Parking Paranoia is Never a Good Reason Not to Build Apartments

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Last month Lynn Olanoff quoted Anthony Scarcia, president of Allied Building Corp as saying:

“The interest for residents to move to downtown Bethlehem is just dramatic,”

This is a great position for a City of the 3rd Class in PA to find itself in – a position that most of the other 3rd Class cities that are economically depressed and shrinking would kill to be in.

Population growth in the downtown area means a larger market for existing local businesses, and more opportunities for new businesses to open. More multifamily housing means more tax base for a city. The citywide benefits of attracting morepopulation growth and multi-family housing are substantial.

On the cost side, the flip side of a larger market and more demand for downtown businesses is more demand for curb parking spaces. That’s a cost for near neighbors, but it’s certainly not a citywide cost. Insofar as the city needs to address this issue, the appropriate solution is permit parking for residents and metered parking for everyone else.

It’s never appropriate to reject new housing or development because of parking paranoia, but that’s exactly what Bethlehem zoners unanimously did last night:

A million-dollar plan to reclaim a blighted former sewing factory in Bethlehem by turning it into urban loft-style apartments didn’t make the cut with officials or neighbors of the property Wednesday night.

The Bethlehem Zoning Hearing Board voted 5-0 to reject developer Garrett Benner’s request for relief from lot size and parking requirements needed to turn the dilapidated three-story building at 18 West Goepp St. into nine apartments.

The vote came after a dozen or so residents living near the property spent an hour telling the zoners how Benner’s plan would aggravate an already terrible parking situation […]

The residents who opposed Benner’s plan admitted the building, vacate for about a decade, is a favorite target of window-breaking vandals and graffiti scrawlers and a hangout where drug use and public urination and defecation have been seen.

Still, they all said parking concerns trumped any potential improvements the building might bring to the neighborhood, and Lisa Arechiga, of 27 West Ettwein St., presented the zoners with a petition with 105 signatures backing up that point.

The zoning code requires 16 spaces for the kind of project Benner proposed.

This is really insane. 9 new cars competing for curb parking is obviously obviously a better problem to have than a magnet for window-breakers, drug-dealers and sidewalk-poopers. And even if that’s not obvious to the near neighbors, it should be very obvious to Bethlehem zoners. Not only is that cost-benefit calculation way off, it’s just never going to be a good idea to spike a project over parking.

Too often this group of Bethlehem zoners acts like the question they’re being asked to answer is “do the near neighbors like this project?” rather than “is this project good for the city economy and budget?”

Stepping back a bit, the real problem is that zoners even had discretion over this in the first place. The new zoning code should have made it very easy for developers to do a project like this by-right, without the need for a variance. The fact that the new code still requires mandatory parking minimums and regulates lot sizes is embarrassing. Bethlehem needed a form-based code, but instead they inexplicably doubled down on use-based zoning with the code rewrite. I’ll never understand.

The other problem is that the new zoning code didn’t enlarge the CB (Central Business District) zone to cover these neighborhoods. 28 W. Goepp St. is downtown Bethlehem. It’s exactly 0.4 miles to the corner of Broad St. and Main St.. This is not a different neighborhood, and the zoning code rewrite should’ve regulated this area under the same rules as downtown, where there are no mandatory parking minimums. The current CB zone is laughably small, although still not as small as the CB zone on Southside. Everything in the urban grid on Northside and Southside should be fair game for by-right multifamily development, and especially redevelopment of long-vacant buildings.

This entry was posted in Miscellany.

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