January 13, 2016 Elizabeth Ward

Thoughts from a Great Community Zoning Outreach Meeting

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I had the pleasure of attending one of the City of Atlanta Zoning outreach meetings this past Tuesday.  It really was a pleasure, and very encouraging to see the various political faces in the room, both elected officials and community volunteers.  This is generally the happy time of outreach, when big ideas are discussed in broad brush strokes.  This type of outreach is critical, but it does not guarantee that things won’t devolve into a complete turf war when it comes time to talk details about things like parking or specific locations on the zoning map.

I had the opportunity to make a public comment at the meeting, which was to remind and encourage everyone to wrap in a conversation about transport as part of the zoning discussion.  Zoning policy considered in isolation is flawed from day one. Further, for most cities of Atlanta’s size and development period, the bulk of discussion will be about how zoning addresses the often contrasting requirements of designing for people versus automobiles.

There was some lofty talk about the benefits of form based codes versus conventional zoning laws.  We think form based codes are generally great, but they quickly become challenging if they still require the same amount of parking as conventional zoning – particularly for existing buildings.

And let’s be honest, parking makes up 90% of the most contentious discussions around any zoning case in our city.  People lack confidence in any near-term, large scale public transit options that will address their lifestyle automobile choice desires.  Lifestyle choices will need to adapt, but the transition from a car based city to a much more multi-modal one is scary for a lot of people.  Many, many people will continue to drive as long as they consider it their best option, even if this seems highly irrational to others.

So, the auto will absolutely play a big role in upcoming zoning discussions with communities.  I’ll also point out that I strongly believe that reducing off street parking requirements is one of the most fundamental and important changes we need to make to improve our city and neighborhoods.   Hence the expectation of inevitable conflict.

What to do?  I had a great discussion with a good friend at the meeting about North Grant Park (North of I-20).  This is a neighborhood that is a great example of one that is experiencing change and growing pains.  There is a nexus of restaurants and uses along Memorial Drive that is generating a significant amount of drive-to traffic here.  Most of the parcels are under-parked, forcing many patrons to park on street.  Most of the houses are compact, and many houses lack off street parking.   There are a slew of other neighborhoods you could use as examples – Inman Park, Poncy Highland, and so on.

This is where I pull out my copy of the parking bible, Donald Shoup’s High Cost of Free Parking.  On-street parking is a valuable resource in this and many other communities in Atlanta.  The problem with a free resource is that it gets overused and abused by the members of the commons.  Charging for parking is a critical method of ascribing value to this resource and effectively managing it as well.  The problem with charging for parking is that it offends most American’s sensibilities, particularly homeowners.

Shoup lays out a way forward that seems to be one of the few strategies that might bridge these gaps in addition t0 tying back into the zoning rewrite concerns stated above.   He recommends variable pricing for on-street parking, with revenue sharing with the local business district or neighborhood organization where the pay parking is located.  The money should and could be dedicated for public improvements in that district.  This could be street cleaning, landscape improvements, sidewalk repairs, or in the case of North Grant Park, potentially a partial or full funding mechanism for a neighborhood security patrol.

It is also reasonable to institute a resident parking pass system, so residents are not forced to pay for a needed resource.  This way, there is the possibility of rethinking community development goals.  More, great walkable amenities will draw more people from outside the neighborhood, funding a stronger community.  This creates an incentive for communities to not require over-parking on private property, creating an opportunity to design and develop better projects in these neighborhoods.  It also creates an incentive for private property developers to provide parking on site and charge for it in a market responsive fashion.

We face a shortage of great, walkable neighborhoods in the metro region, and people will continue to drive to neighborhoods that offer these amenities.  Thinking hard about on street parking revenue generation needs to be a critical component of the forward vision for our city.  This starts with a significant rethink of the contract with Park Atlanta, as well as a complete rethink of where we locate paid on street parking, and what rates we charge for it.

Our zoning ordinance was mostly written in the 1980s, with patches along the way.  The last inventory of the city’s on street parking resource was conducted at about the same time.  Reframing a neighborhood understanding about the absolute value of our existing streets as a place to store automobiles, as well as a source of community funding is an absolutely critical component to get past upcoming, highly divisive conversations around our zoning rewrite.

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