With every new multifamily building proposed in Oak Park, there is a predictable reaction from a subset of the community. The building is too big. The design is uninspired. The developer will surely cut corners to get the project built for a profit. The units are all luxury, none are affordable. The large amount of parking onsite will result in more traffic.
The thing is, they’re not wrong. The buildings are big, the design is often “meh”, the rents are high and the “luxury” elements often seem slapped on in order to justify those high rents. But what if the culprit was not the commonly accused “developer greed,” but minimum parking requirements?
Oak Park’s zoning code set the required number of parking spaces for all new commercial and residential development in the village. Most commercial buildings require one parking spot for every 500 square feet of the building. Multifamily buildings require one spot per unit; single family and townhomes require two spots.
Why are these specific ratios imposed on us? They may sound scientifically determined, but in fact they are not based on any verifiable data about how many spaces are needed — towns just started copying other towns, and thus an artificial “standard” was created. But why shouldn’t individual businesses and developers determine the right amount of parking based on the size of the site and the profile of customers or residents they are looking to attract?
Parking is very, very expensive to build, and it generates no revenue for the square footage that it uses since, as a culture, we have come to expect it to be “free”. Multifamily housing developers need to cover the cost of that parking in other ways — by building more units, charging higher rents, and value-engineering out the good design, thus making the only financially feasible, market-rate multifamily building a large, generic “luxury” apartment building.
According to the Parking Reform Network, conventional parking minimums can increase the rent or mortgage required for an apartment or house by $200-$500 per month. So we all pay for parking, whether we realize it or not.
If developers were not subject to required parking minimums, they could build fewer parking spots and charge for them, letting tenants who wanted the value of onsite parking pay a fair price for them while those who are willing to forgo it could have more affordable rent. They could build more affordable “middle density” housing, or put more money toward excellent design and construction standards. They could attract more diverse residents to our community whose lifestyles aren’t car-centric, even if they do still own a car — taking advantage of Oak Park’s excellent walkability, bikeability and transit-access. Our climate would reap the benefits as well.
But where will the people who live in these parking-spot-free units park, you ask? How will they get around? Maybe we should ask the many people who live in the plethora of beautiful, large and naturally affordable multifamily apartment buildings that my single family home is surrounded by at Washington and Taylor — all of which were built well before parking minimums existed and thus have no onsite parking.
Perhaps some of them do live car-free, relying on public transit (half a mile walk to the Austin Green Line stop, a distance many Chicagoans could only dream of), walking, biking, taking Ubers and using car-share services like Turo for bigger trips. Others may rent an empty parking pad from a neighbor who doesn’t need it, or are willing to pay for parking farther away from their home in exchange for cheaper rent. I notice no discernable difference in traffic in my neighborhood, relative to anywhere else in the village, and my family benefits from living in one of the most diverse parts of Oak Park. Win win win.
A recent Washington Post article makes the case that required parking minimums “raise housing costs, subsidize car ownership and congestion, increase homelessness, deter transit and pollute the air.” Sociologist Matthew Desmond says “there may be no phrase more soulless in the English language than ‘municipal zoning ordinance’ … yet there is perhaps no better way to grasp the soul of a community than this.” Zoning is destiny. Required parking minimums are an invisible wall into our community that we could knock down at no cost.
We would not be pioneers in this. Dozens of cities across the country have eliminated parking minimums, most recently Austin, Texas, and momentum is growing. West Allis, Wisconsin, an inner-ring Milwaukee suburb similar in size to Oak Park, has no parking minimums.
So contact your trustees and tell them why one of the easiest, cheapest and most impactful things we could do in Oak Park right now is eliminate parking minimums … before Evanston does it first!
- Poverty, by America by Matthew Desmond
Nicole Chavas is an Oak Park resident.