Charlotte is stopping short of eliminating parking minimums

Parking represents more than just white lines and pavement
Charlotte leaders have a vision of transit-oriented neighborhoods with barely any paved parking spaces in sight.
Published: Jul. 25, 2022 at 8:52 PM EDT
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CHARLOTTE, N.C. (WBTV) - Charlotte leaders have a vision of transit-oriented neighborhoods with barely any paved parking spaces in sight. People would opt for buses, light rail or walking shoes over grabbing their car keys.

But there’s a problem. The city’s bus system is unreliable. In areas like South End and NoDa, cars of nearby business customers or people who hopped on the light rail cram residential streets.

Despite the fact that Charlotte wants to be less car-reliant, the city, in overhauling its development regulations, is still requiring developers to include a minimum number of parking spots in many new projects, especially those near residential neighborhoods. Some leaders feel the city’s not ready to completely erase its minimum requirements for spaces.

  • “We have to invest in (public transportation) to make it robust and usable,” says mayor pro tem Julie Eiselt. “But while we do that, we’ve got to transition on parking. You can’t just take it all the way from people.”

Why it matters: Parking represents more than just white lines and pavement. It says a lot about how reliant a city is on its public transportation, speaks to environmental priorities and opens up the possibility for developers to build more affordable housing.

What’s happening: In the latest draft of the Unified Development Ordinance, city staff revised requirements for the number of parking spaces new construction projects must have in transit-oriented development zoning districts or within a half mile walk of a light rail station. The changes include:

  • Multi-family housing developments within 400 feet of a low-density housing neighborhood would need at least one space per unit. Right now there are no parking minimums for housing under certain zoning near the light rail.
  • Bars, restaurants, nightclubs and live performance venues within 400 feet of neighborhoods would need to add at least one spot per 500 square feet, plus more for outdoor space. Currently, those uses must add spaces when within 200 feet of single-family residential zoning.

One side: Some believe the market, not the government, should dictate where parking goes.

  • Council member Braxton Winston tells Axios he’s ready to hand control over to the market.
  • Sustain Charlotte is advocating for ending all parking minimums, especially for restaurants and bars, within 700 feet of rapid transit stations.
  • Eric Zaverl, urban design specialist with the nonprofit, worries parking requirements deter adaptive reuse projects. Instead of redeveloping existing buildings, developers may tear down structures to meet the city’s parking standards.

“We should bring flexibility to the way that we evaluate parking regulations, and we should always remember that market forces will look to solve for the parking needs of the projects they create,” says Michael Smith, CEO of Charlotte Center City Partners.

“They are being discreetly financed and having the right amount — not over building — but building the adequate parking to support the uses within any project are foundational to the success of any project,” he adds.

  • A lot of new construction in South End is office mixed with retail, Smith points out. There are fewer spots because the uses share parking, but it works because most customers park to shop at times when employees are away from the office.

Another side: Others think the government still needs to hold developers accountable for accommodating cars and mitigating the impacts on the surroundings.

  • At Brevard and 22nd streets, cars line the roads outside The Joinery, Charlotte’s first carless apartment complex. It opened in 2022 with 83 units. A second, under-construction building will add another 361 units next year.
  • “It’s going to be like New York where no one moves their cars,” says Paul Sires, owner of the lounge Starlight on 22nd, next to The Joinery.
  • Sires says when he opened his business in 2021, he figured the street would offer some extra spaces for his patrons’ cars. He’s given up on that idea. Instead, he and his partner are using a neighboring property they own to expand parking.
  • He also tells Axios a leaser of the nearby apartment complex asked to rent several of Starlight’s parking spots to host AirBnbs in the units.

Although, some developers say they could pass the savings from nixing parking onto tenants.

  • Parking is more expensive than it appears. Todd Williams, chief investment officer of Grubb Properties, said one space in an urban parking garage could cost $25,000 in the southeast. No parking could shave around $1,500 off a tenant’s yearly rent in a 300-unit apartment complex, for example, Williams says.
  • It also costs an average of nearly $10,000 a year to own a car, according to AAA.
  • Grubb Properties is working on a 104-unit car-free apartment complex in west Charlotte. Half of those will will be affordable to people making up to 80% of average median income.
  • During the rezoning process, neighbors were concerned future apartment residents would park outside their houses. Grubb Properties is asking tenants on the lease to attest they do not own a car.

Potential compromise: The UDO is a tweak-able, living document. The draft even states it could reduce parking requirements further in its denser, transit-heavy areas once the city adopts a parking plan or implements more residential parking programs.

  • Raleigh, which outright dropped parking minimums citywide with an almost unanimous council vote in March, takes advantage of residential parking permits. Non-residents can park on the street for only up to two hours in certain neighborhoods.
  • Charlotte has denied neighborhoods its similar program in the past, Eiselt says. The only participants are First Ward, Third Ward and Fourth Ward.

What’s next: City council is expected to adopt the final UDO draft in August.

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