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Richmond’s Antiquated Off-Street Parking Requirements Are Holding It Back

Once upon a time, people used to walk, bike, and use streetcars to get where they needed to go in Richmond. Then the automobile changed everything. Folks fled the city for suburban living, while streetcar systems were scrapped. But most suburbanites still worked and shopped downtown, and they needed to use their cars to get to and from the city.

So city governments across the US, including Richmond’s, imposed minimum off-street parking requirements on urban downtown environments that were built well before suburban commuting or the automobile was ever envisioned. These requirements contemplate suburban-like access to vast swaths of land for parking lots at a ratio per square foot that is entirely unrealistic given the current building stock. These rules essentially forced building owners to tear down an adjacent building every time they wanted to renovate, add an addition, or develop a new building in order to meet these poorly thought out off-street parking requirements. As a result, Richmond (and many other cities) began to lose their density as urban deconstruction in the name of parking slowly ripped the city apart.

This problem is most apparent in what historically was Richmond’s highest density urban shopping areas such as Broad and Hull Streets. These areas were intended to be ultra dense shopping corridors and accessible by people who either lived in close proximity or who would use the streetcar to get in and out. These areas were never intended to house massive Wal-Mart like parking lots. But that is essentially what today’s parking requirements dictate.

Other cities are addressing this problem by eliminating off-street parking requirements altogether and making parking market driven. This move away from city mandated minimum off-street parking requirements comes at the recommendation of the greatest parking expert in the world, Dr. Donald Shoup and author of the New York Times Best Seller: “The High Cost of Free Parking”. His ideas are being put into practice in large cities throughout the US/Europe to great success. Dr. Shoup has also been featured in the New York Times article Free Parking Comes at a Price and the Washington Post where he explains how off-street parking hurts the poor and raises the cost of everything for city dwellers.

It seems like there might be a parking lesson Richmond could learn here from Dr. Shoup.

Ever wonder why Hull Street remains boarded up with no grocery store and so few restaurants?

While Hull Street has seen much better days, its lack of revitalization is due at least in part to the city’s antiquated off-street parking requirements. Given the high density buildings on the Hull Street business corridor between Commerce and Cowardin Ave, off street parking is virtually non-existent. In an attempt to spur development along Hull Street, the City of Richmond created a parking exemption roughly a decade ago to help resuscitate the dead corpse the Hull Street business corridor had become. But this “exemption” was in name only, and has been a complete failure. The exemption does not apply to essentially anything that people need in the modern incarnation of a walkable, livable, urban neighborhood.

Want to open a grocery store or market? Sorry, the parking exemption doesn’t apply.

Want to open a to-go food store? Sorry, the parking exemption doesn’t apply.

Want to open a restaurant or cafe? Sorry, the parking exemption doesn’t apply.

Want to repurpose a vacant building with apartments? Sorry, the parking exemption doesn’t apply.

Want to add an addition to an old building? Sorry, the parking exemption doesn’t apply.

Want to build infill construction where an old building was torn down 30 years ago? Sorry, the parking exemption doesn’t apply.

These carveouts render the parking exemption useless, and have helped cause the Hull Street corridor to flounder as a result.

But wait it gets better…

The City also changed the zoning for Hull Street in the 2000s creating an urban business zoning strip (UB-2) that ended immediately at the alley on either side of Hull St between Bainbridge and Decatur Streets. On the other side of those alleyways the area is zoned Residential (mostly R-63 or R-7 to be specific). When the automobile caught hold in the early 20th century, parking lots were constructed behind those alleys as suburbanites traveled en masse to the Hull Street shopping district and needed a place to park their cars. But these commercial parking lots have now been rezoned as residential.

Given that zoning change, the City of Richmond is now of the opinion that those precious few commercial parking lots that have existed and been used to meet the parking needs of Hull Street for nearly a century can’t be used for commercial purposes anymore. That is unless you make a special Zoning Variance Request and go through the cumbersome, expensive, and lengthy Board of Zoning Appeals process. Additionally, if a Hull Street building is being repurposed to house apartments or condos in the upper floors, you cannot use these same parking lots for any residential purposes on Hull Street. To address that problem, you have to request a Special Use Permit from the City, which is even more cumbersome, lengthy, and expensive than the zoning variance process.

So that means building owners who want to revitalize the area and house restaurants, grocery stores, to-go food stores, or apartments are essentially left with two options:

  1. Sit and wait for months, if not years, while trying to navigate all the BZA and SUP morass on a building by building basis in an attempt to redevelop the area, or
  2. Buy and tear down buildings along Hull Street to meet the poorly thought out off-street parking requirements.

I find myself asking the city, what purpose does this off-street parking craziness serve? What greater good does it achieve? I get blank stares as the city officials rightly point out they don’t make the rules, they just enforce them. But our city is being reinvigorated with millennials and empty nesters who want to live downtown again, and walk to neighborhood restaurants. That’s the appeal they are after. That’s the whole draw of living in the city. These folks realize the tradeoffs involved especially as it relates to parking when moving to a dense, urban environment.

So I ask Richmond the following question: Do you want…

  1. A walkable, bike friendly, dense city, filled with local businesses/restaurants/shops, old buildings with character, modern infill, & market based parking availability, or
  2. Complicated/unrealistic minimum off street parking requirements that career city officials can’t even understand, vacant buildings, & frustrated owners who are forced to tear down 100+ yr old buildings in order to meet zoning requirements and create parking lots that aren’t going to be used?

Personally, my vote is for the first option. The City needs to make its parking exemption for Hull Street a true exemption and eliminate the off-street parking requirements altogether. That is what today’s city dwellers want. And unless this off-street parking hurdle is removed, Hull Street will remain a dormant, boarded up shell of its former self with no food options available for its residents.

