Parking Requirements Gave Me a Haircut

Neighborhood-friendly developments are often made infeasible due to overly high parking requirements.

By Neil Heller with Cary Westerbeck

Neil is an urban planner at Neighborhood Workshop in Portland, Oregon and faculty of the Incremental Development Alliance. Currently sporting an 80-day shelter-in-place mullet.

Cary is an architect and small-scale developer at Westerbeck Architecture in Bothell, Washington currently taking development haircuts.

Image via Google Maps: Different development types in one image, each with different financial metrics but the same off-street parking requirements. Cary’s 4-unit small scale project at left. A large scale 80-unit project in background.

A Parking Conversation With Cary Westerbeck

I caught up with Inc Dev alum and fellow founding member of the Parking Reform Network, Cary Westerbeck, who recently completed a mixed-use 4-plex in Downtown Bothell, WA.

Having such similar interests with him, it’s fun to talk shop and learn from his lived experience.


Small Developers are needed in cities. We play a critical role. We are the ones who can utilize a small lot, an infill lot, a weird shaped lot, and all the lots that the large developers could never build on feasibly. We can build neighborhood-friendly sized apartments and businesses on these small sites. However, the minute we must provide required, on-site minimum parking for these sites they do not pencil out, they become physically and financially infeasible.

For example, I have a 2,500 square foot lot on which I just completed a mixed-use 4-plex. The entitlements allow me to build up to five stories in this downtown zone. I could have feasibly built 14-15 dwellings and a small retail space on this site had I not been required to use most of the site for parking. As a result of the onerous parking requirements, we squeezed in the five required parking spots for the four units.

We were prevented from using the site’s “highest and best use” in both height and number of units. As I told the Development Director at my city, I could have provided an additional 12 desperately needed small apartments at my site if minimum parking requirements had not held me back. Because I could have put 16 units on the site rather than 4, the price of the land per unit would be spread over 16 units, not just four.

I have a barber on the ground floor of my building, but it was the mandated parking minimums that forced me to take a 75% haircut!

Why would a city allow development entitlements that are functionally unobtainable?

Today, “form follows parking” for small developers. Feasibility for a project must start with required on-site parking minimums, then we can see how much site is left over for productive uses. It’s crazy, but true. As an architect and small developer, the first thing we do after reviewing zoning codes is figure out how many cars we’ll have to park for our intended building’s uses and how they will fit. Invariably – always – we can’t build nearly as much productive building due to the constraints of required parking. It’s the tail that wags the dog. It seems like something is broken when building design starts with cars, rather than people, but indeed it does.

Let’s pause for a moment.

For context, Bothell is in a downtown construction boom. Giving the place credit, it is good to see so much downtown investment and willingness to accept higher densities for being an outer suburb. Not to mention, the downtown zoning standards look quite permissible.

Interestingly, there are a variety of parcel sizes in downtown Bothell that correspond to the sizes of the buildings being developed. Despite all this variety, one thing remains constant — the size of parking stalls does not adjust based on the size of the lot.

Cary built in the Downtown Neighborhood Zone (DN) so let’s put ourselves in the shoes of a small developer and explore how this plays out.

  • The median lot size found in the DN zone is 7,500 square feet (see chart below).
  • A single 9×18 foot parking stall is 234 square feet when including the drive aisle.
  • This means that the median lot size in this zone can mathematically fit 32 surface parking spaces, but we want to house people, not just cars. Plus, in comparison to parking, housing is better for the municipal tax base and it is the humans who support the local businesses that in turn strengthen the local economy.

Also, the maximum height allowed in this DN zone is 5-stories. This means that the median lot size has the development potential for (32) 1,000 sf units. Great, 32 new homes! But let’s say we want a portion of our ground floor as commercial space. This results in three less units but, hey, local business easily accessible by residents!

Chart: DN zone parcel size analysis. The rules in a city should respond to the realities on the ground

But what about the parking?

  • Each of our prospective units are 1,000 square feet (2-bedrooms).
  • Each residential unit requires 1.5 spaces per unit (234 square feet each, remember).
  • Our commercial unit requires 2.5 per 1,000 square feet. (234 square feet each, remember).

So, let’s add this up:

29 residential units x 1.5 (43.5 subtotal)
+ 9 for our commercial space
= 53 parking spaces totaling 12,285 square feet.

But wait, we only have 7,500 square feet of lot area, so what gives?

It is often assumed that zoning is about buildings. It is not. Zoning assures neighbors that parking, setbacks, and landscaping requirements will be met and then whatever is left over is where a developer can build a building.

The starry-eyed planner might suggest putting all of our required parking underground so that we get all of our units and have good urban form, but, with a price tag of $1.5M this option forces rents to be an additional $500 more dollars per month, potentially out of reach for the local market. Even with the State of Washington’s progressive minimum wage of $13.50/hour, that’s an extra 37 hours of work.

The larger-scale developments may be able to absorb the additional cost of underground parking due to the larger number of units to share in that cost. So, while the total cost of underground parking will be more in comparison, the net cost to the renter will likely be less, therefore maintaining market feasibility. Smaller-scale projects are much more sensitive to price shocks due to the limited number of units to absorb additional development costs.

The thrifty developer might want to reduce the building size and surface park everything since that’s the least expensive, but then more than 60% of the lot is paved over, also resulting in significantly less housing in the downtown area and municipal revenue for the city.

The purpose of this example was to run through the onerous and expensive outcomes that mandated parking requirements create, particularly for the small, local developer who is likely to be working on one of the 72% of lots that are below 20,000 square feet within this downtown zone.

A more sane and rational approach is to not require but allow parking in order to provide flexibility to a development project so that a workable solution can be found, allowing developers to obtain more of the parcel’s legal development entitlements, otherwise known as ‘highest and best use’. Recent studies have shown that most times, developers do build parking and averages around 0.5 spaces per unit. They do this because there is still market demand for parking spaces. This could change in the near future so having the flexibility to determine what is appropriate for the site and for the intended end-user is key to a reasonable and feasible development. The final example we can call, “the reasonable and feasible” is only made possible by applying this 0.5 spaces per unit amount. This does not mean that 0.5 is the magic number, just that having the flexibility to suit our needs creates an option that works for everyone.

Additionally, one option to make sure that those who do not want parking are not subsidizing their neighbor is to decouple any provided parking from the rents just like a building might for extra storage or laundry facilities. Just because coffee is on the ground floor of the building does not mean that everyone’s rent should be higher in order to provide free coffee to the coffee drinkers.

In closing, I felt like Cary cast a vision that is likely to resonate with what most of us want out of our downtowns and neighborhood centers. Does your city have reasonable and feasible parking policies? I’d love to hear of good examples.


With less of each site devoted to the automobile, more of each site can be focused on humans and their needs. This will allow more homes and businesses to be accommodated within the same amount of space, increasing the feasibility of potential developments, and potentially lowering the price point of each home while supporting our increasingly important local economies.

Cary’s completed fourplex with barbershop on the ground floor.

3 thoughts on “Parking Requirements Gave Me a Haircut”

  1. I really like the decoupling of the parking as a way for the public at large to better understand the cost and therefore financial benefit of going without

  2. Example:
    The City of Seattle successfully adopted parking exemptions where there is zoned high density and proximity to bus transit. Over time these exemptions have increased. There has been some public backlash but since it is incremental and targeted to specific spots this strategy seems a fair way to introduce parking exemptions.

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