‘Devoted To Parking’: Policies That Hurt Our Town

Planning and Zoning Commissioner

This is the second op-ed I’m writing on downtown revitalization, an issue that is coming before Los Alamos County Council on Tuesday, May 2, 2023: My focus here is urging Council to accept the Planning and Zoning Commission’s unanimous recommendation on gently reducing parking mandates. (The first op-ed looks into the issue of building heights.) If residents of Los Alamos are tired of the drab/depressing downtown with its ocean of empty parking lots and vacant buildings, and want to see that area instead filled with housing and retail, I encourage them to reach out to Council as well.

For the full picture on P&Z’s recommendation, see the P&Z agenda packet from the March 8 meeting, watch that meeting on Granicus, or scroll to the bottom of this op-ed. Also: Note that I am a P&Z Commissioner but speak only for myself and not the Commission.

Here’s the background on the parking issue: The 2022 Development Code update originally had some mild reductions on parking requirements, in accordance with all our city’s policy guides. In November 2022, P&Z approved these reductions and sent the draft along to Council. That Council didn’t like these reductions, overrode the recommendation, and went back to an older model of requiring more parking. After hearing concerns from the community, Council sent this issue (and the building heights issue) back to P&Z for review. In March 2023, we reviewed it, and we passed along two fresh new recommendations to a fresh new Council: scroll to the end to see our recommendation on parking. 

Readers may find themselves asking, as I did when the issue first came to us, Why does this matter? Isn’t free and abundant parking awesome? Why would anyone want to reduce it?

The first point that’s critical to understand is that reducing minimum parking requirements isn’t the same as banning parking: parking minimums are exactly that: the minimum the government requires the developer to build. Any developer is free to build over that minimum and they often do, more on this later. The second thing we have to understand is that “free parking” is not, as it turns out, free. It has a cost, and a heavy one.

As our agenda packet stated, parking mandates are “a regulatory tool” cities use to control growth—more mandated parking means less retail and less housing. Downtown Los Alamos and White Rock already have made a third of their developable land into parking, which is an enormous, polluting, expensive waste of land in a landlocked county. Each parking space can cost upwards of $30k to build. P&Z also learned that builders have backed out of redeveloping the CB Fox building, among other empty downtown buildings, precisely 

because onerous parking mandates made the projects too expensive. County staff said there’s been interest in redeveloping that building as mixed-use, but the math only works for builders if they aren’t forced to give over significant square footage to expensive parking. And so? The CB Fox building, at the heart of our downtown, remains empty. 

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This dead-ending is not new. Our 2019 Housing Market Needs Analysis (see image) says, “new mixed-use projects that are meeting the intent of County policy have bumped up against building height and parking limits.” To address this, the plan recommends policies that would “reduce the land area devoted to surface parking.” 

 That verb, “devoted,” is doing a lot of work here. Our town, the town I grew up in, truly has been devoted to surface parking, and it’s not working out well for us. It’s not a coincidence that “parking and building heights,” the two key issues mentioned in this 2019 document, are the same two issues Council faces today. And it’s not a coincidence that downtown has been blighted for years—since well before the pandemic. Council after Council has failed to follow the policy plans that would allow our downtown to be revitalized. Our newest Council now has an opportunity to remedy this persistent problem. The question is: will they? 

Previous Council concerns include people not being able to find parking during peak use (summer concerts), and/or residents north of downtown worrying that people will park in the neighborhood, reducing the public curb spaces they are used to having to themselves. To the first point, I have two responses: a) asphalting large chunks of real estate in a land-poor town for a few days of intensive use is not good land-use policy; and b) transit planners are working on ways to reduce parking needs during peak use, such as by having a park-and-ride shuttle to transport summer concert-goers. On the overflow-parking situation: there are many tools cities use to manage that problem as it arises—I understand the frustration, but it is certainly a problem that can be managed in better ways than forcing developers to overbuild parking.

Something I never thought about before becoming a Commissioner is how weird it is that the government ever got involved in parking. It’s as if cars could vote—everything revolves around them. We often hear that housing is a human right, but parking is what we mandate? Is that really where our values lie? Reducing or eliminating mandates doesn’t mean getting rid of parking, it just gives builders more flexibility. Developers are invested in supplying enough of any amenity to make a project work—if they don’t build enough closets, bathrooms, cabinets, or parking, their project doesn’t succeed. It is not a given they will under-build. Some cities have even put a maximum on parking, not a minimum: too much asphalt doesn’t fit a city’s sustainability goals, and developers left to their own devices sometimes build too much parking. (I’m looking at you, Kroger.)

