Corey Wagehoft / Flickr

Opposition to Champaign’s new relaxed parking requirement is actually a powerful case in its favor.

Last week the college town of Champaign, Illinois, joined an increasing number of cities that have relaxed parking requirements on new residential development. The idea in Champaign, as elsewhere, is that removing these “parking minimums” will encourage affordable housing and discourage car-reliance. Developers who don’t have to build costly parking lots or garages can lower rents, and tenants who don’t have access to a free space will be more likely switch to mass transit or other alternatives.

Opponents of such moves usually say they worry that drivers who don’t have spots in their building will just compete for street spaces and increase traffic. It’s an understandable objection (if often misguided, since most cities have way more parking than they need, and proper pricing can keep the George Costanzas of the world from cruising for street spots). But it wasn’t the one Champaign planners got.

Instead, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign “respectfully opposed” the measure on the grounds that sites around town would suddenly become more attractive to private developers. Such sites—current parking lots the clearest example—would never pencil out into profitable building projects under the old rules, but became instantly viable without parking requirements. That bothered the university, which hoped to buy the sites on the cheap as the campus expanded.

Here’s Bruce Walden, the university’s director of real estate, expressing “serious reservations” about the new parking rules during a planning commission meeting in August:

Once this law is eliminated those parking lots will become the hottest commodity in Champaign County for high density development. It turns out that some of those that are preserved right now for parking for the private sector are locations where we have proposed future academic buildings.

The subtext here is pretty remarkable: the university was worried that eliminating parking requirements in Champaign would make the city too nice. So what might have been just another local planning squabble instead becomes yet more validation for how beneficial it is for municipalities to relax or eliminate the parking minimums most U.S. metros have had in place for decades. The argument against the policy, in this case, is actually a powerful one in its favor.

“I can't think of another example anywhere in the country I've seen where this has been the argument in opposition,” says Ben LeRoy of the Champaign planning department. “This really was something we were not expecting. It's something I couldn't find an analogue for anywhere else.”

Less parking requirements, more options

Champaign’s new parking policy lets multifamily building developers within the city’s “University District”—basically, the heart of campus—decide how many spots they want to provide, if any. The change comes in advance of Zone Champaign, an update to the city’s official zoning ordinance. Since the last ordinance was adopted, in 1996, the city has tweaked parking requirements around fifteen times, always in the direction of less parking, not more.

LeRoy says the response from developers has been immediate. Take a previous requirement: one parking space for every two bedrooms, with a one-space-per-unit provision. The result was that one-bedroom units effectively required their own spaces—you can’t build half a parking spot—which in turn meant developers built fewer one-bedroom units. When the provision was lifted, says LeRoy, the city saw one- and three-bedroom units come back on the market.

Champaign’s new relaxed parking rules would allow for a “Development A”-style building, whereas the current rules often lead to dingbat structures shown in B. (Myefski Architects)

“The last couple times we've reduced parking requirements, we have instantly seen the development community make use of the change,” he says. “Which I think is a strong signal they were so hungry for anything that would reduce this huge cost burden on them.”

In addition to more size options, Champaign renters will now get more affordable options, too. Presenting in favor of the new rule change, Timothy Kirkby of Myefski Architects in Illinois offered up two hypothetical buildings. With parking requirements, a 550-square-foot one-bedroom unit would have to rent for $1,165. Without them, renters could pay $975—saving $190 a month. Nor would developers have to give up profits: both developments projected returns of 7.5 percent.

(I should note here that Champaign’s new rules also remove requirements for open spaces, which often lead developers to build more balconies than the market might prefer.)

LeRoy also expects buildings without parking requirements to be superior from an aesthetic perspective. The old rules brought with them a lot of dingbat-style apartments—buildings set on stilts to leave room on the ground floor for a few more parking spots. LeRoy says the city has already received some post-parking requirement building designs that replace the stilts with ground-floor units.

“They won't need to turn over the entire first floor of the building to parking,” he says. “You have a much more personable building.”

A word of warning to others

The change complicates the university’s master plan for campus expansion. Take privately owned surface parking lots across from the Newman Center, just north of the main library. The master plan targets these lots as two “Future Buildings” of 45,000 square feet—no doubt with an eye toward acquiring them at a good price. Without the burden of parking requirements, the housing market might see these sites as more appealing and scoop them up first.

The University of Illinois has targeted parking lots near the Newman Center for two 45,000-square foot developments in its master expansion plan (inset). (UIUC / Google Maps)

“The City Council waiver of long standing zoning regulations (including the waiver of all parking requirements in the ‘University District’) that preserved the ‘status quo’ encourages land speculation and private development in the very areas designated by the University Master Plan for UIUC academic building expansion,” Bruce Walden tells CityLab via email. “The University must now re-evaluate its expansion planning for the UIUC campus in light of this action.”

LeRoy says the city didn’t change anything in response to the university’s objection, (adding, “we are hoping to work more closely with them in the future”). In the end, the relaxed parking requirement fits into Champaign’s broader goals of improving housing and promoting car alternatives—an effort that includes a sweeping transit, cycling, and pedestrian initiative called the MCORE project. LeRoy sees the unusual argument as a word of warning to other college towns, and a good general reminder for cities of how effective parking tweaks can be.

“The key thing to remember about a fix like this is, I'm convinced, it’s the most cost-effective thing a community can do to improve itself through planning,” he says. “The positive effects are so large and the cost to the public is absolutely zero.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story used a lead photo of the University of Illinois at Chicago campus, not the Urbana-Champaign campus.

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