Draft of new city code would get rid of minimum parking requirements; leaders discuss how that could affect development

photo by: Mike Yoder

Lawrence City Hall, 6 E. Sixth St., is pictured Thursday, July 7, 2016.

As Lawrence continues to grow and change, city leaders have worked with the public to create a comprehensive plan that would set out ways the city could develop for its future.

One of the hallmarks of that comprehensive plan — Plan 2040 — is figuring out ways to create more dense growth and better connectivity of transit besides just cars.

But city leaders now are considering a plan to increase density that may surprise some because it would abandon a long-held foundation of local planning: The idea that new businesses must provide a certain amount of parking based on the size of their business.

In a presentation this past week to the City Commission about the latest draft of a new Land Development Code that is expected to be adopted later this year, commissioners were told the code would remove required parking minimums and instead implement parking maximums.

Currently, the city code has parking minimums that have specific regulations ranging from residential developments to eating and drinking establishments. In general, the formula often requires one parking spot for every 300 square feet of commercial building space plus one spot for each employee on the largest shift.

Elizabeth Garvin, a worker with Clarion Associates who has helped the city in developing the code, said Tuesday night that under the new code it would be up to the developer to figure out the parking needs. One upside of those changes could be that current parking lots could be redeveloped into buildings that provide more use for the community, Garvin said.

Of course, one possible downside is that parking will become harder to find in Lawrence, if developers underestimate their needs or simply decide to save on parking costs.

But the decision to eliminate parking minimums from the city’s code hasn’t yet been made. Rather, Jeff Crick, who is the Planning and Development Services director for the city, said the city still very much is in the phase of hearing what the community thinks about new ideas for future growth and development. That community feedback has a huge hand in creating a new Land Development Code, and Crick said hearing any community concerns now will be crucial for making sure the city finds the right balance of change that works for everyone.

“We need to have those conversations,” Crick said. “It’s all in the details. That’s why we’re having these conversations now.”

Parking requirements in zoning codes have increasingly become a national topic, with cities across the country taking similar actions to eliminate parking requirements. There are an estimated 2 billion parking spots in the country, according to experts. In 2020, a Brookings Institute study found that local parking requirements are driving up the cost of building multi-family apartments. Strong Towns, a nonprofit that advocates for alternative city development methods, estimated a typical parking space costs around $5,000 to $10,000, while a spot in a parking garage costs about $25,000 to $50,000.

Already certain developments in Lawrence were approved to skirt some of the regular parking requirements. That included Proxi Apartments, which was the first housing development in Lawrence to use the Smart Code development standards. That mixed-use development at 1401 W. 23rd St. has ground floor space for retail and commercial uses and apartments on its upper floors. Its parking lot is significantly smaller than many other apartment complexes of its size.

Garvin, the consultant, has heard concerns about apartment complexes being able to have smaller parking lots in the future. The concern has been twofold. A reduction in parking lots, especially around the KU campus, could lead to more residents parking in surrounding neighborhoods. But the second concern is that apartment complexes would use the space previously used for parking to house more apartments, which would put even greater pressure on parking in the neighborhoods.

But Garvin notes that the Land Development Code will have other regulations that go beyond parking that should help prevent some of those concerns from materializing. Garvin also said the community should consider some of the flexibility that would be created if developers didn’t have to devote so much land to parking.

“When we take away property on a lot for parking, we set that part away for cars,” Garvin said. “We could have more housing, commercial or industrial uses. Instead we have parking.”

Crick said another reason that some people are arguing to get rid of parking minimums is the cost associated with creating parking lots. All the asphalt creates impervious spaces that add to the stormwater utility rate, but Crick said developers tell him the number of spaces they are required to build aren’t ever fully used.

“(Developers) tell us we’re never going to need as much parking as the code is asking of us,” Crick said. “We’re putting more asphalt in the ground; it’s a lot more (expensive).”

Commissioner Brad Finkeldei said Tuesday night that during discussions about the changes to the Land Development Code he has heard lots of public concern about parking changes. But the current requirements have had big effects on how much development can happen.

“No parking minimums is a blunt instrument, but having parking minimums is a blunt instrument that has been a limit to (the city’s) density,” Finkeldei said.

Finkeldei said one proposal he had heard was that any current parking lots would be preserved in the city even as the new code comes into effect.

Crick emphasized that while creating a new development code will be an important step for the city in implementing its comprehensive plan, just because it gets approved doesn’t mean the code will be stagnant. Crick said that the code is “a living document” that is constantly being reviewed by the planning staff. So if there are suddenly problems with parking in the city and changes to the code aren’t having the desired outcome, the city can review potential problems found in practice and “clean them up” by changing the language of the code.

“It’s a continuous process to make sure the code is doing what the community asked (of) us,” Crick said.

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