Lack of parking at proposed projects stirring debate

A PROPOSED WAYLAND SQUARE mixed-use residential project is favoring bicycles instead of parking spaces, but the Providence City Plan Commission still has questions about the plans. / COURTESY PROVIDENCE CITY PLAN COMMISSION
A PROPOSED WAYLAND SQUARE mixed-use residential project is favoring bicycles instead of parking spaces, but the Providence City Plan Commission still has questions about the plans. / COURTESY PROVIDENCE CITY PLAN COMMISSION

More and more frequently, proposals for new apartment buildings in Providence are including less and less on-site parking, and that’s perfectly fine with some local planning and housing officials.

But for some city residents where these projects are being proposed, the idea of more residential units coming to their neighborhood with very limited parking spaces – or no parking at all in at least one recent proposal – doesn’t make sense.

“Someone isn’t thinking this thing through,” said Raymond Mathieu, a retired chief financial officer of a private equity firm, who lives near Wayland Square, where a five-story, 38-unit apartment building was recently proposed with just 20 parking spaces – none of which would be for the ground-floor retail spaces.

The result of less on-site parking will be more residents and visitors cramming their vehicles onto the already crowded on-street parking, said Mathieu, calling it a recipe for disaster for cyclists, bus drivers and other motorists navigating the neighborhood’s narrow streets.

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“Where are they supposed to park?” he said. “I don’t know where. But God, if they park on the streets, it will be chaos.”

Local planning officials, advocates for public transit and some real estate developers say this trend toward reduced on-site parking is fueled by consumer demand, a push toward environmental sustainability and the need to make project costs more financially feasible.

And it has been encouraged by zoning regulations that were updated by Providence officials about seven years ago, reducing parking requirements based on the location of a project and the availability of bicycle storage facilities, said John Flaherty, deputy director of Grow Smart Rhode Island, a nonprofit that advocates for sustainable, equitable economic development. Across the board, on-site parking requirements were reduced in Providence from 1½ spaces per dwelling unit to 1, while the entire downtown area and two areas designated as “transit-oriented development districts” were exempted from minimum parking requirements altogether.

“I think what’s driving this is thoughtful public policy,” Flaherty said. “These may be things average people don’t necessarily connect the dots on, but the benefits are multipronged. You have climate. You have air quality issues. But I think the main driving force, when you look across the country, is an effort to accelerate production of affordable housing.”

While they may be eligible for tax credits, affordable housing projects are not easy to finance, Flaherty said, given rents are less than market-rate apartments. But a way to make ends meet with these projects is to forgo plans for structured parking or spacious parking lots, Flaherty said. Structured parking in Providence can cost developers up to $30,000 per parking space, Flaherty said.

“Depending how much you are building, it can really drive up development costs,” Flaherty said. “And if you’re building such housing in an already dense city or location that has good access to public transportation, it may not be as necessary.”

In the case of a 66-unit, mixed-income apartment tower with 25 parking spaces proposed on Parcel 9 by Pennrose LLC, the Philadelphia-based developer responded at a recent I-195 Redevelopment District Commission meeting to a question from the audience about how the company could fill the building without offering parking to 62% of its prospective renters. Pennrose executive Rebecca Schofield said the company commissioned market research showing the demand was there due to a “housing crunch” and the ample availability of public transit.

“We feel pretty comfortable that the reduced parking won’t impact their ability to lease space,” said Robert Davis, I-195 Redevelopment District Commission chairman.

Other projects that recently came before the commission with very little on-site parking include the 95-unit Chestnut Commons on Parcel 30 (55 on-site parking spaces), and the Emblem 125 project that broke ground last year on Parcel 25. It will rely on the nearby Garrahy Courthouse Parking Garage.

In one recent proposal for a six-story apartment building called Richmond Residences at 71-85 Richmond St., an 11-unit project that came before the Downtown Design Review Committee last month, there was no on-site parking.

That total lack of parking is not just about the budget of the developer, but also changing lifestyles, Flaherty said, especially among younger people who often don’t want to deal with the costs of car ownership when public transit is reliable and ride-sharing apps such as Uber or Lyft are readily available.

“The younger generation seems to be not as interested in owning cars,” Flaherty said.

Flaherty said he expects that Rhode Island’s adoption of a statewide master plan for public transit and President Joe Biden’s $1 trillion infrastructure bill will accelerate the improvement of bus transportation in Providence, making on-site parking even less necessary.

Brenda Clement, director of Housing Works RI at Roger Williams University, said the COVID-19 pandemic and the advent of remote working will also contribute to a decrease in the demand for on-site parking. Clement said getting rid of surface parking can also reduce the “heat zones” that afflict urban centers, as dark, paved surfaces draw and hold heat.

“In general, it’s probably a good thing to reduce on-site parking, as long as we make sure it’s equitable and inclusive for everybody,” Clement said.

Bonnie Nickerson, Providence’s director of planning, said she’s happy with the impact of the city’s 2014 zoning changes that allowed developers greater discretion in the amount of on-site parking they need.

“We thought it made sense for the market to play a bigger role in figuring out how much parking would be required for private developments,” Nickerson said. “I think it was the right decision. Since then, we’ve seen such an increase in the options people have for mobility, including scooter rentals, bike rentals and ride sharing. All of these things have increased dramatically over recent years, so many private developments don’t feel like they need to provide so much parking. I do see that trend accelerating, or rather continuing because we are working really hard for this city to have a lot of mobility options. It would be great if car ownership was a choice.”

Marc Larocque is a PBN staff writer. Contact him at Larocque@PBN.com. You may also follow him on Twitter @LaRockPBN.

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