Wednesday, May 22, 2024

On-street parking after a surprise April 2021 snow in Cambridgeport. (Photo: Tyler Motes)

The end of parking-space minimums of any kind in Cambridge was enacted Monday by the City Council in an 8-1 vote, with members calling it the culmination of work they’d begun more than five years ago and the beginning of perhaps an equally big change: Residents and property owners will be able to rent the spaces they aren’t using.

Some councillors had long called for developers to be freed of zoning that demanded a certain number of parking spaces – for instance, one for each unit of housing – and the Envision Cambridge citywide planning report released in 2019 made the same suggestion. After a policy order from last term lapsed without action, the law that succeeded came from a motion by first-term councillor Burhan Azeem in February.

Substantive amendments from councillor Paul Toner were made Oct. 3; minor tweaks to zoning language came Monday and are expected to continue as needed by staff in Community Development.

“This is something that makes a lot of sense, giving people the flexibility that they need to build the amount of parking that they need,” Azeem said. “This will be an important technocratic fix, but it will not revolutionize our city overnight.” Still, he called Cambridge the first city in Massachusetts to eliminate all categories of parking minimums.

Somerville enacted a more limited law in December 2019 that ended requirements for off-street parking across much of the city, and Azeem said the results in Cambridge could be expected to mirror what happened there. “Things didn’t change very much,” he said. “The majority of construction still had parking because people think it’s a valuable commodity.”

Renting becomes an option

Being freed of having to include parking in a project could mean more space on which to build housing or lower the cost of renting or buying a home that lacks parking, advocates say. It can also add flexibility to repurpose a parking space that’s not being used, which has been cited as a way to make up for places where parking spaces are being replaced by bike lanes.

“Under rules with parking minimums, you can’t rent out that parking spot because [it] can only be used for that property,” Azeem said. Ending parking minimums “is necessary to get to the place where you could share parking that perhaps you’re not using, or if we see empty lots … they need to be able to loan it out to other folks.”

Other voices

Voting on the measure has been consistent since it worked its way through the Ordinance Committee: There has been one opponent in councillor Dennis Carlone, who said findings that parking spaces citywide are one-third to one-half used means that minimums should be cut by the same proportions. But to remove parking minimums completely in one step? “I think it’s absolutely wrong,” Carlone said before Monday’s final vote. The real problems were traffic and parking maximums, neither of which were addressed in this iteration of zoning reforms, he said.

Carlone is not alone in worrying about the effects. North Cambridge resident Joyce Levine said during public comment that at her Massachusetts Avenue condo building, there are “always people looking to rent parking spaces” because they need a place for their car, and that a silent majority who don’t know what’s happening will be shocked once parking is removed. 

It was true she was in the minority during Monday’s public comment, though, as some 17 other speakers testified against minimums from their experiences in the city. Lorraine Thomas of Magazine Street in Cambridgeport said she lived with three other people for some seven years without any having a car, save for one roommate who drove for a couple of years. “Parking should be available for those who want and need it. But we also need to remember that our city demographics say that not everybody does want or need it,” Thomas said. “Making everybody pay for something only some people need is ridiculous and unfair.”

Challenges ahead

Councillor Patty Nolan acknowledged that opponents of ending parking minimums – something opposed by the Planning Board as well as by Carlone – are likely correct that some pain will result.

“There will be some greater challenge for some neighborhoods experiencing a lack of street parking. That is already the case in a lot of our city, and if more people have cars, there may be additional pressure,” Nolan said. “What we need to do is have fewer people who have cars, and the city is behind on its goal of reducing car ownership in the city.”

Supporters on the council said there was more work to do on providing transportation alternatives, and that just as critics were wrong to expect catastrophe, supporters shouldn’t expect to see dramatically lower housing prices. “It may make some minimal impact,” said Toner, whose amendments in early October paved the way for an assessment of the change’s impact in three years.

Councillor Marc McGovern, a co-sponsor of Azeem’s order with councillor Quinton Zondervan, reminded everyone Monday that “it’s not like we can’t change this in a few years if it turns out that it’s really problematic.”