Anchorage may soon join dozens of other cities around the U.S. that have eliminated or loosened policies that require off-street parking for new residential and commercial developments in order to increase affordable housing, curb development costs and rein in urban sprawl.
On Tuesday, the Anchorage Assembly is expected to vote on a proposed reform of the city’s parking rules — removing parking requirements citywide and adding requirements for bike parking.
“Anchorage has a parking problem,” Assembly member Daniel Volland said during a meeting on the issue last week. Volland has led the proposal alongside members Kevin Cross and Forrest Dunbar, as well as a working group of the city’s planning department and a few community members.
“Parking is expensive. It’s a high cost for developers, whether that’s residential or commercial. And right now we have a housing shortage in Anchorage. Somebody needs to find ways that we can make it easier for developers to build multifamily housing,” Volland said.
Volland drafted the proposed ordinance after the planning department in December suggested a set of changes that would have largely reduced requirements. But the department’s original proposal didn’t go far enough, Volland said.
Large expanses of pavement push everything further apart, making it more difficult to connect neighborhoods and to create areas of green landscaping, the three Assembly members say.
“As Kevin (Cross) likes to say, ‘You’re exchanging the splendor of Alaska for pavement,’ ” Volland said.
Plus, it takes more effort to get around without a car. “It’s a longer way to walk or bike from place to place because everything’s separated by these big parking lots,” he said.
The three Assembly members say residents don’t need to worry about losing their existing parking spots. Removing parking requirements is not the same thing as getting rid of existing parking, Volland said.
“I don’t think anybody’s going to immediately go out and remove their parking overnight,” Cross said.
Aside from new construction, it would impact “primarily the use of vacant land or excess areas of parking in large lots,” Cross said. “This would give other commercial contractors who have an absurdly large parking lot that isn’t being utilized the ability to turn that into green space, turn it into a nice park, improve the facade of the property, create those inner connectivities, as well as perhaps put up a small office building ... and provide additional business opportunities within a community.”
Builders, developers, business owners would not be prohibited from including parking in their projects.
“In fact, one could argue they are already incentivized by the free market to do so,” Volland told Assembly members last week. Several new developments in the downtown area, which doesn’t have requirements, are choosing to include parking spaces.
All of Anchorage except for the downtown area requires minimum amounts of parking for most residential and for commercial developments. How much often varies by the building’s size, use and zoning area.
But those numbers are generally set for “peak usage” and are not data-driven. Parking minimums create situations where businesses have to account for the maximum possible parking use, when realistically, much of the parking goes unused most of the time.
For example, current city code requires Anchorage bowling alleys to have four parking spots per bowling lane. That doesn’t make sense, Volland said.
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“So if you’re a bowling alley, you essentially have to assume that every night is league night and nobody carpools,” he said.
For Anchorage bars — places where the city may want to discourage driving — the current requirement is one parking spot per 350 square feet of a bar’s gross floor area.
The parking laws also hinder “adaptive reuse,” or repurposing of empty buildings, making it more difficult for businesses and entrepreneurs to renovate commercial spaces into something new.
In a presentation to other Assembly members, Volland used an example of the former La Mex restaurant on Spenard Road, which currently sits empty. An entrepreneur might want to transform the space into a food hall, a popular model in the Lower 48 that hosts multiple restaurants and small markets, often with outdoor and rooftop dining, he said. (The owners of Moose’s Tooth in 2018 said they were planning to do exactly that with the building, but last year said the plan was on hold, partly due to high development costs.)
“Based on current code, the establishment would need 146.25 parking spots — which is far larger than the current lot,” he said.
This issue often precludes certain types of businesses from using vacant buildings like that one, he said. “So the question becomes, which is better for Anchorage? A revitalized building that is open for business or a vacant building with an empty parking lot?” Volland said.
All of these factors result in “empty space that isn’t contributing to our tax base,” Volland said. Additionally, meltwater and runoff from parking lots takes an environmental toll and costs the city’s storm water utility, he said.
By including additional requirements for bike parking in the measure, the group aims to encourage alternative modes of transportation and reduce parking demand. Most new developments would need a minimum of two bike spaces, such as one U-shaped bike rack. That minimum would increase for larger developments
But that wouldn’t impact existing buildings, which would be grandfathered in and considered to already have the minimum two spots even if the building has none, according to a memo from the planning department. Bike parking requirements would go into effect in 2024, after a transition period.
Also in 2024, the city would begin to require large developments to implement one strategy, from a list of several possibilities, to help alleviate parking demand and incentivize alternative transportation and ridesharing. That could mean building more bike parking, sponsoring public transit passes for employees or residents, or developing pedestrian amenities, among other options.
The planning department is also conducting a right-of-way management study, which the Assembly voted to fund earlier this year. That study is exploring strategies for street parking, snow storage and parking spillover.
“For us, that alleviated a lot of the concern we had with removing minimums in Title 21,” said Tom Davis, senior planner with the city. “Because there are ways to manage parking or spillover parking or on street parking behavior without having to resort to off-street parking minimums, and I believe that study is really going to help the municipality out.”