Sunday, June 16, 2024

Planning Board members say they are concerned that ending parking minimums will increase demand for on-street parking in already stressed areas. (Photo: Tyler Motes)

A proposal to eliminate parking minimums citywide is making its way to the City Council from its Ordinance Committee, where eight of nine councillors were present Sept. 21 and all but one voted in favor. 

Though the change looks likely to pass, it needs two council votes to become law before expiring Nov. 1. It will be back before the council Monday and Oct. 17.

Developments must have a minimum number of parking spaces depending on a number of factors, such as building and lot size. The policy order from councillor Burhan Azeem would eliminate any requirement for parking spaces. 

“Not a single spot of parking will go away. It really is about giving people the option and to not build more than people actually use,” Azeem said in presenting about the policy, which he introduced in February. “Developers will in fact continue to build parking, because it is highly valued by a lot of homeowners and landlords and tenants.”

Parking minimums add unnecessary costs, drive up housing prices, create heat islands and keep buildings vacant, Azeem said. In his presentation, he cited examples of cities that have adopted similar measures such as Buffalo, New York, which eliminated its own parking minimums in 2017.

Planning Board qualms

The Planning Board said in a Sept. 1 letter to the committee that it couldn’t recommend implementation.  

“Members had a range of different views on the petition. There were some members who expressed support in concept, but there was a common concern shared among all the board members that there should be additional study in order to fully understand the effects,” said Jeff Roberts, zoning and development director at the Community Development Department, during the meeting.

Many board members did not think eliminating parking minimums “would have a meaningful impact” on housing costs, considering the high desire for housing in Cambridge regardless of parking, the letter said. Members acknowledged that there could be other benefits, such as more housing and green space, but were concerned about adding competition for on-street parking where off-street parking is already less common and demand for on-street parking is already high. 

Board members suggested “more nuanced approaches,” such as focusing on areas close to transit or places “where there is less demand for on-street parking.” Another approach could be removing requirements for small developments while giving large developments more scrutiny. With a separate parking study underway, some members preferred to wait for its end to make recommendations.

Amendment to simplify

The board also expressed concern that many other parts of city zoning law would be affected; councillor Quinton Zondervan responded by proposing an amendment to simplify the proposal and give more time for zoning language to be changed to match its intent. The Community Development Department “could come back and give us further amendments that would clean up the language, but we would be able to effectuate immediately the elimination of parking minimums,” Zondervan said.

Roberts agreed there would not otherwise be enough time to review all of the zoning ordinance and recommend amendments before the rule must be voted on by the council. “There’s a lot of provisions in the zoning, and it’s about 500 pages,” noted his boss, assistant city manager for community development Iram Farooq.

With a warning from city solicitor Nancy Glowa of “some risk of having ambiguous or contradictory or unaddressed issues within the text of the zoning ordinance,” councillor Dennis Carlone was the only vote against the amendment and against sending the order back to the full council.

“I firmly believe that this really has to be done right,” Carlone said. “Setting a policy is one thing, but proposing the changed zoning – that sounds like it’s going to be passed – is just wild, in my mind.”

Councillor Patty Nolan was frustrated that eliminating parking minimums has been discussed for so long without being acted upon. It was recommended in the Envision Cambridge plan in 2018. 

“I am ready to move this forward. I really hope we can get to a point where we can approve it before it expires,” said Nolan, referring to the current petition. “And if not, let’s reintroduce it the next day and get it done as soon as we can.”