Why Would Portland Expand an Old Town Public Parking Garage When It’s Trying to Reduce Carbon Emissions?

Critics say spending public dollars on car parking is bad policy.

(Wesley Lapointe)

On a drab corner in Portland's Old Town sits a dinosaur.

It's a four-story parking garage, a tower of cars with a helicopter pad on top. The 409 parking spaces in the garage are used by shoppers, workers and students. A space costs $1.80 for the first hour.

By the city's own admission, car parking is a relic of an auto-dependent, fossil-fuel-guzzling age—an era City Hall is trying to phase out as the planet rapidly warms.

"Climate change is the greatest environmental challenge of the 21st century," reads the city's Climate Action Plan. "It poses a serious threat not just to Oregon's natural treasures—forests, mountain snows and rivers—but also to our jobs and our health."

So it came as a surprise to sustainability advocates when the Portland Bureau of Transportation this spring began exploring a possible expansion of the publicly owned lot, located at Northwest Naito Parkway and Davis Street, by as many as three more stories and 392 parking spaces—nearly doubling its size, according to an analysis obtained by WW. The expansion would cost as much as $17.9 million.

"It's pretty simple: Every parking space we build is another car that drives into the middle of this city," says Michael Andersen of the Sightline Institute, a Northwest sustainability think tank. "We've already spent $4 billion building other ways to get into the middle of this city. It seems like we should be helping people take advantage of that, rather than helping people take advantage of the thing we're actively trying to discourage."

That raises a question: If the city accepts the fact of climate change—and, with it, the necessity of slashing global emissions to 45 percent of 2010 levels within 11 years, as a 2018 United Nations report makes clear is necessary to avoid the worst of climate change—why would it expand the lot at all?

Critics say it's bad policy.

"Since the largest sector of greenhouse gas emissions is transportation, and the small trucks and cars are the largest part of that, driving is a big part of how climate change happens," says Tony Jordan, founder of Portlanders for Parking Reform, who quit his job late last year to advocate for climate action full time. "And building more parking, or providing cheap parking, is inviting more people to drive."

In March, PBOT received an analysis from the Walker Consultants on four cost scenarios for a garage expansion. PBOT has a $540,000 contract with the consultants to analyze the maintenance needs of four garages. About $200,000 is for the Davis garage expansion analysis.

The analysis considers a range of options. To add 126 new spaces, PBOT could convert the helipad to parking for $2.7 million. For 392 new spaces, with no helipad but three new floors: $14.1 million. For 266 new spaces and to keep the helipad: $14.3 million, unless the garage is kept open during construction, which would bring the cost to $17.9 million.

Portland transportation officials say they aren't trying to increase parking in Old Town—but maintain the same number of spaces during a construction boom.

City officials and business leaders both argue that new development in Old Town is eliminating surface lots, and will soon create a parking shortage. They believe they need an expanded garage for small businesses.

"Surface parking lots in Old Town are being redeveloped, and that parking is being lost for public use," says PBOT spokesman John Brady. "Adding parking in the garage would be a way to balance out the loss of the surface lot parking. In this way, there wouldn't be any net increase of parking in the district, just the replacement of lost parking due to development."

Helen Ying, chair of the Old Town Community Association, says the neighborhood has pushed the city to look at expanding the garage for years.

"We're not asking for more," she says. "We're asking for sustaining what we have."

A parking garage in Old Town. (Wesley Lapointe)

The office of Commissioner Chloe Eudaly, who oversees PBOT, expressed skepticism when contacted by WW.

"First, this is far from decided," says Marshall Runkel, Eudaly's chief of staff. He says private developers are already building some parking in their projects. "The question is, as new development occurs and surface lots disappear in Old Town, does the parking need to be replaced? It will be very difficult to convince Commissioner Eudaly that the city should invest in parking."

The city's climate action goals call for reducing car trips per capita by 30 percent of 2008 levels by 2030.

But the percentage of Portland residents commuting alone by car has fallen by less than 3 percentage points since 2010.

"We have an explicit commitment to reduce auto use below current levels," says Andersen. "Why would we take action, particularly with public dollars, that we're risking, that could also be having many, many uses? It doesn't make any sense."

To be sure, the bureau has embarked on an ambitious effort to redesign the central city: adding bus lanes and bike paths that would ultimately eliminate 1,000 parking spaces.

PBOT says the Old Town garage is the only location in the city where the agency is looking to expand parking spaces. (Prosper Portland, the city's economic development wing, is building parking for the Convention Center hotel. And TriMet plans to build new park-and-ride garages for the proposed Southwest Corridor lines.)

Regardless, Portland has limited the amount of parking that private developers can build downtown as part of an effort to control the number of cars in the central city. In most of the Old Town-Chinatown neighborhood, developers can build only one parking spot for every 1,000 square feet of office space, or 1.2 spots for every new apartment.

Andersen argues City Hall simply shouldn't subsidize car use—especially when the financial prospects are uncertain in an age of Uber, Lyft and self-driving cars.
"It may be that people like me—who think it's possible for us to change the way we move around—are hopelessly idealist, and people are happy to pay for parking and will continue to do so despite all the aggravations of driving and the fact we're destroying the planet by doing so," says Andersen. "And if that's the case, [private businesses] should be able to do that on their own. It doesn't have to be subsidized by the public."

Parking reform advocate Jordan says PBOT should stick to its stated values.

"What I think is missing," he says, "is a mandate and leadership to make changes, because there's a widespread conventional wisdom that messing with parking is political suicide."

A parking garage in Old Town. (Wesley Lapointe)

Price Them Out

City Hall and the Oregon Legislature have embraced a concept for reducing car trips: tolling interstate highways. But that requires federal approval, and faces a challenge at the ballot box.

Local transit advocates say the city could act now—by adopting congestion pricing for parking spaces.

In other words, it could increase the price of parking by taxing private sector parking spaces, which cost as little as $7.50 a day for a monthly spot. With price increases and taxes, city officials could price people out of their cars and onto TriMet trains and buses.

"You could have a tax on downtown all-day parking garages, and that would effectively be a congestion charge for commuters into the city of Portland," says parking reform advocate Tony Jordan. "Cars cause climate change, and cars need to park somewhere, and if you charge more and build less, fewer cars will park there."

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