Ulupono Initiative transportation guru Katie Rooney loves to talk parking, and as we chatted Friday she swiftly started to build a compelling case for the massive, overlooked role it plays in our quality of life on this small, crowded island.

A single “free” parking space in a typical Honolulu parking garage costs around $50,000 to build, and a city ordinance often forces developers to build hundreds of them.

That drives up rent and housing costs, she argued, in a town that’s already facing a dire affordable housing crisis. The city’s parking requirements haven’t been updated in three decades and they limit what can be built. Sometimes, they block new homes and retail from being built altogether.

Reforms could be on the horizon, however. On Wednesday, the Honolulu City Council will take up a measure to eliminate the city’s mandatory minimum parking requirements on future development in urban areas. If approved, it would be the first major overhaul of parking rules in 30 years.

Cars sit parked at Ala Moana Shopping Center. The city’s requirements to build a minimum amount of parking, based on land use and square footage, can drive up the cost of new developments by millions of dollars, officials say. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Rooney and others believe that with millenials looking to drive less, there’s growing local demand for housing that doesn’t include costly on-site parking.

“That’s your target market, but that market can’t really be developed here,” Rooney explained. “We build these (parking) structures for this hypothetical peak demand … and what we’re finding is there’s still plenty of space” left over.

“That’s an expensive decision,” she said.

For years now, Oahu’s leaders have been struggling to fix the island’s growing affordability crisis. Have we overlooked parking as a key culprit this whole time?

Betting On The Market

Bill 2 would leave it to developers and their read on the market to decide how much parking they need instead of the city. These are the parking garages and lots — not the on-street parking spaces mostly controlled by the city and state.

A number of developers looking to build on smaller, constricted lots in Honolulu have asked to “let the market decide because (they) know best who’s occupying units,” said Katia Balassiano, who heads the city Department of Permitting and Planning’s land-use permits division.

“That made a lot of sense to us.”

For some projects, developers would likely keep the same amount of parking because those spaces would remain a strong selling point, Rooney and city officials said. In other cases, however, they’d probably look to build fewer spaces.

“At the high-end market … what we see is they have a tendency to build over the requirements,” Rooney said. “It’s just that we never get to see anybody build under because it’s not allowed legally.”

Still, city planners have observed the new condo towers appearing in Kakaako in recent years, built under state regulations, and “we think that they’ve probably built more parking than is needed,” Balassiano said.

DPP has also been gathering its own community feedback for the past two years as it looks to overhaul Honolulu’s land-use ordinance, including the parking requirements. Agency officials believe Bill 2 would help spur redevelopment in the city’s older, commercial areas such as Waialae and Nuuanu avenues.

Developers could continue to provide however much parking they see fit, but Bill 2 would notably prohibit them from selling those spaces as part of a condo or apartment purchase in future buildings. Under current regulations, developers are always required to provide at least some parking that’s based on the building’s size and its use.

Instead, it would leave it to the buyers to lease the spaces they need through an association that would manage the parking supply.

DPP officials hope the unbundling might offer flexibility and make home prices more affordable. Existing buildings wouldn’t change under the new rules, they say.

The new spaces could potentially be leased to nearby business employees during the day. The 801 South development in Kakaako already does that for employees of The Queen’s Medical Center, the DPP officials said.

From Mayors release. Right, Chief Resilience Officer Josh Stanbro, Honolulu Climate Change Commission Vice Chair Dr. Chip Fletcher, who is one of the authors of the Hawaiʻi and U.S.-Affiliated Pacific Islands chapter of the report, and Honolulu Climate Change Commission Member Dr. Victoria Keener, who serves as the NCA Chapter Lead. The Assessment, released last Friday by 13 federal agencies including NOAA, details a multitude of current and future impacts of climate change in Hawaiʻi and the broader U.S
Honolulu Chief Resilience Officer Josh Stanbro on the proposal to lift parking requirements: “We’re just trying to get out of the way.” 

At the same time, Bill 2 would require more parking where it is really needed — in valleys packed with single-family homes such as Kalihi, Manoa and Palolo, said Alex Beatty, a DPP planner.

It remains to be seen whether a majority of the City Council will support the measure.

“I’m willing to have the conversation, with the administration and with the public, but I need additional details,” Council Chairman Ikaika Anderson said Tuesday. “I’m willing to listen at this point, but it’s premature for me to form an opinion right now.”

San Diego similarly lifted its own minimum parking requirements last year in dense parts of the city that are well-served by public transit.

“It really was the effort to change the opportunities for affordable housing in San Diego” and meet the city’s goal for 50% of residents to use transit, bike or walk by 2035, said Alyssa Muto, one of San Diego’s top city planners.

Some community groups raised concerns that the change would cause parking to spill over into the surrounding neighborhood, but “our real hope” is the developments “would provide supply to a demand that’s already out there” — for residents who don’t want to rely on a car, Muto said.

San Diego has started to see applications for developments with fewer parking spaces than were previously required — and more housing units, she said.

“In Waikiki, you could definitely see some of that infill (smaller development in dense areas) start to happen where parking wouldn’t be needed,” Muto added.

Honolulu environmental advocates have another goal in mind: reducing car trips and the greenhouse gas emissions that come with them.

“If we prioritize the living space and the walking space, that’s what people will do, and if we prioritize car storage that’s what people will do,” said Josh Stanbro, Honolulu’s Chief Resilience Officer, who works to address climate change issues. “Currently, we are car centric.”

Stanbro believes lifting the parking requirements in Oahu’s urban areas seems like a no-brainer. It’s a rare policy that both advocates for more progressive urban planning and staunch free-market advocates like the Grassroot Institute should be able to support.

“We’re just trying to get out of the way,” Stanbro said of Bill 2. “We want more units for people rather than storage for cars. We think the market can better decide”

 The Ulupono Initiative was founded by Pierre and Pam Omidyar. Pierre Omidyar is the CEO and publisher of Civil Beat. 

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