Los Alamos demographically is older than most New Mexico towns, so the words of the AARP are salient. The  AARP states that “zoning codes adopted during the second half of the 20th century make it difficult or even illegal to create Main Streets and downtowns that feature storefronts with apartments above them. Many people would like the option of having a small café or market within walking distance of their home. Many would like to walk to work or downsize into a smaller home in the same community where they already live. Yet current rules and zoning codes often prevent businesses from locating in or near residential areas, and they often prevent a mix of housing types such as multi-family homes in neighborhoods with single-family houses.” In another article, the AARP notes that “Off-street parking requirements have a tremendous impact on the financial and physical feasibility of Missing Middle Housing. In most instances requiring more than one parking space per unit, with no guest parking, is a barrier. Ideally, parking requirements will be removed completely, allowing the market to determine the amount of parking needed or not.”

As all our own policy documents indicate, and as a glance at Google Earth will show, Los Alamos has overbuilt parking. This overbuilding is not without consequence: Parking structures and surface lots are incredibly expensive to construct, and the cost of building and maintaining these spaces are passed on to tenants in the form of higher rent. This makes mixed-use developments less affordable and less accessible for a wider range of residents and businesses. We want people to have a parking space when they need it, but not forced to pay for parking when they don’t. We also want people with mobility challenges to be able to move around our downtowns easily. 

If pro-tenant arguments aren’t convincing enough, perhaps an appeal to environmentalism will have an impact: parking mandates discourage the use of more environmentally-friendly modes of transportation. When parking is perceived as plentiful and free, it nudges people to drive rather than walk, bike, or take public transportation. This increases traffic congestion, carbon emissions, and polluted water runoff. It makes a town less walkable and less attractive to pedestrians and cyclists. The reason so many American towns are covered in strip malls and thick with traffic is our strange American obsession with parking mandates. I encourage those concerned about the climate, and concerned about our children, to think about what kind of town—and planet!—we are leaving for future generations if we don’t rethink our relationship to cars.

Those still unswayed should consider that parking mandates create an uneven playing field for businesses. Requiring businesses to build parking disadvantages smaller or less-established businesses that may not have the resources to build or maintain large parking lots or structures. A big business like Kroger can overbuild parking and not feel a thing, while smaller developers will struggle to pencil a project that mandates, as Los Alamos does, 10 parking spaces for every 1000 square feet of bar/tavern—twice the requirement for retail, and a baffling policy when you consider that it encourages more drinkers to drive. (P&Z has recommended changing this, see below.)

Los Alamos’s leadership has an opportunity to join leaders all over the US in making pro-housing, pro-small-business policies. We have the plans and policies in place, but we need our leaders to see them through. Many cities have been far bolder than ours—and it’s going really well. Slowly, when parking mandates are reduced, infill begins. Housing is created where abandoned buildings once stood. An efficient, walkable city begins to take shape, with a compact, water-wise, climate-friendly downtown. Housing and vibrant retail replace blight and asphalt. Los Alamos isn’t alone in historically overbuilding parking: America has 8 parking spaces for every car: As the AARP put it, we need to prioritize housing over parking. 

Our P&Z Commission isn’t recommending anything revolutionary. We’re certainly not saying “ban parking,” we didn’t even suggest a parking cap. Nor did we recommend getting rid of mandates altogether (as cities truly invested in housing are doing), we merely recommended reducing parking requirements slightly here and there: scroll to the bottom for precise details. Although I personally would like to go much further, do what the AARP recommends, and see commensurately more housing and retail, I hope the compromise P&Z recommended on March 8 satisfies Council. 

I urge Council to bear in mind that every inch of land they mandate for parking reduces the amount of available space for housing and retail. We often hear how there is “no land left to build on,” an argument that is both true, since we are landlocked, and hollow, since we have a fair amount of land we’ve asphalted that sits there, unused. If Council approves this recommendation, parking will not vanish, nor will buildings pop up like daisies after a rain: construction is still expensive, labor is still short, there will be time to assess as we go.

At the May 2 meeting, or through an email, please encourage Council to break out of the status quo and accept the compromise recommendations from P&Z, which prepares the way for downtown revitalization and more housing for our workforce.

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P&Z’s recommended changes to the Ch. 16 Development code re: parking

Editor’s note: You may also submit a letter to the editor to maire@losalamosreporter.com