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What happens when you eliminate parking minimums? Lessons from Buffalo.

Back in 2017, the City of Buffalo introduced something known as the “Green Code.” It was the first overhaul of its zoning code in over 60 years. I wrote about it here. One of most notable changes as part of the Green Code was the complete elimination of parking minimums. Which is another topic that has gotten a lot of air time on this blog.

Now that it has been a few years, Buffalo provides an interesting case study: What do developers do once you eliminate parking minimums in a mid-sized city? I mention mid-sized because I think the size of the city is relevant here. There is a common argument that you can’t eliminate parking minimums unless you’re in a big and transit-rich city. “This isn’t [insert big city]. People drive here.” I am sure that many of you have heard this before.

But is that really the case? Here is what Daniel Baldwin Hess & Jeffrey Rehler found when they studied the development response to removing parking minimums in Buffalo:

  • The study looked at 36 major developments in the first two years after parking minimums were eliminated
  • In aggregate, the 36 developments built 21% less parking spaces than what was previously mandated, likely demonstrating that the old zoning code was resulting in an excess supply of new parking
  • Mixed-used developments (of which there were 14, generally consisting of residential + retail) built 53% less parking than what was previously required
  • One exception to this trend is that single-use projects (both residential and commercial) built either the same or more parking (most of these projects were in the suburbs outside of the downtown core)

What this suggests to me is that the previous zoning code was maybe appropriate for what the market was demanding (for parking) in suburban locations. Maybe. But it was certainly overshooting what the market was and is willing to accept in more urban locations in Buffalo. Mixed-used (i.e. being able to support retail at grade) is likely a good measure of the project’s urbanity.

Perhaps more importantly, I think this study shows that developers are incentivized to build what the market wants — no more and no less. Building parking that nobody wants is bad business. As is building too little parking such that you can’t rent or sell your space(s). A Goldilocks parking ratio is what you’re after, but it is constantly changing and finding it can be a bit of an art. Eliminating parking minimums is a good way to let the market try and figure it out.

Photo by Seth Yeanoplos on Unsplash

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