Parking mandates stymy development in Cincinnati’s urban neighborhoods

Downtown Cincinnati is home to five Fortune 500 companies, three professional sports teams, local businesses, and according to the 2010 U.S. Census, about 5,300 residents. But the area is also home to more than 35,000 off-street parking spaces.

These spaces once held historic buildings but have been demolished to provide automobile parking over the years. As downtown continues its resurgance, it would be prudent for city leaders to review its outdated parking policies.

In the middle part of the 20th century, many cities, including Cincinnati, developed zoning codes with regulations dictating how many parking spaces are required for different uses. The regulations often accounted for “peak demand,” which is the amount of parking planners believed would be needed at times where demand for parking would be the greatest. For example, accounting for Black Friday-type events where parking lots are only maxed out once or twice a year.


Hundreds of brand new parking spaces in downtown Cincinnati’s Central Riverfront Garage sit unused. Photograph by Randy A. Simes for UrbanCincy.

In his article, The Trouble with Minimum Parking Requirements, UCLA professor Dr. Donald Shoup writes, “Minimum parking requirements are intended to satisfy the expected peak demand for parking at every land use–at home, work, school, banks, restaurants, shopping centers, movie theaters, and hundreds of other land uses from airports to zoos. Because the peak parking demands at different land uses occur at different times of the day or week, and may last for only a short time, several off-street parking spaces must be available for every motor vehicle.”

The demolition of buildings that are mostly historic is also a concern as downtowns struggle to build parking infrastructure that is required by code. Those demolitions, oddly enough, systematically demolish the very things that distinguished them from the suburbs and made the area an appealing destination.

In Nashville, TN, city leaders first removed parking requirements for older buildings, and then moved to remove parking requirements for all buildings in their city center.

“Requiring parking for historic structures that have never had parking is incentivizing their demolition. This puts the property owner in a really difficult position; he must either find parking for the building, demolish it or let it languish in perpetuity.” Nashville city planner, Joni Priest, told UrbanCincy. “If a property owner wants to rehab an historic building – a building that marks the character of a neighborhood and contributes to the fabric of the city – all incentives, including the elimination of parking requirements, should be considered.”

Parking mandates also increase the upfront cost to developers looking to invest in urban neighborhoods. Additional land, often still occupied by historic buildings, must be purchased in order to provide the required parking spaces at approximately $10,000 to $25,000 per space, depending on land and architectural fees. Those costs are then passed on to the consumer, making urban living or starting a small business more expensive.


Contemporary parking mandates can make it nearly impossible for developers and city planners to build neighborhoods like Over-the-Rhine any more. Photograph by Randy A. Simes for UrbanCincy.

Parking requirements also have impacts that are not quite as obvious. Increased parking capacity, in theory, increases the amount of cars in the given area and puts an added burden on downtown streets. Even though the traditional grid pattern is ideal for dispersal of traffic in urban settings, downtowns are ideally designed to accommodate people. Cities that add parking, or widen streets for automobiles, do so at the expense of pedestrians.

Even as city leaders work to implement a plan to increase downtown vibrancy through additional residential space and increased foot traffic, concern for parking punctures the debate on how to further support the urban core.

The urban parking analysis UrbanCincy conducted in 2010 identified many of these problems, but no significant action has been taken to-date aside from the reduction of parking needed to be provided along the Cincinnati Streetcar route.

City leaders need to seriously reexamine their policies on the matter, and they could get started by discussing the following three potential solutions:

  1. Eliminate Parking Mandates – As city leaders were able to do in Nashville, we believe Cincinnati leaders could do the same and remove the minimum parking requirements forced upon investors in the city’s urban core.
  2. Cap and Trade System – First proposed by UrbanCincy in 2010, this innovative system has been implemented in several European cities such as Amsterdam, Hamburg and Zurich. Regulations are designed to limit the total number of parking spaces in an urban area, and provide incentive bonuses while limiting parking. Parking spaces are created on a case-by-case basis and often involve repurposing on-street parking spaces for other uses such as community gardens or parks.
  3. Set Parking Maximums – Instead of dictating a minimum, parking requirements are capped by use or developed density. This strategy has been employed in New York City where development of parking has been limited in an attempt to reduce the impact of automobile traffic on the already densely developed island of Manhattan. Parking maximums seem to work with the availability of alternatives to driving. Therefore; if Cincinnati were to pursue this route, it should be in conjunction with the implementation of more efficient alternatives from Metro including expanding streetcar routes, light rail and bus rapid transit alternatives.

While the need for reform appears evident, a contextualized solution should be pursued by Cincinnati city officials that specifically tailors the policy to localized needs. What may be most important is offering flexibility to small businesses and investors who are looking to invest in Cincinnati’s urban core.

“Removing the parking requirements from downtown zoning allows flexibility for site-specific and program-specific solutions,” said Priest. “Flexibility is key in urban environments. As downtown becomes more comfortable for pedestrians, cyclists and transit users, new development will have the flexibility to build less parking.”

