A year ago I was appointed to serve on the planning commission in my hometown of Brainerd, Minnesota. It's been an interesting year of getting to (kinda) know how things work under-the-hood in my city. Contrary to what some of you might think, being thought of (at least in some circles) as an influential urban thinker means very little here in my small town. Getting positive things done requires the same stuff here as everywhere else: time, relationships and endless meetings. 

In the latter half of 2017, the school district came to our meeting and presented their plan for an upcoming bond referendum, including potential changes to each of the district's neighborhood schools. There is a lot to discuss there, but one thing that stood out was the district's passion for off street parking facilities. Their extensive slide deck showed their proposed amount of parking as well as the city's requirements. Sometimes they wanted more than we require, but sometimes we required more than they were asking for.

Anticipating some detailed discussion on this in the coming months, I felt it was important to sideline the city's parking mandate. I and some of my fellow commissioners did not want our code — which is arbitrary and excessive like most parking requirements — to set the floor for the conversation. After some discussion, we proposed an ordinance amendment to repeal that line item — just the minimum for schools — and forward that recommendation to the council.

As part of the conversation at the planning commission, I made a presentation in what is becoming my second language (powerpoint). I gave the same presentation this past Tuesday to the city council. I'm sharing it here so you can see how I'm approaching this conversation in my own community. It's a slow, difficult conversation that I hope picks up momentum in time.

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When I make presentations like this, I don't want my points to be confusing. You'll see that I have eight arguments in support of the ordinance amendment. Each one gets its own slide. The above argument is perhaps the most important: we lose a lot of revenue when we turn our valuable land into parking lots so we shouldn't make that mandate without giving the consequences due consideration.

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Again, to the point. We've spent a lot of money — tens of millions of dollars — building parking that is largely unused. That's a huge expenditure for any city, particularly a small town like ours.

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When you reduce the money you have coming in and you increase the amount you are spending, you are going to have financial problems. This is obvious, but it's important to tie the two prior points together in this way.

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I briefly highlighted some of the struggles the city has had recently with the budget, not to place blame but to tie in those frustrations with our policy decisions on things like parking. Then I shared this quote from Donald Shoup (perhaps the world's foremost expert on parking issues) that explains the core problem brilliantly: We all want free parking but, especially in a small town like ours, that means we're all paying for everyone else's parking... and then some. So, the parking is not free.

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I gave myself three slides to explain Shoup's book, The High Cost of Free Parking, and I tried to do so by discrediting the local code (which should be discredited because it is junk science). I also was aware that this would play to the inclination of some of my colleagues to be suspicious of regulation. I share that suspicion.

 I told a story here about a variance I worked on in a very rural county where the variance requirements included the need to consider whether the improvement would block light or impede air circulation. These were 160 acre lots. I pointed out that the concern over light and air came from the original zoning codes in NYC where skyscrapers were blocking light and impeding air circulation. How did this wind up in the zoning code for one of the most rural counties in the nation? Simple; the zoning code in that county was a copy of a copy of a copy of a copy.... of some other zoning provision, nobody really understanding what they were copying or why.

I told a story here about a variance I worked on in a very rural county where the variance requirements included the need to consider whether the improvement would block light or impede air circulation. These were 160 acre lots. I pointed out that the concern over light and air came from the original zoning codes in NYC where skyscrapers were blocking light and impeding air circulation. How did this wind up in the zoning code for one of the most rural counties in the nation? Simple; the zoning code in that county was a copy of a copy of a copy of a copy.... of some other zoning provision, nobody really understanding what they were copying or why.

 That story gave me an opportunity to introduce  The High Cost of Free Parking  and point out that our parking requirements are merely a copy of a copy of a copy.... and that we don't know why they are set where they are. These parking standards are largely derived from suburban schools which, as is obvious to anyone looking at the photo, bear no resemblance to our neighborhood schools. If we're going to enforce our current code, we're enforcing a standard that doesn't apply to us.

That story gave me an opportunity to introduce The High Cost of Free Parking and point out that our parking requirements are merely a copy of a copy of a copy.... and that we don't know why they are set where they are. These parking standards are largely derived from suburban schools which, as is obvious to anyone looking at the photo, bear no resemblance to our neighborhood schools. If we're going to enforce our current code, we're enforcing a standard that doesn't apply to us.

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To bring this back after my discourse on the foundations of zoning, I put the above slide in to emphasize the limited nature of the proposed change. We're not telling the school district here how much parking to build or not; all we are doing is removing our mandate and not forcing them to build more than they need or want. 

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There was some concern on the planning commission, and I anticipated there might be on the council as well, that removing this requirement would negatively impact the neighborhoods. The thought was that, if people at the schools used up all the on-street parking, the property owners would not have a place to park. I tried to respect this concern but also show, through photos taken during the school day, that there was really no basis for it. Not only is there any overwhelming amount of on unused street parking even during peak times, but nearly all property owners have been required to provide their own off street parking and so they have plenty of options available.

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Just to reiterate: by removing our minimum requirement, we're not impacting the ability of the school district to build the parking that they believe is required. In other words, the lack of a minimum does not create a maximum.

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Finally, I wanted to close with this quote just to prime everyone a little on wanting to be conservative (not communist) and rational (not emotional). Who can be threatened by such a kindly looking gentleman as Donald Shoup?

I'm happy to report that the planning commission recommended approval on a vote of 6-1 and the city council, at the first reading of the ordinance amendment, voted 5-2 to continue the process. The second reading and final enactment, if approved, will happen later this month.

Each journey is made up of many small steps and I'm proud of this small success.