Who’s the parking for?

Syracuse’s draft zoning ordinance requires properties used for different kinds of things to have different numbers of parking spaces. 1-family houses must have 1 parking space, grocery stores must have 1 parking space for every 300 square feet of floor space, golf courses must have 2 parking spaces for every hole, and so on.

The draft ordinance also includes mechanisms that can reduce those requirements in certain situations. Properties located in certain zoning districts and properties located on bus lines can reduce the total number of required parking spaces by anywhere from 15% to 50%, properties located nearby public parking lots and properties with street parking can count those spaces towards their total requirement, and so on.

A single property can qualify for more than one of these parking requirement reductions. If a barber shop would normally need 4 parking spaces, but it qualifies for a 50% reduction because of it’s zoning district, and there are 2 on-street spaces along its property line, then those two reductions combine to reduce the barber shop’s parking requirement to 0 spaces.

At least, that’s how it would have been before City Hall capped the total cumulative reduction for any property at 75% in the March 2018 revision of the draft ordinance. Now, as a result of this new cap, that barber shop would still need to find space on its lot for at least 1 off-street parking space.

This cap will have a huge effect on the housing market in Syracuse’s inner neighborhoods. These neighborhoods are mostly zoned R-2 or higher, meaning that they’re full of 2 and 3-family houses. Residential properties like those must have 1 parking space per dwelling unit (a 2-family home needs 2 spaces, a 3-family home needs 3 spaces, and so on). In previous drafts of the zoning ordinance, these homes could meet their parking requirements with on-street spaces. As of March 2018, however, because of this new 75% cap, the draft ordinance requires that every residential structure that can house at least 2 families have at least 1 off-street parking space.

This cap won’t affect any of Syracuse’s outer neighborhoods. Those neighborhoods are zoned almost entirely R-1, so they are made up of 1-family houses, each of which is only required to have 1 parking space. Once you account for the street-parking space out front of each of those houses and apply the new 75% cap, then each house is required to have .25 parking spaces. The draft ordinance rounds that down to 0.

The result is that in areas zoned R-1, all new residential development will be exempt from parking requirements, while in areas zoned R-2 or higher, a lot of residential development will not be exempt from parking requirements (Downtown is also exempt from all parking requirements).

Areas where all residential development is exempt from parking requirements

Syracuse’s inner neighborhoods are some of the best places to live in the entire County if you’re trying to make a life without a car. Neighborhoods like Hawley-Green and the Near Westside have relatively good bus service, a mix of businesses within walking distance, and easy access to the jobs Downtown and on University Hill. That’s why the people living in those neighborhoods are much more likely to go without a car than the people living in Syracuse’s outer neighborhoods like Strathmore and Meadowbrook.

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Percentage of carless households by census tract

When you combine these two maps, it becomes clear just how insane the draft ordinance’s minimum parking requirements are. They require off-street parking for the people least likely to own cars, but they don’t make similar demands of the people most likely to own cars.

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City Hall needs to amend the draft zoning ordinance to fix this problem. They could remove the 75% cap on parking minimum reductions. If a property is on a bus line and nearby a public parking lot, it makes sense to give the property owner credit for having set up in a spot where off-street parking isn’t necessary. The arbitrary 75% cap is just a way of saying that people in Syracuse shouldn’t try to make the best use of shared resources, and that’s not a message worth sending in a city that doesn’t have enough resources as it is.

City Hall could also amend the draft zoning ordinance to say “When measurements of the number of required spaces result in a fractional number, the fraction shall be rounded down to the nearest whole number.” For example, a project requiring 2.25 spaces would only actually have to build 2 spaces, and a project requiring 2.75 spaces would also only actually have to build 2 spaces. Even with the 75% cap, this would make 1-family, 2-family, and 3-family houses eligible for exemption from any parking requirements.

City Hall could also count on-street parking spaces in front of a property towards the total required number of spaces for any property after applying the 75% cap on parking minimum reductions. Allowing on-street parking to substitute for off-street parking in this way would allow 1-family houses and small scale apartments to meet their parking requirements without having to build off-street parking.

Those small changes would do a lot to make the zoning ordinance better, but it’d really be best to just trash parking requirements entirely. They’re awful, ham-fisted solutions to a problem best solved by individuals. If a developer builds an apartment without off-street parking, they’ll get tenants who don’t own cars or who don’t mind finding on-street parking. Other people who value off-street parking will pay a little extra to rent or buy some other housing that includes a place to store a car. There’s no reason for parking lots to line James and Salina Streets when so many of the people living there don’t drive, and there’s no way that eliminating parking requirements will get people living in Meadowbrook to give up their driveways and garages.

That might be too much to ask in a town as car obsessed as this one. Whatever–any of those more technical fixes would be good enough. All that matters is that this new zoning ordinance not make it even harder to make a life in this City without a car.