  • http://twitter.com/OTRcincy Over-the-Rhine Cincy

    Nice post, very glad to see this idea gaining attention. I wrote about parking minimums and several other ideas a few weeks ago on the OTR blog. Readers might want to let the Cincinnati Department of Planning and Building know that they support parking reform as part of Plan Build Live and the new comprehensive plan. 
    http://overtherhine.wordpress.com/2012/03/12/plan-build-live-your-ideas-matter/

  • Mark Christol

    zoning run amok
    For more background on where the surface lots came from:
    http://marketurbanism.com/2011/01/02/parking-lots-as-tax-arbitrage-during-the-great-depression/

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=21405087 Neil Clingerman

      Cool post, and interesting blog, as most urbanists take the left perspective.  Its good to see one that takes an educated fiscal conservative approach towards it as its such a common Republican myth that free market capitalism created suburbia as we know it today.

    • http://www.UrbanCincy.com/ Randy A. Simes

      Thanks Neil. We work very hard to do our research and recommend pragmatic solutions for Cincinnati’s urban affairs.

  • http://www.facebook.com/john.spencer.architect John Spencer

    great post!

  • http://www.UrbanCincy.com/ Randy A. Simes

    We’ve been talking about this for years at UrbanCincy, yet nothing seems to happen. I’m curious if Cincinnati’s elected officials have the appetite to execute any significant policy reforms.

    • Zachary Schunn

      Elected officials are finally taking on form-based code.  Any reason to feel they won’t also take on parking requirements?

  • BathtubGin

    Parking minimums which aren’t imposed by the city will be imposed by lenders. Too “risky” to invest in a project without twice as much parking square footage as human space.

    Enacting maximums may help, as it removes the possibility that a competitor would move in with more parking space. But then again maximums may stifle development in the urban core if banks deem it too risky without an abundance of parking. The lender’s feared competition may be another development in a neighborhood or suburb without such maximums.

    Still, this is not an argument for keeping legislated minimums! In fact, I don’t know of any good arguments for that.

    • http://travisestell.com/ Travis

      You are onto something: why not let the free market decide how many parking spaces are necessary? If ABC Corporation wants to build a new building for 5,000 employees without a parking garage, maybe no banks will finance them. But if there are several existing parking garages nearby that have a total of 3,000 empty parking spots each day on average, the banks would finance the building. Of, better yet, if the office building is near the Government Square bus terminal or near the Riverfront Transit Center (future home of commuter rail service to Milford), you can slice another 500 parking spaces off the requirement.

      Call the whole thing “parking deregulation” and I’m sure the libertarians among us will jump for joy.

    • http://www.facebook.com/people/Nate-Wessel/100002013606145 Nate Wessel

       Great blog that I’ve been following for a long time:
      http://www.reinventingparking.org/

      It already is called “parking deregulation” and libertarians already love it :)

      I’ve found that using “libertarian” words for talking about parking reform almost always work best unless you know your audience really well.

    • Zachary Schunn

      Agreed.  Honestly, I think lenders are mostly going to be glad parking is going towards more building space, as it will offer a higher return than empty lots.

      And btw, this is just a pet peeve but the “libertarians” you’re referring to are more accurately described as economic conservatives.  We Americans seem to mix up all our political terminology.  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Political_spectrum

  • http://profile.yahoo.com/OKN3QOI2DQKNKGW6CJYYTN3YFI Eric

    Lewis Mumford wrote half a century ago, “The right to have access
    to every building in the city by private motorcar in an age when everyone
    possesses such a vehicle is the right to destroy the city.” Parking is still a necessary evil because of the car culture that still exists and the number of people visiting downtown that aren’t within walking or transit distance. I don’t have a problem with underground parking garages shown in the picture, the greater problem is the surface parking lots and the inability for people to get downtown with commuter rail.

  • Zachary Schunn

    Great post John, and I mostly agree.  Though I wish you had pointed out how the upcoming form-based code charettes are a PRIME opportunity to bring up parking minimums as hampering development.

    I’d be interested to hear this same argument from an economist’s perspective.  Basic economics explains that any time you invoke unnecessary restrictions on price and/or quantity, you prevent the full economic potential available.  In this case, invoking minimum parking requirements prevents developers from making the highest ROI possible, as they are spending excess money on empty spaces that could have been used for extra building space or other valuable site features.

    Eliminating parking minimums could offer more freedom in how a developer pursues a project, though a potential downside is that the resulting decreased supply from a free parking market would also result in increased price for users.  Granted, this could sway the public’s interest further towards public transportation development, and in turn further lower demand for parking.  An interesting feedback loop I believe we are already seeing happening, that is currently being restricted by unnecessary regulations.

    I just wish we could get the “conservative”, anti-government populace in our city behind this conservative, anti-government principle.  Ironic, isn’t it?

    • Zachary Schunn

      Actually, I might be wrong about a decreased supply meaning higher prices.  Since the supply right now is artificially high, if it’s higher than the demand that yields the highest revenue for lot owners, the price at the point of max. revenue would not change, and thus the revenue itself for developers would not change.

      What would change is the sunk cost currently going into developing unused parking spaces, as well as the increased profit potential of that space.