How New Parking Policies Could Help Our Downtowns

Columnist's strategy for Bethlehem would work in Easton as well.

My column this week is focused on Bethlehem parking issues, but the approach I'm endorsing would be equally useful in Easton and Allentown.

Dennis Lieb recently proposed a version of this policy as a way to fund the Neighborhood Improvement District now under discussion in Easton. In fact, this column is especially timely considering Easton City Council is expected to take up the NID Wednesday night.

Last week my blogger friend Jaime Karpovich started a discussion on her Facebook page that generated a lot of interest, regarding the lack of grocery stores in downtown Bethlehem. Here's her status update:

The only thing Bethlehem is missing is a grocery store in walking distance that carries non-dairy milks, decent amount of produce, tofu and such would be a bonus, and is open late-ish. That's all.

Like Jaime, I would expect there to be a robust market for small to mid-sized grocers within walking distance of the neighborhoods of Northside and Southside Bethlehem.

Southside residents can walk to A-Hart's, but the neighborhood could also support other small and medium-sized grocers - something like Nature's Way in Easton but with fresh produce. To get to a really well-stocked grocery store with the kind of products Jaime wants, downtown residents have to drive or take the bus a nontrivial distance. What is going on?

The short answer is that it's illegal.

It's no coincidence that the only full-service grocery store on Southside Bethlehem has a huge surface parking lot. Bethlehem's zoning ordinance requires businesses and developers to provide free parking on-site.  The number of spaces required depends on the kind of business, the building's floor area ratio or the number of employees, none of which are good ways to measure the demand for parking.

Bethlehem's zoning ordinance doesn't specify parking requirements specifically for grocery stores, but if they're regulated as a General Business or Commercial Establishment, they need to provide:

One parking space for every 150 square feet of area accessible to customers, or two parking spaces for each employee, whichever is greater.

And if they're regulated as an Indoor Retail Business, they have to have:

Parking or storage space for all vehicles used directly in the conduct of such business plus four parking spaces per 1,000 square feet of gross floor area. For retail sales areas of furniture, lumber, carpeting, bedding or floor coverings, only one space per 800 square feet of floor area shall be required

So if you want to open a 2000 square foot grocery store with 8 employees, you're looking at between 8 and 16 free parking spaces, depending on the city's interpretation. But in Bethlehem's two compact walkable downtowns, there's nowhere to put 8 new parking spaces, so you can't open the grocery store.

What would happen if the city eliminated parking requirements altogether?

Most of the time, nothing. At most times of the day, there are plenty of parking spaces available. But then there are some peak times when the parking supply is pushed to the limit, and drivers circle the block waiting to find a space.

How do you manage parking demand during peak times when you can't add more supply?  Bethlehem's response to the Musikfest parking crunch actually gives us a good look at how this works, suggesting at an alternative to parking minimums. Nicole Radzievich at the Morning Call has the details:

To help ease the congestion, ArtsQuest is encouraging people to park in satellite lots on Eighth Avenue or Route 412 and Commerce Center Boulevard, and take a shuttle to the festival.

This year, city parking officials are allowing people to reserve space in two north side garages and one on the South Side. The city also is opening up 558 spaces in parking lots in the South Side business district. And there already are 828 metered spots.

To discourage motorists from staying parked all day at metered spots with a three-hour limit, Bethlehem is raising parking fines on the South Side to $30 — just as it does on the north side during Musikfest. It's illegal in Bethlehem to feed the meters beyond three hours; the vehicle must be moved.

The Parking Authority also introduced a reservation system where people can book spaces in advance:

The reservation system is something that Hartley hopes to help not only for consumer, but the authority. He's hoping to track when the garages are heavily used, especially in a year of so many changes. He wants to use that information to make better business decisions on questions such as staffing levels during Musikfest.

Musikfest is a big revenue generator for the Bethlehem Parking Authority. Not including tickets, net revenue peaked in 2009 at $103,188. And in 2010, Musikfest netted $98,992, according to the authority. The authority raises its all-day rates from $6 during the festival and increases parking tickets to $30.

