CAN RELAXING parking requirements help ease Seattle's housing crunch?
Developers and city planners say it can and will; they got their chance to prove it Monday, when the City Council passed an amendment that will allow housing developers to place parking as far as 600 feet (about two city blocks) away from their developments. What's the catch? Some worry that, even though these laws are aimed at providing more housing for low-income families, the city runs the risk of promoting gentrification and putting more cars on already- congested city streets.
Business and development groups, including the Apartment Association of Seattle-King County and the Greater Seattle Chamber of Commerce, argue that by easing restrictions on off-site parking, the city will enable developers to build denser, cheaper projects without the risk of increasing traffic or parking problems in neighborhoods. They say small lots restrict the amount of housing developers can build and force them to charge more per unit because they have to put parking underground.
Affordable-housing advocates like the Seattle Displacement Coalition argue that easing the parking restrictions will only encourage developers to tear down older, more affordable buildings to construct condos and parking garages. And some neighborhood groups argue that if developers can place parking off-site, there will be nothing to stop them from double-renting spaces, using the lots for other purposes, or even selling them off 10 or 15 years down the line. "The bottom line is, you get to build housing without parking," says Matt Fox, president of the University District Community Council. "If somebody's got an old, low-rise apartment, and they tear it down and use the lot for parking, do you think the city's really going to deny someone's ability to build on that lot in 10 years?"
Absolutely, says Mark Troxel, a city land-use planner. He points out that under the new permitting process, the parking use would "run with the land," or stay in effect as long as the development the parking serves is still being used as housing. Back in September, the council considered further restrictions, including limiting the amount of parking that could be built off-site and further reducing the distance allowed between parking lots and the buildings they serve. But sponsoring council member Judy Nicastro worries that the more restrictions the city places on developers, the less likely they'll be to take advantage of the ordinance. "I think [reducing the distance] could cut out a lot of off-site parking," she says. Still, Nicastro did add an amendment that will require developers who take advantage of the ordinance to provide some affordable housing; when the amendment, which had failed in committee, was passed by the full council, an obviously surprised Nicastro couldn't suppress a jubilant squeal. "What a treat!" she said.
Erica C. Barnett