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Parking the Problem

Portland's Low-Car Building Boom Angers Neighbors

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PORTLAND is in the midst of a low-car building boom. In the past 18 months, the city has approved 32 big residential buildings without parking, ranging from 10 units to 130, everywhere from the Pearl all the way out to Cully.

But angry neighbors say they're the ones paying for the boom, as car-owning residents who move to the buildings simply take up space on neighborhood streets. Many Portlanders are now pushing the city to pass a moratorium on the progressive policy that does not mandate parking for projects in high-transit areas.

While a city study released last week shows that parking remains widely available around the controversial new buildings, about 72 percent of their residents do own cars.

Portland planners in the 1980s and early 1990s were worried about the "suburbanization" of central neighborhoods. Led by then-Commissioner Charlie Hales, now Portland's mayor-elect, city council removed the mandatory parking rules for many neighborhoods with frequent transit service.

Though the change long ago exempted some 75,000 lots from parking requirements, the no-parking trend didn't really catch on in Portland until the past five years. In 2006, 66 percent of multi-unit buildings permitted in the city had parking—these days it's just 44 percent.

Not requiring parking is a good idea for a lot of reasons. Parking is expensive to build (from $3,000 a space in a surface lot to $55,000 for each space underground), so not requiring it makes development more possible. And—if landlords choose to pass along the savings—it could lead to cheaper rent. It also promotes density, allows for more walkable neighborhoods, and builds out Portland to be a less car-centric city.

The city's recent study of people who live in eight new low-or-no-parking buildings shows those residents are less likely to own cars and far more likely to commute by transit, biking, or walking than the average Portlander.

But the spate of no-and-low-parking buildings have infuriated some neighbors, who turned out in force at a planning commission meeting on Tuesday, November 13, to complain that developers pocket savings while new residents eat up nearby street parking. Adding to the concern are TriMet's transit cuts—many areas designated as "frequent transit" routes years ago have seen bus service slashed.

"Portland can become Brooklyn over the next generation, not over the next three years," Portlander Richard Lishner told the planning commission, asking for a moratorium on the no-parking policy. "A '20-minute neighborhood' shouldn't mean it takes 20 minutes to find a parking spot in my neighborhood."

A complete moratorium is unlikely, but Mayor Sam Adams says "tweaks are necessary" to the policy. During his campaign, Mayor-elect Hales seemed to agree.

"Tweaks" could include issuing parking permits to residents, installing metered parking along busy streets, or requiring car-sharing parking spots in big developments. Says Adams: "If we're not able to provide adequate transit options, folks are going to be forced to buy cars."

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