Opinions

OPINION: Anchorage has a parking problem — but maybe not the one you think

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Anchorage has a parking problem that impacts our quality of life. Excessive parking obstructs housing development, impedes adaptive reuse of buildings and hinders the creation of vibrant spaces that allow our community to flourish and feel connected. To be fair, Anchorage reflects a national trend — there are eight parking spots for each car in the U.S. However, some cities are working to solve this problem, and we think ours should too.

Anchorage Municipal Code has parking minimums. Anytime new construction occurs or a change of use, code dictates the amount of parking required, often set for peak usage. Currently, a bowling alley requires four parking spots per bowling lane, as though league night is 24-hours-a-day, 7-days-a-week and each member of the team drives separately. Similarly, a golf course requires four spots per green. Hotels have a requirement of 0.9 parking spots for each room, plus one for every four seats in meeting rooms, effectively assuming the ‘No Vacancy’ light is always on and everyone drives. Clearly, it doesn’t make sense for maximum use to become a minimum standard.

Parking overbuilt to a level far exceeding normal usage creates vast swaths of empty space. Less land is available for development that adds value to our city. It is, therefore, worth exploring whether we should require minimums at all.

Our conversation about eliminating parking minimums should be grounded in three understandings: 1. This does not impact existing parking. 2. Builders, developers and business owners are incentivized to provide sufficient parking to attract tenants and customers, but eliminating minimums allows for free market experimentation. 3. Changing off-street parking requirements could affect on-street parking patterns; but impacts will be incremental (only with new developments or redevelopments), thus with little overall effect. Moreover, it is true that on-street parking already presents problems for street maintenance, but this is an enforcement issue.

Parking minimums raise the cost of housing when Anchorage has a critical need for affordable and middle market-rate housing. They make multi-family housing developments more expensive and often impossible to build. Portland, Oregon, provides a compelling case study. In 2004, an organization called ROSE Community Development built “Reedway Place,” offering 24 affordable housing units and 24 parking spaces. At the time, they were mandated to provide the same number of parking spots. In 2016, however, Portland waived parking requirements for all residential buildings near transit that included subsidized housing. The result was, across the street, ROSE Community Development was able to develop additional housing, “Woody Guthrie” (named after the singer-songwriter), that showed the benefit of being able to flip the balance: 64 housing units were built, with 29 parking spaces. The code change meant more land dedicated to housing people rather than storing cars or sitting empty.

Parking minimums place an especially costly burden on small, local entrepreneurs who want to revitalize existing buildings. We can transform and breathe new life into vacant properties across our city, but they are often held captive by mandatory parking minimums. The old La Mex on Spenard Road was purchased with the intent to turn it into a food hall, an up-and-coming model that is becoming very popular. Based on the current code, that establishment would need 146.25 parking spots — far larger than the current lot. Which is better for Anchorage — a revitalized building that is open for business, or a vacant building with an empty parking lot?

Parking minimums impede the walkability of our neighborhoods and spread out the city -- placing buildings farther apart with parking in between. It creates challenges to traverse the city on foot, on wheels, by bike, or by scooter because of the large expanses of land separated by fast-moving traffic. Our community feels less connected, more isolated, and dependent on cars. Parking minimums result in less vibrant and energized spaces. When spaces lack activation, they invite nefarious activity. Additionally, excess parking prevents property owners from developing more spaces with trees and grass, diminishing the natural beauty of Anchorage and replacing the splendor of Alaska with asphalt.

In the absence of parking minimums, we’ll still have parking— but we’ll be free to decide how much it’s worth to us and weigh its value against the other things we could do with the same finite, precious land. We’ll no longer be forced to build more parking than we really need.

Assemblymember Kevin Cross represents Chugiak/Eagle River.

Amanda Moser is a community organizer committed to creating places for human connection. She is a former executive director of Anchorage Downtown Partnership.

Eric Visser is the founder of Visser Construction and past president of Anchorage Home Builders Association.

Assemblymember Daniel Volland represents North Anchorage.

Emily Weiser, president of Bike Anchorage, is dedicated to improving Anchorage’s bike-transportation network, to help residents commute and run errands by bike.

The views expressed here are the writer’s and are not necessarily endorsed by the Anchorage Daily News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at)adn.com. Send submissions shorter than 200 words to letters@adn.com or click here to submit via any web browser. Read our full guidelines for letters and commentaries here.

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