How much parking is enough?

The Northfield Zoning Board of Appeals/Planning Commission had two applications from Northfield Hospital (yes, that means one city entity reviews the plans of another) on their Tuesday agenda.  The Zoning Board of Appeals, which reviews requests for variances and other quasi-judicial matters, was asked to grant a variance to allow a greater number of parking spaces for the Center for Sports Medicine and Rehabilitation, a unit of the hospital, which is building an expansion on its site at 1308 Jefferson Road.

Most of the time, we think about parking when we are in our cars looking for somewhere to park (usually as close to our destination as possible especially on days like today when the temperature is well below zero).

I’ve been thinking about parking regulations as the city rewrites its land development ordinances and the matter on Tuesday exposed a few bugs in the system.   Northfield, like most everywhere else, requires a certain number of parking spaces depending on the land use.  If you own a home, you must have 2 parking spaces, in case you wondered.

Or, if you’re building a medical clinic you’re required to build 1 space per 250 s.f. of floor space and may build up to 10% more than that number.  For the CSMR that magic number is 76., but the CSMR wanted 96.

The CSMR attempted a kind of bait and switch claiming that 5 spaces per 1,000 s.f. was typical in the industry rather than the 4 per 1,000 Northfield allows and then they added Northfield’s 10% buffer on top of that.  The ZBA approved the 5 per 1,000 without the 10% or 87 spaces.

Right decision?   I think it was a reasonable one, but perhaps we can make future decisions easier and better.

Specific parking regulations provide guidance for citizen planners, city staff, developers and elected officials who may not be experts in the medical clinic field (or any other business) and wouldn’t otherwise know what an appropriate number of parking spaces should be.

On the other hand, large parking lots are aesthetically unappealing, create large areas of impervious surface creating surface water management issues, and spread out businesses and other uses making it difficult to have a walkable, bikeable environment.    When we allow parking lots for large stores like Target based on the number of cars which need to park Christmas Eve at 3 p.m. we end up with parking lots which are never full the other 364 days of the year and just taking up space.  When we require small businesses provide more parking than they need, it costs them money which they may not have or could at least spend more productively.  If the city decides to build a parking structure downtown (which is the one area of the city where no parking must be provided by the developer/business owner), then taxpayers will learn that parking is not free.

On another hand, when businesses come in and say that they need a specific number based on their business model or knowledge of their customers or patient turnover should the regulations allow flexibility for this expertise?  When I was on the ZBA,  we allowed a reduction in the required number of spaces for the Community Resource Bank building based on their data that most of their business was conducted via their drivethrough lanes.   The current ZBA was thinking along these lines onTuesday and asked for data to support the CSMR’s need for additional parking, but felt it could not grant the full variance without documentation.

As we attempt to revise the parking requirements, I’d like to build this kind of flexibility based on documented need into the system, as well as ensure our requirements are well-designed to encourage non-motorized transportation and transit, limit or manage impervious surface, and make use of on-street parking, too.  The new regulations aren’t there yet…

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