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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.

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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.

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