Probably not 1,000 parking spaces for every 200,000 square-foot school, which is what Mesa, Arizona, allots now.

Back in August, we took an in-depth look at how widely city-mandated minimum parking requirements in the U.S. vary between different cities and different building uses: offices, restaurants, housing, and places of worship. These inconsistencies were mapped in four graphics by architect Seth Goodman, who recently capped off the series with a final installment comparing parking requirements for a decidedly less-studied building type: high schools.

Goodman found that parking requirements for high schools also vary on a wide spectrum from city to city. But one data point stands out: with a standard of one parking space per 200 sq.ft. gross area (or 1,000 spaces for the average 200,000 sq.ft. school), Mesa, Arizona trumps them all.

Bars show the number of parking spaces required for a 200,000 sq.ft. school -- each shade denotes a different basis for the ratios, i.e. gross area, number of students, or number of 30-seat classrooms. (Click to see the full graphic)

In Arizona, public school districts are considered equivalent political subdivisions to individual cities, which means the city of Mesa actually has no regulatory authority over the site planning of its public schools. So the 1:200 ratio only applies to private and charter schools, which tend to be much smaller in gross area. With that said, Gordon Sheffield, the zoning administrator for Mesa, says the city’s requirement is probably still too high. He also says the larger public schools do come close to meeting the 1:200 standard. So how did Mesa get its absurdly high 1:200 rule anyway?

In the above Google Map images of two Mesa public schools (top: Mesa High School, bottom: Dobson High School), the track field can be used to as a scale for comparison. 

According to Sheffield, the 1:200 requirement was established in the mid-1990s, when charter schools became more common in Arizona. A slew of new charter schools started taking over vacant storefronts in multiple-tenant shopping centers. The concept of “shared parking” wasn’t fully explored back then, notes Sheffield. The guiding philosophy at the time was that parking had to be “additive”, which meant anticipating everything to happen at the same time. Students, parents, staff, and hundreds of shoppers all there on Black Friday, etc.

Another reason was transit infrastructure. In the mid-1990s, Mesa’s nascent bus system didn’t extend out to where new charter schools were opening up. “The assumption that alternate modes of transportation could be used was not taken into account,” says Sheffield. One of the fastest growing cities in the past two decades, Mesa now has a light rail service, as well as a bus system that covers more of the city. So what happens when an old law is no longer totally compatible with how the city has grown? 

Sheffield was surprised to see how Mesa compared to other cities on Goodman’s graphic, and says this issue will be added to a list of zoning code items that merit review and discussion with the city council.

This particular snapshot of how one city approaches parking requirements highlights the value of anticipating cultural and infrastructural trends and having adaptable zoning codes. Laws set at a prior phase of a city's growth can often stay unchallenged for decades. 

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