Parking in Portland, or Do We Believe Our Own Hype?

A map of parking lots in Portland's central city. Too much or not enough? Taken from

I went to a forum on Oldtown/Chinatown at the MercyCorp headquarter the other day. There was an interesting discussion of the future of the neighborhood and possible scenarios for its growth and redevelopment. One issue that was raised by a neighborhood property owner was the impending lack of parking. I was a bit incredulous. This is a district in the center of the city that is bisected by the MAX in multiple places and served by numerous bus lines. It is also walking distance from some of the densest neighborhoods in the city and has good access by bike along the waterfront. In addition, one of the primary uses of the neighborhood is parking that covers surface lots, fills structures, and occupys gutted buildings. And this neighborhood needs more parking?

For me this begs the question, does Portland believe its own hype? Do we as a city support the idea that Portland is held up as a model for: that mass transit, mixed use development and a strong bike/pedestrian network can negate the need for parking. That is not to say that no one will drive and that there will be no parking, but that it will be limited, especially in the central city where massive investments in trasnit have been made. In many ways the evidence says that we don’t.

Seattle leading the way in transit? The South Lake Union Streetcar passing one of many new building in the area.

At the risk of speaking heresy, I must point out that Seattle, or neighbor to the north has almost twice the rate of transit use as we do – 21% for Seattle versus 12% for Portland – according to Census (via the Sightline Institute). Much of this is simple a function of size and density. The while Seattle and Portland proper are somewhat comparable in size at 608,660 and 583,776 respectively, the Seattle metro is significantly larger than  Portland’s at 3,439,809 and 2,260,000 respectively, or 50% larger. One can assume that with the growth of metropolitan area comes a corresponding increase in congestion. One can see this clearly by just driving in Seattle. It is a vastly more difficult and slow process than driving in Portland. Ultimately people make rational decisions and when driving becomes a pain, people seek out other options i.e. transit. The other way in which Seattle and Portland can be compared is in density. Seattle at 7,361 people per square mile is nearly twice (1.7 x) as dense as Portland at 4,288 people per square mile. Density is what is needed to support transit. It puts people near transit stops making the bus convenient. It creates proximity which in turn supports walking and biking thus reduces the need to drive.

Proposed mixed-use building at 3339 SE Division. Image from DJC.

This brings us back to Portland and a number of projects proposed in Portland’s Eastside neighborhoods that are drawing opposition due to their lack of, or perceived insufficient quantity of on site parking. Recently there have been several proposals for new buildings on southeast Division Street. The two I am thinking of propose 113 new units and no new parking. A 31 unit building at 3339 SE Division is being developed by Urban Development Partners and designed by THA Architecture, a firm better known for its larger scale institutional buildings. The same developer was behind the Reliable and the Move the House mixed use building on the same stretch of Division. Just up the street at 37th and Division an 81 unit building is being developed by Urban Development Group. As reported on by the DJC and the Oregonian this has drawn the ire of neighbors as they fear the effects of all those new people and no parking.  The street is served by the Number 4 bus which comes every 20 minutes (and at peak times  close to every 5 minutes) and heads Downtown. The city has been talking up the idea of the 20-minute neighborhood for the last several years. It is an idea that has existed in planning circles for some time. The concept is simple: people in such as neighborhood should be able meet most of their basic need within a 20 minute walk from their residence, or about 1/4 mile. Division is a street where this is a viable option. There are several grocery stores and numerous other businesses a short walk form either of these projects.  It seems to this observer a fine place to not require parking.

Hollywood Apartment building currently under construction. Image form Myhre Group Architects.

The same situation is occurring in Hollywood where Creston Homes is teaming with Myhre Group architects to build a two 47 unit buildings with no parking – one adjacent to the Hollywood Theater and one at 41st and Tillamook. A recent article in the DJC highlighted neighborhood activist skepticism of the idea put forward by the developer that the new occupants will not be bringing their cars with them. Hollywood, like SE Division, is an area that can live up to the city’s vision for 20-minute neighborhoods. Within a short walk of either project are nearly everything needed for day to day life. The area is also well connected to transit with a MAX stop and several bus routes, as well as being bisected by safe bike routes. Beyond the four project profiled mentioned above, there are numerous other projects at various phases in the development pipe-line that either have no on-site parking or less than one space per unit.