72 thoughts on “Richmond’s Antiquated Off-Street Parking Requirements Are Holding It Back

  1. Hey Patrick, if you haven’t noticed yet this site is a community blog about Manchester, and all the residents, business owners, artists, etc, working their tails off to revitalize the neighborhood. So if you’d like to join in the discussion, point out things that need to be fixed, or even rant on occasion because you are frustrated that things aren’t moving the way you’d like, please proceed. That being said, if you’re here just to swoop in and incite negativity about our hood and unrelated to the topic at hand, please take that mess elsewhere. Cheers, The DD.

  2. As a local architectural designer in Richmond w 15 years experience and volunteer, this neighborhood remains under developed with no funding for green spaces and secured way finding. Would you take your family for a pretty walk around Manchester? The community is stepping up bc our economic development board is corrupt. Keep up the good work but for now Manchester remains def sketch.

  3. As a resident of Manchester i would love to have a grocery store within walking distance. And as for "being robbed" sweetie that happens in all neighborhoods, in fact i feel safer in Manchester, the Fan, the Museum District, and Downtown than I do in the suburbs in the West End.

  4. On the other hand customers need a place to park, City residence do too, mass transit is hopelessly inadequate and most people don’t want to use it. If the city wants to prosper it will have to make combinations to parking. I think exemptions need to be made in as you pointed out and parking lots in alleys behind stores makes a lot of sense, but larger developments will need to provide parking for the residence and business tenants. Parking garages built into the proposed development are maybe the best solution. Myself, I walk to work and mainly use my car on weekends, but I still need a place to put it. Richmond businesses depend on County residents coming in to use them. They won’t come if they can’t find a place to park. Some type of common sense solution needs to be found.

  5. Disagree heartily Yvette. A man was shot in broad daylight at third and Broad just 3 blocks from where I live. In my neighborhood there have been at least a half dozen murders. Students regularly get assaulted and robbed in the Fan. Three people in the VCU area have been shot or killed this year. That’s not counting Mosby and Gilpin.

  6. Incorrect information.

    Although the Exempt district may not be perfect or applicable in every situation, it is better than most areas of the City. The Parking Exempt (PE) states that there shall be no parking for any uses located within existing buildings, except for several limited types of uses (nightclubs, theaters, restaurants, food stores and dwelling units). A grocery or restaurant in an existing building has the same parking requirement as a previous retail use that typically existed; no additional parking is required. The ONLY time it wouldn’t apply is for the last 2 examples; if you build a new building, you need to meet the parking requirement. This exemption applies in most, but not all, cases.

    Also, the PE’s intent is to facilitate re-development and does specifically recognize certain high intensity uses as needing to meet requirements, because these uses typically create the most traffic and demand as well as the most conflict with nearby residential uses. Just talk to many residents of the City that live adjacent to these types of uses and you’ll understand the reasons for their inclusion.

    Of the several rehabs completed, ongoing or proposed in this area, parking has not been required. However, guess what? The renovators either WANTED to provide it for tenants or for marketing reasons or NEEDED to in order to get financing. Can you have a successful business where your employees or customers cannot park within a reasonable distance or your apartment dwellers can’t park near their entrance? Go talk to the business owners and employees in Carytown, they’re living this nightmare right now.

    Many of the parcels that were developed with parking areas or lots to the rear of these buildings was to provide parking for the Hull Street businesses. Most of these also originated after special approval from the BZA because parking for commercial uses wasn’t allowed without special approval. However, when re-zoned, the redevelopment idea was to replace these vacant wastelands with, OMG, new housing? Is a surface parking area a better use than a house? I think not.

    1. Hey Chuck, when I say an exemption, I actually mean an exemption. None of this hyper-technical building specific mumbo jumbo that ties everyone in bureaucratic knots for years trying to figure out what is going on such as: if you want to open a restaurant, and the building you want to go in just happened to previously be retail, then you are exempt for only the portion of the previously grandfathered retail spots for that building, but then you have to provide off-street parking for the remainder at 1 spot per 300 square feet, which just so happens to be the same requirement as UB-2 without an exemption, and if you make an addition to that building greater than 200 sq ft then that portion of the building doesn’t qualify but reverts back to regular UB-2 parking requirements of 1 spot per 300 sq ft which just so happens to be the same as the “exemption” which isn’t really an exemption at all. All this complication and bureaucracy is doing is preventing progress. And yes, Hull Street would be overjoyed to have Carytown’s problems. Where can I sign up for those issues rather than the zoning/parking fiasco Hull St is dealing with now!

      Also, the residential re-zoning of commercial lots which are the only way to provide parking for Hull St absent tearing down existing buildings was a gigantic mistake.

      Regarding businesses voluntarily providing parking, EXACTLY, you just proved the main point of the article! If a business absolutely needs parking for it to be viable and/or receive financing, then it will do so on its own without the city’s involvement. That’s Donald Shoup’s whole point of market based parking.

  7. Paul,

    No one is calling for the abolition of parking. It should be up to the businesses, instead of city council/the zoning appeals process, to decide if they want parking or not. And sure, businesses benefit from customers from the counties, but apartment buildings and grocery stores rely entirely on local customers. City businesses needing suburban customers is an antiquated idea.

    Finally, if you love your car so much, you should be willing to pay for a place to put it. I have no interest in subsidizing the storage of your car.

  8. @awunderground If you will reread my comment you will see I agreed with most of the blog post. I merely pointed out the conundrum we face. I particularly am for less rigid regulations and innovative solutions. If I was so in love with my car I wouldn’t live downtown and walk to work each day. Businesses and restaurants need all the customers they can get and most people are not within walking distance to grocery stores and other places they need to get to.. Lucky you if you don’t need a car.



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