Removing Bellingham's parking minimums has many benefits - Salish Current
February 28, 2024
Removing Bellingham’s parking minimums has many benefits
Michael Feerer and Jamin Agosti

Calculating parking needs in disparate city neighborhoods is a complex equation that needs to include space for trees, say commentators supporting the removal of parking minimums. (Matt Benoit / Salish Current)

February 28, 2024
Removing Bellingham’s parking minimums has many benefits
Michael Feerer and Jamin Agosti

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The essays, analyses and opinions presented as Community Voices express the perspectives of their authors on topics of interest and importance to the community, and are not intended to reflect perspectives on behalf of the Salish Current.

Building a sustainable, thriving community — especially one under intense growth pressures like Bellingham — is hard work. And figuring out what to do in our daily life to reduce our impact on the planet isn’t easy. So a small, simple policy change that is a clear win for housing affordability, for walkable neighborhoods, and even for urban trees and green spaces — that’s BIG. 

What’s the policy change? It’s time to get rid of minimum parking requirements. More than 50 cities across the nation have adopted this common-sense reform, and many more are contemplating it. Most eliminate the minimums altogether, while others have taken a more cautious approach, limiting it to sites within a half-mile of transit stops.

Outside of a few exempt districts, Bellingham’s current zoning code requires a predetermined number of parking spots for every new home or business. At first blush, it sounds reasonable: nobody loves hunting for a place to park. But the prescribed amounts are arbitrary — and often in excess of what people actually use.

Bowling alleys, for instance, are required to have four parking spaces per bowling lane, as if it were constantly full and everyone drove there alone. Every one-bedroom apartment is required to have 1.5 parking spaces, whether residents need them or not. For the 56% of renter households that own one or zero cars, those extra parking spots aren’t just an eyesore. The cost gets rolled into rent, adding around $200–$300 per month.

Many of our beloved historic neighborhoods were built before parking regulations took hold in the early- to mid-1900s (as cars began to proliferate) and would be impossible to rebuild today. As our city changes over time, through new construction and remodeling of existing buildings, our city code’s insatiable appetite for parking will eat up more and more of our land.

Want a new library? More room is mandated to store cars than store books, as 200 square feet of indoor area requires 300+ square feet of asphalt. Restaurants and bars are required to have a minimum of seven parking spaces, regardless of how many tables they have. Community centers, funeral homes and doctor’s offices all must be smaller than the parking lot they are forced to build. Even a bus station can’t catch a break. 

The climate impacts of excessive impervious asphalt are immense. Instead of rainwater filtering naturally through soil, it collects and mixes with pollutants and then runs into our waterways. It amplifies urban flooding during increasingly common torrential rains. Often exceeding the capacity of stormwater systems planned before climate change, it pollutes our streams, lakes and Salish Sea — all critical issues for salmon, other wildlife and biodiversity. 

All of this required parking also pushes homes and businesses farther apart, making it harder to walk, bike or take the bus. New construction that is mandated to have large parking lots tends to be shunted towards the fringes of the city, contributing to sprawl and encroaching on fragile wetlands and forests. It’s not too hard to imagine taking back these asphalt voids and instead planting trees and gardens, adding streateries and parklets, creating safe and cozy places outside businesses and schools.

Eliminating parking minimums does not get rid of existing parking nor does it prevent anyone from building as much off-street parking as desired. It just means the amounts can be determined on a case-by-case basis per project. Will developers then skimp on parking? Other cities have shown this tends to not occur. Developers want to sell or rent their units, and if insufficient parking is included or nearby, that threatens their monetary success.

Why does a tree organization like Whatcom Million Trees Project support the removal of parking minimums? It’s because our city needs more than a few token street trees provided with higher-density housing. And it needs greater site planning flexibility to protect existing mature trees when present. Ample trees and green spaces interwoven throughout our city — not just in parks and Greenways — will reduce deadly heat effects and urban flooding from climate change as well as support our community’s health and livability. Saying no to excessive parking can leave more site “space” for trees and outdoor spaces together with more housing.

More affordable housing to tackle homelessness and combat skyrocketing rents? Check. More people-friendly urban spaces? Check. Positive benefits for the climate and our waters? Check More trees and green infrastructure for our community’s well-being? Check. That’s four wins and virtually no losses when implemented well. Let’s throw minimum parking requirements into the dustbin of Bellingham’s history.

— Contributed by Jamin Agosti and Michael Feerer

We welcome letters to the editor responding to or amplifying subjects addressed in Community Voices. If you wish to contribute to Community Voices, please send an email with a subject proposal to Managing Editor Mike Sato (msato@rockisland.com) and he will respond with guidelines.

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