December: Shape of the city
It’s the Parking. Really.
In this update, I talk about the unexpected ways that parking affects:
Parking turns out to be a driver of more than just trips (pro tip: more parking=more driving=more traffic.
In fact, parking, or specifically government-mandated “minimum parking requirements,” are one of the reasons new apartment and office buildings are often massive and ugly. The higher the minimums (which are built into zoning codes—Newton’s is particularly high), the more likely the building will look massive and generic.
In this scenario, the parking comes first—the apartments or offices are a thin veneer around a garage!
First a developer acquires a large block of property, builds a multi-story garage to meet the parking minimums, and builds the stuff that will sell/rent (apartments, condos, offices, etc.) around the outside.
Parking minimums began in the car- and sprawl-happy 1950s and later, as planners assumed that everyone who could, would drive. A similar assumption drove the demolition of rail and street-car services. Since then, we have learned the economic and climate consequences of drive-everywhere culture, and City Council has started requiring developers of larger projects to include transit passes, bike- and car-share and carpool programs, among other things.
One reason is that it’s clear all these spaces are underutilized. Look at the parking lots surrounding many of our stores on Needham Street and even on a busy shopping day, many spaces sit unoccupied (many of them meet Newton’s current parking minimums). I toured a new, luxury development in Waltham’s downtown recently and noticed that most of the cars occupying the spaces were dusty. On a Monday morning—so they weren’t being used for commuting or for weekend shopping trips!
If Newton were to reduce its parking minimum in half (and remember that developers can always produce more parking than the minimum if they wish), a single story of underground parking could allow for courtyard-type buildings with amenities in the middle.
The developer would still need a large block of property, but could dig down just far enough to hide a full-size parking lot with one entrance. Building above might have to still be fairly big, but it could allow for more air, light, and shared space for playgrounds or other community assets.
Buildings with no parking minimums? Well, that’s how any of our village centers built before 1950 were constructed. Sometimes homes and shops included spots for cars (or horses). Sometimes the builder assumed people would walk or take transit. So yes—parking can shape buildings, even whole village squares.
My take: I personally prefer the look and feel of those buildings created without massive parking—this has also been called building for a “human scale,” not for “auto scale.”
The reddest areas are hottest. They are also where Newton has the highest density of surface parking lots—along Washington Street, Needham Street, at the Chestnut Hill malls, etc.
Buildings also have an impact on heat, but there are many available technologies that will lessen this—from painting the roof white to planting a flat roof. It’s a little more expensive to build, but both of these methods reduce operating costs.
Pollution—nutrients from exhaust as well as junk on the ground—washes into the Charles River, Crystal Lake and –sometimes—into our sewer pipes, overwhelming them. Therefore, one of the recommendations of the climate vulnerability plan is to depave—to reduce the size of parking lots, the width of streets, driveways, etc. The newly-asphalt-free spots can become places where street trees could thrive, or places for rain gardens—installations designed to absorb water (more than just grass or garden).
So in this way, also, parking and driving can affect our future in a changing climate.
In other words, we in Newton have choices to make that will affect the city’s future. Do we continue to build for cars or for people? How will we address flooding and heat? Do we want to drive alone and be able to park everywhere, or is it time to take some of our trips in other ways?
My take: City officials, including city councilors, need to do whatever we can to avert climate disasters and to mitigate the effects of those that will be coming our way. I’d like to see city officials get out of the business of estimating parking needs (leave that to the developers, who have skin in the game), and, if anything, restrict new parking—both to save current residents’ lives and property threatened by heat and water, but simultaneously for our kids’ future on the planet.
Action I encourage you to read the material on the city’s website about Washington Street (deadline Dec. 2) and the Climate Vulnerability assessment and to comment.
You can comment on the Washington Street Vision via the city website. There’s a public hearing on the Climate Vulnerability Assessment Dec. 10 at 7 pm in City Hall.
The links are here:
2. Climate Vulnerability:
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Almost every month I write constituents about a topic before the city