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Housing without parking helps city thrive


My View: Advocates of off-street parking have own interests in mind

It’s Tom McCall’s 100th birthday this year. If he were around today, he would be furious about the effort to mandate parking requirements on new housing developments in Portland.

Why would former Gov. McCall, famous for saving Oregon farmland and beaches, be enraged? Because the Portland City Council is about to cave in to a bunch of angry, self-styled “neighborhood preservationists” who are really just about keeping the free lunch they’ve enjoyed courtesy of you and me.

A little background: More than 20 years ago, in order to shore up a collapsed housing market in inner Portland (and to further the city’s climate change goals of promoting carless mobility), the City Council removed off-street parking requirements from housing developments along streets with good transit service.

This was intended to get more housing units built in a city clobbered by a freeway-fueled flight to the suburbs, the severe economic downturn of the ‘80s, and the drug wars of the ‘90s. It took some time for the housing market to catch up to the aspirations of the city leaders, but with the resurgence of interest in the inner city, especially among the young and retirees, housing demand is booming and developers are meeting this demand.

Now a vocal minority, backed by ridiculously rigged “neighborhood surveys,” is complaining that housing without parking is somehow anti-neighborhood when it’s about the smartest thing the city can do to keep Portland thriving, livable and equitable.

Let’s look at the facts. Throughout inner neighborhoods on the east and the west sides of Portland are hundreds of single-family homes, as well as apartment buildings, without off-street parking. “Traditional” Portland neighborhoods weren’t designed around the car; rather, they were built around walking and streetcars.

I know. I live here and have for more than 30 years, just off Northeast Broadway, without off-street parking, with a large, parking-less apartment building across the street. I’ve rarely had to walk more than 50 feet from my front door to get to my car — when I needed it. And I raised two boys, went grocery shopping and got to work on time.

Requiring parking anywhere in any city makes little sense and here’s a short list of the reasons:

n It leads to higher housing prices. In the end, requiring parking — which costs up to $20,000 a spot — is inequitable and discriminatory. More expensive housing drives the young, the less well-off, and families out of the city.

n It wastes valuable land. The most valuable land in the region is in the inner city. Why use it to store cars when it could be used for more places to live — or for a location-dependent business?

n It increases pressure to convert farmland to sprawl. Under Oregon’s land-use planning system that Tom McCall fought so hard for, whenever there isn’t enough space in our cities to accommodate more people, we have to bring more precious farmland into the urban growth boundary to accommodate them.

n It means fewer customers for local businesses. More parking equals less housing equals fewer nearby residents — and fewer customers.

n It leads to more driving. When parking is more difficult, people own fewer cars, drive less and many choose transit, bikes and car-sharing instead.

n It leads to worse air quality and more dangerous streets. More car use equals more pollution equals more people killed and injured.

When the advocates of requiring off-street parking claim they are protecting “tradition,” watch your wallet. What they really want is for everyone else to pay for required off-street parking while they get to keep “their” parking spot in front of their home — and damn the consequences. If we are to protect the Oregon legacy of smart urban development and our farms and forests, we need wisdom, not politics, to guide public policy.

The Portland City Council will consider amendments to force housing developments along transit corridors to build parking spaces instead of housing units at 2 p.m. Thursday, April 4. I wish former Gov. McCall — with his passion and poetry — could be here to argue for saving our community from this short-sightedness.

McCall won’t be here, so it’s up to us to fight for Oregon’s future.

Rex Burkholder is a Northeast Portland resident who served 12 years on the Metro Council.