You wouldn’t know it from the complicated parking minimums built into Boston zoning rules, but many city residents would rather have a patio, or more square footage in their apartments, than a dedicated space for a car.
These are the people architect Sebastian Mariscal had in mind when he proposed an $10.6 million apartment complex in Allston with 44 units — and just six parking spaces, all for Zipcars. Tenants would agree in their leases not to own vehicles; in return, each unit would get two bicycle spaces and extra storage for the bulky items — like ski gear in summer, beach chairs in winter — that clutter up the average Boston apartment. The lifestyle Mariscal foresees isn't everyone's ideal. But it is for some people. It lines up with the city's stated environmental priorities. It doesn't add to traffic. And it furthers an emerging vision of Boston — as a dense, growing city where car-free living is a convenience, not a last resort, and where new approaches to urban planning can flourish.
Yet in Allston, where the project is to be located, zoning rules from 1991 set a more prosaic goal: keeping new properties from overtaxing the finite supply of street parking. To their credit, neither the city nor neighbors insisted that Mariscal build the two spaces per unit that zoning requires. But they'd only bend so far. Recently, the Boston Redevelopment Authority gave Mariscal preliminary approval after he acceded to neighbors' concerns — slightly reducing the number of units, removing most bike spots and dedicated storage spaces, and bringing the number of parking spaces to 35. Of course, Mariscal doesn't actually want tenants to use the extra parking. In an interview, he said he will still include no-cars clauses in leases. He hopes to prove over time that, as parking sits empty, the space can be used for something better.
By focusing so heavily on neighbors' parking fears, the public discussion of the project took too little account of the many residents — 45 percent of the renters in five surrounding census tracts, Mariscal's market research indicates — who don't have cars. Architects should be able to design for their needs, too. In a growing city where housing costs are notoriously high, newcomers shouldn't have to pay, through elevated rents, for parking spaces they don't want. Far from expecting Mariscal to add parking spaces, the city should rethink its parking requirements to encourage more projects like his original vision.
Emotions about street parking run deep in Boston. That much is evident in the lawn furniture and sawhorses that drivers use to reserve publicly owned spaces after digging their cars out of the snow. City Hall has long winked at the practice. In the turbulent 1970s and '80s, when continued population flight was every big-city mayor's worst fear, accommodating residents' desire for street parking looked vital to keeping the car-owning middle class. During that period, the city established the first residential-parking district in Beacon Hill, and other neighborhoods later followed.
It's not lost on car owners in Allston and neighboring Brighton that, as other Boston neighborhoods fill with new people, street parking gets scarcer, even with a residential sticker program. No one who's moved into, for instance, the South End lately has ever known a time when street parking was easy.
Yet somehow, everyone adjusts. New businesses emerge to serve pedestrians, while the private market makes provision for drivers who require parking: People who own spots they don't use can rent them out; garages offer monthly plans for drivers who need parking only on nights and weekends. Meanwhile, mobility has improved markedly for people without cars. Smartphone apps have made public transit more predictable. For major shopping trips, there are hourly car-rental firms like Zipcar. For trips to places where T service isn't convenient, there's the bike-sharing network Hubway.
Any one of these factors is easy to dismiss; together, they suggest that urban life in Boston is undergoing an epochal change. The city added new residents far faster than Massachusetts as a whole in the decade leading up to 2010 — the first census since 1880 in which the city's growth rate exceeded the Commonwealth's. By and large, growth has been concentrated in neighborhoods that were already jam-packed.
That includes the Allston-Brighton area. Because it lacks tall towers or the long rows of brownstones that mark the city center, it feels almost suburban by comparison. Yet with about 17,200 people per square mile, it's much denser than Boston as a whole. The MBTA's Green Line provides easy access to the city center.
As the neighborhood evolves, maintaining the same old rules about parking will have perverse effects. Relatively low housing costs have long been a lure for Allston, where in 2012 the typical two-bedroom apartment rented for $1,681 a month — $233 less than in the Fenway and $1,176 less than in the Back Bay. The neighborhood can't remain affordable without adding new units. But requiring lots of parking with those units only adds to the cost for renters — and worsens the traffic for everyone.
One paradox of street parking is that loose rules and low costs mean maximal headaches. Because the side streets closest to Mariscal's project don't require an Allston-Brighton parking sticker, cabs and commercial vehicles from elsewhere park in the neighborhood. New units without parking, critics fear, would only add to the crunch.
But there are ways around this. Across town in Bay Village, residents who move into 100 Arlington St., a former charter school now being renovated into housing, will be ineligible for resident parking stickers in that neighborhood. Mariscal says he'd accept a similar restriction. To give it teeth, the city would merely have to require a resident sticker for overnight parking on surrounding streets.
The idea, surprisingly, meets a lukewarm reception in Allston. That may be because some Allston residents are students who , for tax or insurance reasons, don't want to register their cars in Boston. But protecting some residents from a modest car-insurance hike is an unpersuasive reason to turn away promising car-free development ideas.
The development process in Boston today was forged amid the bruising neighborhood battles of the 1970s; in fighting off planners who insisted only new highways could slow the city's decline, neighbors won veto power over projects in their midst. Yet all that's happened in the two generations since — the Big Dig, the growing threat of climate change, and now an urban population boom — calls for rethinking how people and vehicles share space in a dense city. Of all people, Bostonians should know that not everything has to revolve around cars.