How Much Parking Does One City Need? The Anchorage Assembly eliminates parking requirements city wide
The Anchorage Assembly voted unanimously to wipe out parking requirements citywide; the amount of parking is left to the judgment of individual developers.
Hunting for a parking space can be frustrating, but excess parking spaces can plague a city and its inhabitants in quiet yet pernicious ways.
“Right now, we have these huge surface area parking lots that push everything farther apart. It extends the distance that people have to navigate our city if they’re on foot, if they’re not in a car,” says Daniel Volland, who joined the Anchorage Assembly in 2022 when a twelfth district was added to the body, representing the Downtown area. He adds that navigating is even harder for pedestrians with mobility disabilities, due to poor infrastructure.
Parking lots also add to the scarcity of developable land in the Anchorage Bowl. “I’ve heard many times over the years, people say Anchorage is running out of land,” says Jeannette Lee, a senior researcher with the Sightline Institute. “Well, how about, actually, Anchorage is using its land very inefficiently, with parking mandates being one example of that.”
From her Anchorage office, Lee is the Alaska lead for the Oregon-based nonprofit that advocates on housing, urban policy, and governance issues. She co-authored a report about parking mandates, citing a city-funded study that found one-quarter of spaces were empty during peak periods. Only four out of thirty-five sites surveyed filled all the parking required by Anchorage’s land use code, Title 21.
The Sightline report noted other problems associated with overbuilding of parking, such as paving over natural areas, the urban heat island effect, and added costs for housing and business development.
For all those reasons, the Anchorage Assembly voted unanimously in November to wipe out parking requirements citywide. Effective January 23, 2023, the amount of parking is left to the judgment of individual developers.
Title 21 listed more than 100 business and housing types and assigned each a minimum number of parking spots required. “For instance, if you were a bowling alley in Anchorage, you had to have four parking spaces for every one bowling lane,” Volland explains. “You’re constantly assuming that nobody carpools and that every night is league night and it’s always maximum capacity.”
Dictating the use of land outdoors could constrain the use of interior space. Michelle Klouda, a principal and owner at RIM Architects, faced that obstacle during the renovation of the Midtown Mall. “When you go into that parking lot, half of it is empty, and the development costs to bring that parking lot up to the current standards for landscaping and so on was pretty high,” she recalls. “But it also restricts the ability for that property to be able to expand its footprint. We were limited in the uses that we put into that building, so we changed some of the uses [so they] didn’t exceed the parking that was currently there.”
Variances were possible but not easy to obtain. Turnagain Brewing near Taku Lake spent a year on a parking study after city authorities discovered that the property was six spots shy of the minimum. The study confirmed what the brewery already knew: there’s plenty of parking on King Street during evening hours when the venue is open. The company was one of about twenty that year to receive a variance.
Volland notes that another brewer wanted to convert parking spots into a garden with tables, which slammed against the minimum requirement. Alaska Behavioral Health also had to postpone a clinic expansion because it couldn’t afford to add parking.
“You may preclude certain types of businesses from going in there based on the amount of parking that is required,” he says. “What is better for Anchorage: an empty building with ample parking or a revitalized building that’s open for business?”
The new South Anchorage branch of Credit Union 1 was recently built in compliance with the previous Title 21 parking minimum, whether all the spaces were needed or not.
Why do cities inflict parking mandates on themselves, if the rules are so onerous? Because they are supposed to solve the problem of not enough parking.
“If a private developer does not have enough parking, what happens? Where does the demand created by that use find parking? On streets or on a neighboring private property,” explains former municipal planner Tyler Robinson, now vice president of community development, real estate, and planning at Cook Inlet Housing Authority.
As written, Title 21 requirements were never a guarantee of sufficient parking. “When you see a parking ‘problem,’ where demand seems to exceed supply, it may very well be on a site that meets or even exceeds code,” says Robinson. “Think about popular restaurants or busy lunch hour gyms or health clubs.”
For instance, Bear Tooth Theatrepub added an extra parking lot when a restaurant was added to the former Denali Theater, to comply with code, yet visitors often spill onto side streets. The business is a victim of its own success.
“In a city designed around cars, the default mode of thinking is that, yes, we should require, often at great expense, vehicle parking, but not bicycle parking or pedestrian facilities,” Volland says. “How do you weigh those values?”
The ordinance that passed the Assembly began with the municipal planning department exploring a more modest revision in certain areas of the city. The proposal caught Volland’s eye as a vehicle for broader change, and he found support from another new member, Kevin Cross. A former chair of the Anchorage Platting Board, Cross represents a conservative constituency in Chugiak/Eagle River, yet his interests aligned with Volland’s progressive
The unanimous vote, Volland says, was a result of showing how the ordinance could be a positive win for everyone. On one hand, it shreds bureaucratic red tape, the bane of the Assembly’s conservative wing. On the other, it advances progressive goals with broad appeal.
The role of Sightline Institute during the debate was to provide a national context, Lee says. “Even the planning department wanted to know, rightly so, what happened in other cities when they took away parking mandates. Is our city going to run out of parking spots the day after we do this? Are people going to be cruising the streets and snarling up the roads looking for parking? We were able to say no.”
Lee points to the examples of Buffalo, New York; Minneapolis, Minnesota; and Edmonton, Alberta. “All these places have done away with parking mandates,” she says. “They’re snowy, cold cities too, and it’s been fine and actually beneficial.”