One of the issues associate with building parking is the cost associated with it. Portland, like other successful cities has experienced an increase in housing cost in the central city. New housing in expensive to build and if parking is included it adds greatly to the cost. Building owner do not simple eat the money spent on parking, they pass the expense on to renters and buyers. If we want to create housing that is affordable for the average person, one easy way to do that is not include parking. Below is a list of cost for parking taken from Square Feet, a commercial real estate blog. The numbers are for Silicon Valley so probable a bit high but still in the ball park.

  • Grade-Level Surface Parking – $5,000 per stall
  • Parking Garage Below Building
    • Above-Grade – $40,000 per stall
    • Below-Grade – $60,000-90,000 per stall
  • Freestanding Parking Garage
    • Above-Grade – $18,000 per stall
    • Below-Grade – $40,000 per stall

The chart makes clear that the cost of parking can add up fast.

Part of the opposition to projects that don’t include parking is that currently it is very easy to drive and to park in Portland. I mainly travel by bike but also have a car. Driving is very easy and even if I go downtown I can find an on street parking spot with relative ease. In Seattle or any other big city forget about it, I would not dream of driving into downtown and parking on the street anywhere near where I am going.

Convenience or blight? Surface parking lot at the corner of Northwest Couch and 4th in Oldtown.

The whole issue of parking comes down to if we believe our own hype or not. Do we think it is possible to create a city in which a car is not a necessity, especially in a city that is not enormously dense?  Moving forward we have to decide if we do or not and what we as a city will accept in the way of development.  To put it another way, do we want to be a real city or not. We need to assess our values and decide what we want more: the ability to park with ease where ever, when ever; or, to creating more housing in increasingly dense urban neighborhoods that can support a full range of services. I am not saying that the whole city of Portland would have to be Manhattan, or even Seattle, just that in downtown and along neighborhood main streets and centers like Division, Williams, and Hollywood we should accept greater density and less parking. In many ways this can create a virtuous cycle in which each new building add more people which can support more businesses that in turn make the neighborhood more self-sustaining and walkable which in turn encourages more development. This can be seen on Division. With the addition of New Season now it is more possible to walk and get groceries. This is what will happen shortly on Williams as well with opening of the New Season next year. Even people who live in the adjoining single family areas benefit from such development as they gain new proximity to walkable destinations.

As it stands, much of the city is zoned to allow for development with no on-site parking. The city has also endorsed the concept of creating 20-minute neighborhoods in the Portland Plan that need the sort of infill development described above to function. With the pressure of a low vacancy rate and rising rents we are no doubt in for many more projects of this type. I hope that we learn to adjust. Maybe we will not always be able to park infront of our houses. But maybe instead we we will be able to walk to what we use to have to drive to in the past. And that doesn’t seem like so bad of a trade off to me.

What do you think? Is the lack of parking in new housing developments a recognition by developers of a growing car free demographic or is it a trick to get more building for less money? Does Portland believe its own hype? Should I refrain from pointing out ways in which Seattle is outdoing us?

The future of parking? Bike corral in front of the Bijou Cafe in Downtown Portland. Image from PDOT.


One thought on “Parking in Portland, or Do We Believe Our Own Hype?

  1. In reply to: “Maybe we will not always be able to park infront of our houses. But maybe instead we we will be able to walk to what we use to have to drive to in the past. And that doesn’t seem like so bad of a trade off to me.”

    I dream of a day when I can work within walking distance. But today I don’t. My work might be across town today and in The Dalles tomorrow. Driving to work is, unfortunately, a necessity. My property taxes pay for the libraries, roads, police and fire that Apartment Dwellers use.
    And parking in front of that house is very convenient, much more energy efficient than circling the block for parking, and safer.

    In reply to: “I mainly travel by bike but also have a car.”
    Where do you park your car? I would love nothing more than to have 82 apartments of bike-only, sustainable-minded residents move in next door. But Fair Housing doesn’t allow for that. People own cars. That’s a genie that won’t go back in the bottle in our lifetime. Not all the way. And those cars need to be parked. Hopefully they will stay parked, as people walk, bus and bike… But that doesn’t help the situation on nearby streets… It only hurts it.

    Thanks for discussing this issue.
    Kyle LeMire

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