Drivers stuck endlessly circling the block in search of a space may curse Chicago’s lack of parking, but a new study says the city has too much of it — at least at apartment buildings.
Mandated parking garages and surface lots at apartment buildings across the city were on average one-third empty, wasting space that may make neighborhoods more expensive and less walkable, according to the report by the nonprofit Center for Neighborhood Technology.
“There’s too much parking,” said Kyle Smith, the center’s manager of transit-oriented development who wrote the report. “It drives up market-rate development and it’s harder to build affordable buildings with parking.”
A single underground parking space can cost $37,000 or more to build, Smith said. Developers in Chicago are generally required to build one parking space for every apartment unit, which has led to a gap between supply and demand, and a fixed cost that is passed on to renters, he said.
While Chicago and Evanston have both recently relaxed parking requirements for transit-oriented residential developments — buildings near CTA stations — the study found excess parking was widespread.
“Away from transit, particularly along high-frequency bus lines, there’s a need for reduction as well,” Smith said. “It might not be all the way down to zero, but it’s certainly less than one space per unit.”
Founded in 1978, Chicago-based Center for Neighborhood Technology focuses on sustainable urban development.
As part of its yearlong study, Smith and two colleagues visited 40 residential parking facilities in the middle of the night last summer to survey occupancy. The properties ran the gamut from affordable to luxury rental apartments in Chicago and suburban Cook County and included some older buildings that predated the parking requirements ordinance. The research team discovered lots of open spaces.
On average, the buildings supplied .61 parking spaces for every unit, but used only .34 spaces per unit. Adjusted for occupancy — vacant apartments that don’t need parking — the lots were about two-thirds full, according to the report.
While buildings near CTA stops tended to have less parking, averaging .51 spaces per unit, the lots were even emptier, with cars in just 62 percent of spaces overnight.
“Even near transit, the number of parking spaces provided went down, but the level of parking demand went down even more,” Smith said. “That’s a lot of space that could be allocated to all kinds of different needs — housing, retail, open space.”
In 2013, Chicago passed a transit-oriented development ordinance reducing parking requirements by 50 percent for multifamily residential developments near CTA stations. The ordinance was expanded last year to eliminate parking minimums for developments within a half-mile of transit on pedestrian-designated streets.
There are more than 200 CTA and Metra stations in Chicago that would allow transit-oriented development to take advantage of reduced parking requirements, said Peter Strazzabosco, the city’s deputy commissioner of planning and development.
A Wicker Park rental development that predated Chicago’s ordinance has proved the success of the concept. Built on the site of a former Pizza Hut, the distinctive 99-unit apartment building at 1611 W. Division Street is 300 feet from a CTA Blue Line station, and has no parking. It was fully leased within months of its 2013 opening, according to its developers.
“We leased up more quickly than expected,” said Jamie McNally, 29, a member of the Henry Street Partners development team behind the building. “There’s a demand for housing that doesn’t require parking and we were able to fill the building.”
A bike room for residents and a train tracker in the lobby are among the amenities catering to the mostly younger tenants, who are prohibited from seeking neighborhood street parking permits as part of their lease. McNally said the mobile and transit-savvy residents are quite at home without cars.
“It’s just a lifestyle,” McNally said. “There’s a paradigm shift among millennials about the value of having a car.”
McNally said the city’s traditional requirement of one parking space per unit would have made the building a “really expensive structure,” and perhaps unfeasible. Passing along the additional cost of a parking structure through higher rents would likely drive away the building’s target tenants, he said.
“I don’t think people would pay for it,” McNally said. “I think that is reflected in the success of a no-parking building, that there’s a market for no parking.”
In the suburbs, where public transit is less accessible and car travel is a way of life, municipalities often require developers to provide more than one parking space per apartment unit. The study found the parking oversupply extends to the suburbs as well.
Evanston recently amended its inclusionary housing ordinance, reducing the parking requirements by about 50 percent for transit-oriented developments that also offer affordable housing.
“We believe that in developments closer to transit, the demand and the need for parking is not the same as it outside of the transit area,” said Mark Muenzer, the city’s director of community development. “Evanston has previously invested in city garages, so where we do need overflow parking, we have that capacity already built.”
A new 12-story, 101-unit apartment building at 1571 Maple Ave. is set to break ground next month across the street from the Davis Street CTA station. Billed as Evanston’s first transit-oriented development, there will be only 12 parking spaces on site.
“We’re not building a big parking garage that will be underutilized,” said Michael McLean, a partner with Chicago-based developer Condor, who has been overseeing the mixed-use rental and retail project.
McLean said years of developing an infrastructure that promotes walkability, bicycling and access to transit makes Evanston “uniquely positioned” among Chicago’s suburbs to downsize residential parking.
“It was the right time to pull the trigger on a truly transit-oriented development,” he said. “Other suburbs probably have a lot farther to go to get to that critical point.”
While Evanston may be an anomaly, Brendan Saunders, an advocate with Open Communities, a Winnetka fair-housing agency, said other North Shore suburbs could also get by with fewer parking spaces in apartment buildings near transit.
“In Winnetka, for example, many people take the Metra to work,” Saunders said.
Smith said excess parking capacity tends to dilute neighborhoods, diminishing walkability and perpetuating dependence on cars. Still, he acknowledged the idea of reducing residential parking in Chicago remains ” an emotional issue,” mostly because people connect on-street and off-street parking.
“Clearly there’s big constraints on supply of on-street parking,” Smith said. “The answer doesn’t come through asking private developers to build a bunch of empty parking spaces because the on-street problem isn’t being solved.”