Boston officials rethink parking
It’s a common gripe in this crowded city: There’s nowhere to park. More and more, that’s by design.
As thousands of newcomers move into Boston and a construction boom transforms many of the city’s neighborhoods, developers and city officials are pushing to allocate less parking for new apartment buildings.
It’s a bid to prepare for a future they believe will revolve less around the automobile and to limit surging construction costs that drive up rents in new buildings. But it’s also prompting pushback in parts of town where the free parking space has long been held sacred — some longtime residents fear that without on-site parking, apartment and condo residents’ cars will take over some of those coveted spots on neighborhood streets.
“You have to find the right balance between having too much parking and having too little,” said Vineet Gupta, director of planning for the Boston Transportation Department. “There’s always a robust conversation about that.”
These days, the conversation is loudest in Boston’s outlying neighborhoods, places like Brighton and Dorchester, where builders are launching large apartment-building projects aimed at young renters who don’t necessarily own a car.
Many of these developers, especially those building near MBTA stops, are pitching projects that dip below the city’s long-held rule of thumb of one parking space per apartment. Of 76 residential buildings approved by the Boston Planning & Development Agency (BPDA) last year, 30 came with fewer than one space per unit. City officials and developers both say they expect that number to grow.
“The need for 1 to 1 parking is obsolete,” said Bruce Percelay, chairman of the Mount Vernon Company, which is developing an apartment building in Brighton with more parking for bikes than cars. “Millennials don’t even like to buy cars.”
That may be. The number of vehicles registered in Boston has climbed in recent years, to about 334,000, according to the Registry of Motor Vehicles, but it remains 9 percent below its peak in 2010. Builders point to the growth of Uber, Lyft and Zipcar — and the potential for shared autonomous vehicles to reduce car ownership even more in years to come — and ask why they should devote precious square footage to parking that could soon sit empty.
And that parking isn’t cheap. Building an underground garage can cost $50,000 or more per space, experts say, adding to the tab in what’s already one of the nation’s priciest construction markets.
When Davis Co. bought development rights to Telford 180, a condo project on three-quarters of an acre in Brighton, the site held a permit, issued in 2004, for 80 condos to be built above a four-story basement garage with 150 spaces. By 2015, with ridesharing on the rise and a commuter rail station going in nearby, that seemed excessive — and prohibitively expensive —said vice president for development Stephen Davis.
“There was just no way this project was going to pencil if we built four levels of underground parking,” he said. “It would have been extraordinarily challenging.”
So Davis asked the city’s blessing to add five condos, but shrink the garage to 84 spots — at street level and one floor underground — while adding storage for 85 bikes. That shift enabled them to sell the condos at competitive prices — one-bedrooms are listed at $565,000 — and pre-sales have been strong, Davis said.
But less parking isn’t always popular with the neighbors, many of whom worry that too-few spots in a building’s garage will lead newcomers to park on the street.
Percelay last year got an earful of those concerns at community meetings for his Western Ave. project in Allston-Brighton, which has 108 spaces for 132 apartments. The Zoning Board of Appeals shot down a 130-unit building on Brighton Ave., partly due to worries that its 79 spaces wouldn’t be enough. And developer Cabot, Cabot & Forbes recently added 52 spaces to plans for an apartment complex at the former St. Gabriel’s Monastery in a bid to allay neighborhood worry. More are likely coming, said Cabot chief executive Jay Doherty.
“As you get into neighborhoods where on-street parking is challenging, there’s a real desire on the part of neighborhoods to assure that you have what they deem to be adequate parking on-site,” Doherty said. “That’s a lot closer to one space per unit.”
It’s a natural complaint to hear from longtime residents who feel squeezed by new development in their neighborhoods, said Tony D’Isadoro, chair of the board of the Allston Brighton Community Development Corp. Streets are clogged. T cars are overloaded. And parking is increasingly hard to find as students pack into three-deckers.
“At 10 a.m. you can’t find a spot around here and half the cars have out-of-state plates,” D’Isadoro said. “Then you hear about all these big developments coming. People are really starting to freak out and ask how we’re going to handle all this.”
In South Boston, where fights over parking are the stuff of legend, those worries sparked new zoning rules that will increase off-street requirements in much of the neighborhood. Other neighborhoods have sought to expand resident parking zones and pushed for more city-owned lots to take the burden off street parking. A few developers have joined a city program that bars tenants in their buildings from applying for resident stickers, in exchange for approval for a smaller garage. Doherty said he may partner with shuttle service Bridj to help residents of his 641-unit St. Gabriel’s complex get to work without a car.
Boston’s parking crunch has been the focus of a series of City Council hearings in recent months, with members mulling tweaks to parking meter pricing and garage requirements. At least some councilors are skeptical that less parking is the solution to the space squeeze.
“It would be delusional for the (BPDA) to think that these people moving into these buildings are not going to be owning and driving vehicles,” said Council member Michael Flaherty at a hearing last fall. “The goal should be to increase parking per unit in these new developments.”
But BPDA officials say that’s unlikely. Parking requirements rightly vary by project and neighborhood, said Jon Greeley, the agency’s director of project review, but overall, the amount of space set aside for cars in new development will keep trending down.
“We want really interesting ideas for how to move people around the city,” he said, pointing to projects that include Hubway bike stations, Zipcar parking, and shuttles. “Those are the kind of things we’re encouraging developers to think about. We don’t think everyone wants to drive all the time.”