I recently had the opportunity to speak with a Strong Towns member and certified planner, Ray Ott, who hails from West Chester, PA. He has successfully lowered parking minimums in the nearby town of Phoenixville, for which he is a planning consultant.
Phoenixville is a town--technically referred to as a "borough"--of 16,500, about a fifty minute drive from Philadelphia. Ray Ott explains, “Like any older town, I think a lot of the zoning regulations were developed in the 50s, 60s and 70s.” What that means is decades later, the borough is now caught in a series of constant amendments and submissions of variances to the many regulations, just to get a new project done.
In response to the need for an update, Ray and his team helped the borough to create a new comprehensive plan oriented toward land development. They defined areas of the borough according to historical development patterns and measured those using GIS to create new standards in what is essentially a form-based code. They also highlighted areas that were currently succeeding as well as areas that could benefit from further growth.
The existing parking requirements in Phoenixville were elaborate and varied depending on almost every use. In the new comprehensive plan, anyone who wants to put in parking with a new development must implement a parking demand study. Then the borough must approve the application. “Whether it’s a single or mixed-use development, commercial or residential, everyone has to submit that application,” said Ray.
Getting Rid of Parking Minimums
On the main street of the borough—Bridge Street—and on adjacent side streets near the downtown, Phoenixville completely eliminated all parking requirements. As Ray explained, “There were a lot of attractive developments that came in and we didn’t want them to buy two or three buildings and tear those down” just to build parking lots on them. With parking minimums removed, the borough is able to preserve historic buildings in a historic district, as well as keep the streets productive and active. Some alternative parking options the borough currently allows for businesses and residential buildings include on-street and shared parking.
Ray said he was pleasantly surprised by how easy it was to decrease parking requirements in Phoenixville. Sure, people in the community complained a bit and questioned the requirements, but they eventually worked it out and became comfortable with the change. “I’ve tried to push other communities do this, and I guess Phoenixville is more progressive.”
Ray has some advice for other planners or citizens hoping to decrease parking minimums in their town: “You can make a good case by showing the amount of space that is taken up by parking [through photos]." Those images illustrating just how much of your city has been given over to parking lots can have a powerful impact, demonstrating a loss of activity and economic potential. Ray summed it up: “If you go to towns that aren’t successful, they have tons of free parking.” And if you go to towns with no free parking, it’s much more likely that they’re successful. “Intregrity and quality of life in the town draws people, not parking,” said Ray.
(Top photo by Ray Ott)