Mayor-Elect Ted Wheeler Has Bigger Problems Than Your Parking Space

Upcoming City Council vote shows affordable housing now outranks auto parking as a Portland priority.

Portland Mayor Charlie Hales won election in 2012 by promising to force real estate developers to include onsite parking when they build large apartment buildings.

But four years later, Hales is reversing that decision for buildings near bus and MAX lines. And his successor, Mayor-elect Ted Wheeler, agrees it's time to end the ban on apartments without parking near transit.

Wheeler's reasoning: As rents continue to rise, cutting the cost of building new apartments is more important than making sure residents have access to parking.

"Given our current housing situation, these are not good trade-offs," says Wheeler spokesman Michael Cox. "There are more sophisticated tools available to achieve our transit and parking management goals."

Hales last week proposed reversing the parking requirements he shepherded through the City Council in 2013. A vote could come as soon as Nov. 17.

Portland's current rules require developers in most areas of the city to build onsite parking if the building has more than 30 units. (Hales' proposed change would exempt buildings close to transit lines.)

The shift at City Hall signals that tenant advocates, transportation activists and urban planners have joined forces against a common enemy: cars.

"Since 2012, we have a more apparent housing crisis and good reason to believe that parking minimums make things worse," says Tony Jordan of Portlanders for Parking Reform, formed last year. "The short-term effect has been to suppress the supply of new housing."

Hales' reversal in the final months of his administration is a return to his roots as an advocate of dense commercial corridors.

As a city commissioner in 2000, Hales helped author city zoning rules allowing developers to build apartments without including onsite parking ("Block Busters," WW, Sept. 18, 2012).

But Hales changed his mind during a tight race for Portland mayor.

Richard Melo, who championed the case for more parking in the Richmond neighborhood as part of now-defunct Richmond Neighbors for Responsible Growth, noted there were no guarantees that limiting parking would solve the problem of high rents.

"You can look at all the apartments that have gone up on Division," he says. "They're among the most expensive in Portland. They aren't providing affordable housing by getting rid of parking."

The change comes as the city is pushing a plan for inclusionary zoning, which would require developers to build affordable housing at any large apartment building. Parking is one more cost that could dissuade developers from accepting those new terms, a draft study from EcoNorthwest finds.

Earlier this year, in a sign that a shift was underway, the City Council declined to institute parking requirements in Northwest Portland, despite neighborhood concern over parking woes. It's not certain that a parking-minimum reversal will pass City Hall before Wheeler arrives. All but one city commissioner declined to say how they're voting.

Commissioner Amanda Fritz says she's against repealing the minimums.

"What she has been hearing across the city in the neighborhoods is that people want more parking, not less," says Tim Crail, Fritz's chief of staff.

Commissioner Steve Novick, who has championed density along transit corridors, says he wants to ensure the Portland Bureau of Transportation is "on track" to manage parking in other ways before deciding.

"Parking minimums run counter to two of our primary policy goals: promoting housing affordability and reducing carbon emissions," he says.

But housing advocates see a changed political landscape.

"It's an encouraging sign," says Ben Schonberger, a board member of Housing Land Advocates. "That argument [for parking] is harder to make when rents are rising and people are having a trouble finding housing."

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