When demand for parking increases,  the Parking Authority raises prices to clear the market.   They're raising the prices of garage spaces and parking tickets, and they're going to use sensors to track demand, but only in the garages. 

The problem with this approach is that the meter price is only going to be higher if you break the law. Otherwise, they're actually raising the price of garage spaces relative to metered spaces, making metered spaces more attractive.

Ideally, you'd want to raise the meter prices automatically during peak times, so that the garages are cheaper than the metered spaces.

That way, people who are staying for longer park in the garages, and people making short trips can find metered spaces close to their destinations, but at a premium.

The Parking Authority clearly understands this conceptually, but the problem is technology - the city's meters are old and outdated.  They always have the same price no matter how much extra parking demand there is.

Luckily, the technological fix is easy.  Digital parking meters are already in use in several US cities,  managing demand by raising and lowering prices throughout the day

In SFpark in San Francisco, prices can rise by an additional 50 cents an hour during the busiest times, and the busiest streets.  But they also fall during the slowest times, and on less-busy blocks. This gives drivers an incentive to park further away from the busiest blocks, if they are able to.   

This would make sense not only for Musikfest, but for managing peak demand every day.  The prospect of higher parking prices would, at the margins, nudge more people to walk, bike, take the bus, carpool, or plan their trips for off-peak times if they have the flexibility.

Any increase in revenue could be earmarked for neighborhood and community development activities on those blocks that are absorbing more parked cars.

I think this would be a much more sensible and realistic way to manage parking in a compact downtown.  

Throwing out the parking minimums and managing parking through market  pricing would allow Bethlehem's two downtowns to accommodate more grocery stores, offices, multi-family housing and other uses that are presently under-supplied.


Jared August 09, 2011 at 04:15 PM
The local difficulties in obtaining a parking variance for something like this would be an interesting addition to the article. Written codes and zoning regs are one thing; the interpretation and implementation are sometimes quite another. Especially for projects a city wants to see happen...
Jon Geeting August 09, 2011 at 05:11 PM
Agreed - unfortunately there was only so much space and it was already running a little long. Recently we saw Easton grant variances for parking minimums to two businesses - the jazz lounge at the Bank Street Annex that would have required 33 parking spaces, and the burrito place opening on College Hill that would have required 10 parking spaces. Bethlehem is proposing some very slight changes to their zoning ordinance to make it a little easier to get parking minimums waived for corner retail locations in some residential zones. I think this is all just beating around the bush. Minimum parking requirements don't make sense, period. They shouldn't be on the books in the first place. It shouldn't be the responsibility of businesses or developers or the city to subsidize car ownership with free parking. Owning a car is a private choice, and the costs of parking and congestion should be paid by car owners.
Jared August 10, 2011 at 02:09 PM
For the biggest of projects parking regs probably make sense -- imagine a developer building a new stadium or new hotel in a downtown; you'd probably want parking accounted for to some degree. But for smaller retail and smaller restaurants and smaller whatever, I agree that cities should be pretty open and flexible from the git go. I wonder, though, if there are examples out there where the written zoning and codes actually capture that level of nuance, or whether it's always a matter of interpretation/openness to variances.
Jon Geeting August 10, 2011 at 02:30 PM
The problem with that is that planning for parking is a pseudoscience. Planners don't actually know how to do it. Usually what they do is measure the peak demand for *free* parking at different kinds of businesses, and then that becomes the minimum number of spaces they need to provide. Or else they're copying other cities' parking requirements. My position is pretty simple - whether it's a stadium, hotel or a corner grocery store, people who own land downtown should provide as much or as little parking as market forces demand. There's no need for the government to require parking above and beyond what developers want to build. There should be no more parking than people are willing to pay for.
Christina Georgiou August 10, 2011 at 03:07 PM
"something like Nature's Way in Easton but with fresh produce" Nature's Way does carry fresh produce, Jon, and has for years...


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