When the Anchorage Assembly abolished parking mandates in November, Mayor Dave Bronson congratulated them by posting this image of a lot being converted into Block 96 Flats (although, being downtown, it was not subject to the mandate).
“Is our city going to run out of parking spots the day after we do this? Are people going to be cruising the streets and snarling up the roads looking for parking? We were able to say no.”
Buffalo was the first US city to abolish parking minimums for new development. In more than five years since, vacant and underutilized structures have come back to life.
When new projects are built in Anchorage, they will have more flexibility. “A multi-family over twenty-five dwelling units or commercial over 20,000 square feet, there’s a menu of options they can choose from,” Volland explains. “They can pick which requirement fits their development best. Things like an enhanced pedestrian walkway or having more bike storage than what is required. Paying for their tenants to have transit, things like that.”
Volland notes that market-based incentives are already working in the one part of Anchorage that hasn’t had parking requirements since the ‘60s: his own Downtown district. He cites the examples of Elizabeth Place, recently built by the Central Council of Tlingit & Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska, and the new developments at Block 96 Flats and at Block 41, where the 4th Avenue Theatre stood until recently. “They are all including parking despite the fact that they don’t have to,” Volland says. “Why? They know that their customers and their tenants are going to want it.”
Klouda envisions similar developments spreading out citywide. “Right now, it generally doesn’t pencil for developers, so they’re not ambitious in developing residential. But if they were able to increase the square footage of their residential property, decrease square footage of the parking requirements of the lot—they begin to get more units on that property and begin to start to make things actually pencil out,” she says.
“And it doesn’t mean that no new parking will ever get built here,” Lee adds. “Just that it’ll be up to the people who know their projects best—Alaskans expanding their businesses or building the new homes and apartments that we need—to make the call on how much parking to include in their designs.”
What about the free-rider problem that parking mandates were meant to solve? “I don’t think we’re going to have a tragedy of the commons situation,” Volland says. He notes that his optometry clinic in Downtown, Ursa Optical, pays for parking as part of his lease, despite the lack of a mandate.
Klouda is also optimistic, if a little more cautious. “There is going to be a conflict in that, especially in the near future, especially if our public transportation is not up to the ability to take that over,” she says. “But we’re also looking at good operators, good building owners. They’re trying to make it successful.”
As a bonus, Klouda points out that the city benefits by trading empty space for taxable improvements. “Just the amount of building development that could happen versus parking,” she says, “that ratio of more building that’s on that property means that assessed value of that property is higher. Which means more taxes. Which means more money back into the city.”
“In a city designed around cars, the default mode of thinking is that, yes, we should require, often at great expense, vehicle parking, but not bicycle parking or pedestrian facilities… How do you weigh those values?”
People, Not Cars
Because the ordinance only affects new developments, “People are not going to see radical change overnight or even over the course of a year or two,” Lee says. “It’ll be really incremental.”
Robinson wonders what the future holds. Will older properties redevelop, as promised? Will new developments build fewer spaces than the old minimums? Will streets be built with more parking capacity? Will transit ridership increase?
“I’m not sure I have the answers to what will happen overall,” Robinson says. He can only speak for Cook Inlet Housing Authority. “We will analyze each development specific to its location, environs, and anticipated tenant characteristics. In some cases this means that we’ll provide less parking than what would have been required in code, but in some cases it may be more. We develop and hold property for the long-term, so we will be careful to calibrate our parking needs to our anticipated tenant demand,” he says.
Volland’s larger vision is a city designed for people, not cars. “When new developments go in, they can decide to have less of a suburban sprawl,” he says. That should lead to more affordable housing, adaptive reuse, more livable spaces, and multi-modal travel as an alternative to cars.
Those goals are shared by the Project Anchorage task force, which Mayor Dave Bronson formed in September as a response to a report by consulting firm Roger Brooks International. “Secret shoppers” scouted Anchorage in 2022, evaluating the city as a destination for tourists and businesses.
“We had fantastic views from the windows in our hotel room at the Captain Cook,” the consultant’s report said, “but it really showed us that downtown Anchorage has an overabundance of surface parking lots. During our stays, these parking lots were never full.” Echoing a report from May by The American Institute of Architects, Roger Brooks International suggested filling surface parking with more residential and commercial structures.
The task force parallels the Roadmap to a Vital and Safe Anchorage, an initiative of the Anchorage Chamber of Commerce that Klouda has been involved in. One of its goals is to provide more robust opportunities for residents to not need a car, echoing a goal from the twenty-year comprehensive plan the city adopted in 2001 for “town center” hubs. “Hopefully those hubs in the city will begin to have everything that that person needs in their day-to-day life, so they’ll be able to work a quarter mile from where they live,” Klouda says. “That’s the hopeful outcome of this, I believe.”
Big transformations from repealing one simple rule. Volland figures it’s a worthwhile trade. “If in ten years we have enough cranes in the sky—and enough infill development and connective spaces—to where we need to pause and recalibrate, we can do so,” he says. “And I think that would be a very good spot for Anchorage to be in, in ten years.”
“We will analyze each development specific to its location, environs, and anticipated tenant characteristics. In some cases this means that we’ll provide less parking than what would have been required in code, but in some cases it may be more.”