What the Philly Parking Minimums Debate Is About: Growing Walkable or Choking Off Growth

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Ashley Hahn has a great primer on what’s so wrong with minimum parking requirements in walkable neighborhoods over at the PlanPhilly blog. To put this in the context of what it all means for Philly’s development future though, I’d pair it with this post from Angie Schmitt at Streetsblog, Enticing Car-Lite Households to Take the Next Step.

Zoning is about how you want the city to develop in the future. Right now, Philly has a big group of people who don’t use cars, a big group of people who use cars a lot, and a really big group of people in the middle who use cars but less often. Let’s call them car-lite households, to use Angie’s term.

The parking minimums debate is a debate about whether Philly should pursue a development future in which a bunch of the people in the car-lite group opt to join the car-free group, or a future in which auto-centric development keeps car-lite folks in the car owner group.

In the first future, Philly can fit a whole lot more residents, since the need for car storage won’t choke off the population growth. That is a future where SEPTA and public transit thrive, and cycling mode share continues to grow.

But for some reason Council President Darrell Clarke seems to think the second future would be better, and says as much to Inga Saffron:

In the last few years, we’ve experienced what might be called the “Brooklynization” of Philadelphia, especially in the rowhouse neighborhoods fanning out from Center City. As a tide of post-college-age residents has swept in – call them gentrifiers if you want – the administration has responded by embracing everything this demographic loves: parks, waterfront trails, bike lanes, farmer’s markets, outdoor cafes, live-work housing. Even as the nation’s housing industry struggles to get back on its feet, multistory apartments are rising around Philadelphia.

It’s a mistake, however, to assume such changes are universally welcome. Density remains a dirty word in many parts of Philadelphia, City Council included.

Listen to Council President Darrell L. Clarke: “I don’t agree with the notion that we should increase density,” he told me this week in an interview. “We have 60,000 acres of vacant land in this city and we should be spreading people around.”

That view, which runs counter to the conventional wisdom about rebuilding cities, helps explain why Clarke wants to amend the zoning code. His bill, which was introduced by Councilman Brian O’Neill because the council president can’t sponsor legislation, is aimed at preventing developers from dividing rowhouses into small apartment houses. Even with three or four units, they help add density, making Philadelphia a livelier place.

Inga is dead-on with this point. What she means by “livelier place” is that it’s the density of residents which activates street-level neighborhood retail. “Spreading people around” shrinks the market for neighborhood retail, making neighborhoods less walkable.

Walkability is nothing more than business density – it’s a measure of how many of your daily needs you can access within walking distance. A neighborhood with higher residential density can support amenities like grocery stores and laundromats and barbers and restaurants and all the other service providers that make a great city neighborhood great. A modern service market is made of people. The more people who live in the neighborhood, the more small businesses that neighborhood can support.

Rather than looking at the surplus of vacant land as an opportunity to spread people around in more car-oriented neighborhoods, City Council members should be looking at it as an opportunity to grow the city’s population by developing a whole lot more high- and medium-density walkable neighborhoods, and all the small business opportunities that come along with that.

It’s especially important to get this right now, since Philly rents have been increasing, and maintaining housing affordability is going to require pro-growth policies that don’t pointlessly cap the housing supply. There’s real demand for walkable housing right now, and Philly is poised to benefit big-time from the growth as long as people can get past the parking paranoia.

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