News flash: Don’t believe everything you read.
In mid-June, the Cincinnati Planning Commission approved a change in the city’s zoning code that, on the surface, seemed to trigger a looming reduction in the number of existing downtown parking spaces.
An Enquirer headline at the time trumpeted, “Streetcar could reduce number of parking spaces for Cincinnati residents.” Some confused readers thought the spaces they now use when they travel downtown to work or to visit a favorite restaurant or bar might be gone soon.
Not quite. The revision is meant to be prospective, not retroactive, in its intent.
The change — which still requires passage by City Council to take effect — reduces by half the current requirement that development projects include two parking spaces for each residential unit added. And if the total number of spaces needed for a development is fewer than three, no parking spaces are required at all.
Quickly decried by some as a worsening of an already limited downtown parking situation, city officials and streetcar advocates are quick to point out that’s just not the case.
First, they say, the reduction would impact only developments within 600 feet, or roughly 1 1/2 blocks, of proposed streetcar stops. Secondly, and more importantly, the change likely will affect only future construction and not current parking spaces.
“The spaces we’re talking about are for future residential projects,” says Michael Moore, the city’s interim director of transportation and engineering. “The parking spaces don’t exist today.”
Brad Thomas (pictured), the founder of CincyStreetcar.com who helped draw up the proposed change, adds that while the proposal would also cover existing parking it’s “inconceivable” any would be eliminated.
“The only way that could happen is if the owner said, ‘Oh, we have 10 spaces and we only need five. I’m going to get rid of the other five,’ ” he says. “What you would build in an area the size of five parking spaces, I don’t know. It’s so unlikely to be inconceivable.”
The Planning Commission unanimously passed the change June 18 and sent it on to City Council, where it’s expected to be approved because of wide support for the streetcar project. The reduced parking requirement for future development also is expected to pass because it has precedent, Thomas says.
“We modeled it after other ordinances already in the city’s zoning code,” he says. “For instance, if your building is within a certain number of feet of a parking garage, you have a parking reduction (now). This isn’t anything new.”
City planners hope the result of the reduction is a boost in downtown development, as some projects become cheaper and easier to build.
Above-ground parking can cost builders upwards of $18,000 per space, while underground garages can push that figure up to $25,000. With the “two spaces” requirement, that can add up to $50,000 in additional expenses for each residential unit, which developers pass along to their buyers.
Cutting the parking requirement to one space will make development more affordable, Moore says.
“If you don’t have to build it, you don’t have to sell it and someone else doesn’t have to buy it,” he says. “It helps on both ends. The developer doesn’t have to spend more money to make parking spaces, and the buyer doesn’t have the extra expense when they buy the place.”
The change would have other benefits as well. Along with making new condos more affordable, the zoning change will lead to more historic preservation and increased usage of the streetcar when it does come to fruition, advocates suggest.
“Historic preservation is probably the biggest secondary benefit of the reduction — that was a large part of the motivation (for the zoning change),” Thomas says.
Instead of having to demolish buildings next to residential developments to make way for parking, he points out, more of downtown’s historic buildings will remain standing. As more residents move in with fewer cars, streetcar usage should also get a boost.
While the benefits of the proposed change are all in the future, city leaders expect at least one immediate impact on the $128 million streetcar project. The move, they hope, will be seen as a signal to government leaders that the city is taking its role in the streetcar project seriously.
The city of Cincinnati has lined up roughly $86 million in local funding to date, most of it contingent on receiving similar investment from state and federal sources. In February, the city learned that it had been passed over in the first round of more than $700 million in Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER) grants due, in part, to a lack of local planning changes like the parking requirement reduction.
A decision is expected any day from the federal government on another $25 million grant to the project.
TIGER involves discretionary funds awarded by the federal government for surface transportation projects. A total of about $1.5 billion in grants are available.
“Regardless of the (proposed change) being beneficial in its own right, we wanted to show to that the city is committed to the streetcar project,” Thomas says. “We wanted to show that we’re committed to taking the steps necessary to make sure the project reaches its full potential.”