects, those in emerging neighborhoods or markets, or those with affordable or workforce housing.   It is not unusual to see new buildings go up where more than half of the structure seems to be devoted to parking. In my day job at Bleakly Advisory Group, a real estate planning and consulting firm, I have been involved in highest-and best use discussions for prime downtown sites where the conversation has started with “Let’s figure out what use requires the least parking and design from there”.  In the past few weeks, our firm has looked at several projects where the costs of structured parking have exceeded $60,000 per space. It would be impossible to build anything but luxury, class A product at that exorbitant cost, is not sustainable, and does not contribute to good and equitable development in our city. (The conversation of equitable development and building more equitable cities being at the forefront of local and national conversations with the events of the last week.)

People in all corners of the planning and development world agree that it is crucial to reduce the amount and cost of parking associated with new development and redevelopment projects in order to continue to build a city that is sustainable , both environmentally and socioeconomically).  This is especially true as technology and lifestyle trends point towards a future where rideshares, autonomous vehicles, virtual workspaces, transit-oriented development, and micro-mobility replace the old model dominated by single-occupancy car commuters. 

We all have read and discussed books and articles laying the blame for such excessive demands for parking at the foot of out-of-touch zoning officials, greedy developers, demanding tenants, or cautious lenders, yet we have seen evidence that even when one or more of these parties agree to try to reduce a project’s parking requirements, they are rarely successful.

In an effort to better understand this, the City of Atlanta, in partnership of the Bloomberg Philanthropies, NRDC and ULI Atlanta, developed a set of recommendations and benchmarks to address the perceived oversupply of parking in Atlanta’s urban cores. 

As co-chair of ULI Atlanta’s TAPs committee, as well as a planning and real estate consultant with a background in transit and transportation, I was given the opportunity to chair this two-day panel of ULI member volunteers  including a commercial banker, a curbside management manager, an architect, residential developer, retail developer, transit-oriented development specialist, and transportation specialist for Atlanta’s downtown BID.  The make-up of this panel was a broad cross-section of ULI’s membership and illustrates the strength of convening technical assistance programs and dissecting complicated local issues. 

To answer the questions laid out in the scope of work and provide a set of short, near, and long-term recommendations, the panel interviewed city staff and a wide range of stakeholders, researched best practices from peer cities, and spent hours debating the issues.  The report, which is a culmination of this panel’s efforts was recently published here.  

One important idea that emerged is that commercial buildings are often built to be sold upon completion and stabilization. Even if the development team embraces progressive and innovative parking solutions, they are often forced to build to accommodate the broader requirements of potential future buyers or tenants.  The corollary of this is that public buildings, free of this requirement, may be more empowered to take the lead with innovative approaches to parking.

Another key theme that emerged from the discussion is that the relationship between parking and development is much more complicated than it appears. Even when regulatory and financial parking requirements are lifted, there remain operational issues (such as insurance, liability, and security), practical issues (cooperation between multiple public private and public entities) and market issues (tenant requirements, both real and perceived) that make it exceedingly difficult to disrupt the status quo.  

What is clear is that all of the parties involved in development are interested in reducing the influence and costs of parking, and that a coordinated approach will require strong and centralized leadership, empowered to employ a combination of carrots and sticks, to induce or compel a wide range of players with a wide range of interests to make collective development decisions that are sustainable and beneficial to all parties involved as well as the public as a whole.

It is heartening to see that as we were preparing the report, the City of Atlanta was taking steps to form its first Department of Transportation, which will dedicate staff to addressing these issues and developing a coordinated response to parking issues.  The panel agrees that this is a promising move by the City of Atlanta, and we encourage this new department and the City’s elected officials to embrace the report’s recommendations.

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Jonathan Gelber, AICP is Vice President of Bleakly Advisory Group and a part-time instructor at  Georgia State University’s Robinson College of Business. He serves as the Co-Chair of ULI Atlanta’s Technical Assistance Programs Committee, as well as ULI Atlanta’s Advisory Board.

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