Tacoma Urbanist

Apr. 14, 2008 at 12:10am

Tacoma Architects To City: Nix Parking Requirements

Tacoma's 17 mixed use centers are currently undergoing review.  Many people and groups have been working to try to have the City of Tacoma implement an urban zoning code for these areas that is similar to Portland o Seattle rather than a Federal Way type suburban code which Tacoma currently has.

Hence, 90 percent of what has been built in the last 40 years has been suburban strip malls indistinguishable from any part of Tukwila or Federal Way.

Last week, the Southwest Division of the American Institute of Architects, the professional architect organization which covers Tacoma and Pierce County, issued their recommendations to the City of Tacoma for the Mixed Use Centers and the Design Review Program.   

Here it is:

Summary of AIASWW Recommendations:

Mixed Use Center Zoning & Design Standards

In short, the AIASWW Suports:

Changes to the Comprehensive Plan that embrace and promote principles of urban design that will establish a new vision for a walkable, livable and sustainable City

The elimination of city-required off-street parking in the mixed use urban centers, allowing the market to dictate parking strategies thereby allowing our urban centers to perform the vital roles of providing appropriate density (through infilling), and creating pedestrian-oriented "village" environments.


Tacoma's Current Development Standards Related to Parking and Height.

Many of Tacoma's building and zoning codes are antiquated and tend to promote on story, low density buildings with large lots that discourage pedestrian activity...The results of this approach have done little to provider what would be considered livable, and certainly not walkable.


A discussion about parking within mixed use urban centers, in the context of promoting greater livability, must begin with a discussion of walkability.  Any city that is attempting to seriously reduce carbon emissions (as the City of Tacoma desires) must make a commitment to densifying urban centers such that people have increased choices for living, working shopping, worshiping and playing withing walking distance...

The current parking codes make the construction of walkable, pedestrian friendly neighborhoods almost impossible, and the inclusion of affordable market rate housing difficult.


Tacoma's car-centric, suburban off-street parking requirements have forced commercial developments to be spread out over large areas, with uses separated by large parking lots and a continuance reliance on the automobile.


For private developers seeking to be park of a truly urban community, parking should be built pursuant to market demand for the uses intended.

The AIASWW also sent to the City of Tacoma a document entitled Livability 101 produced by the AIA which shows different examples of car centric strip malls and urban villages and how the building code drives which one is built.


The recommendations of the architects is very encouraging.

The recommendations of Tacoma and Pierce County architects in the AIASWW lines up with what has been said by a spectrum of affordable housing groups, parking experts, urban and environmental groups such as the Green Ribbon Task Force.

Mandating that buildings be built with huge parking lots either stops developments completely or forces each use to be separated by huge parking lots like on 38th Avenue.

The walkable parts of Tacoma which we enjoy were built before the 1950 off-street parking requirement.

Permitting parking to be built based on market demand would permit Tacoma to take the route of development to be more like Portland or Seattle rather than Federal Way or Tukwila.

Tacoma now sits alone in reforming its off-street suburban off-street parking requirements in comparison to model west coast cities which are walkable.

Parking Requirements Effect on Urban Design

Here's how Tacoma could be developing

Mixed use building with retail on the first floor.  Each building is adjacent to each other.

Here's how Tacoma's suburban 1950s era off-street parking requirements are forcing Tacoma to develop:

Here on 38th Avenue, thousands of cars drive through vast areas which are little more than one strip malls with almost no pedestrians.  An urban form mandated by the city's off-street parking requirements.

For more information see:

Congress for New Urbanism (See also CNU Image bank)

AIA Livability 101

Tacoma's Green Ribbon Task Force

News Tribune Op Ed : Off-Street Parking Requirements Impede Growth

Articles by Professor of Urban Planning Donald Shoup

comments [19]  |  posted under tacoma


by NineInchNachos on 4/14/2008 @ 9:12am
yeah we gotta deep 6 that parking requirement.

by andrew.austin on 4/14/2008 @ 9:29am
Great post Erik. How long will it take the city to take action on this item. Why do we need more studies? Lets get it done.

by drizell on 4/14/2008 @ 10:12am
Was the AIA officially hired as a consultant? The City Council only seems to listen to people if they're paying them hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Meanwhile, the entire city is saying, "Well, duh. Are there any other completely obvious conclusions that need to be drawn for a City Council with an average IQ of 75?"

by fredo on 4/14/2008 @ 11:08am
These current parking requirements are creating a squalid landscape devoid of any community. As NineInchNachos has stated so succinctly, these requirements must be deep 6ed.

by Erik on 4/14/2008 @ 11:08am
Was the AIA officially hired as a consultant?

No. This is from the independent local AIA association which explains why it was more accurate.

Also, the initial paid consultant of the city AHBL came up with the same recommendation when the mixed use center process started. Now, however, the recommendation is gone from what is being discussed now.

One of the problems I don't think there are any architects that work for the city. The measure for success is still though of as how many cars can you store and more through the city rather.

The Tacoma City Council and about every citizen group has indicated that they want a walkable city that emits less pollution and is competitive for investment. They have even stated that they don't want "suburban sprawl."

Yet, there is still a disconnect between the building and zoning codes that need to change to accomplish that. Any architect or planner will demonstrate its a matter of geometry.

With so many enlighted people and groups weighing in on the issue, its hard to believe we are still stuck at tweaked 1960s suburban model. Tacoma was originally envisioned as a city which it is not being allowed to be rebuilt as.

The Planning Commission is still taking comments however:


I hear the AIA may present to them directly if allowed.

by Marty on 4/14/2008 @ 11:23am
If the City Council is unwilling to completly remove the requirements ( Neighborhood push back.) what other options are there?

Erik, I know you would actually enjoy watching the effects of imposing parking maximums, but I don't believe there is political will for that either.

I hear this issue will be one of the first agenda items on the City Manager's Parking Implementation Committee.

So I ask, what are some of the other options cities have put into place?

by Erik on 4/14/2008 @ 11:58am
Erik, I know you would actually enjoy watching the effects of imposing parking maximums, but I don't believe there is political will for that either.

Nope. Trying to impose a parking maximum is completely different analysis.

Right now, Tacoma should simply permit parking be built pursuant to market demand so it might have a chance to compete with other cities such as Seattle, Portland, Bellingham, San Francisco and Olympia.

All of these cities have removed the minimum, but only a couple I think have tried to impose maximums.

BTW, these cities continue to build tons of parking and have parking lots, but no more than the market demands.

The first rule of the City of Tacoma on the issue is to do no harm on the issue of the environment, affordable housing and development of the city.

Ironically, as much as people have wanted to support the development of places like McKinley, Neighbors Coffee was almost not allowed to open because of the parking requirement even though the areas is economically depressed. Only because a nearby church offered to give some parking to them was the coffee shop able to open.

As it sits now, the city priority is still it is better an area sit empty and vacant that for the suburban parking requirement to be changed.

As far as the neighborhood, most of the walkable portions of the neighborhoods were built before Tacoma adopted the suburban off-street parking requirements.

If the somehow were destroyed, they could not be rebuilt. Proctor and other neighborhood centers would look much like Westgate where few people hang out at other than to perform utilitarian shopping.

by Erik on 4/14/2008 @ 12:53pm
So I ask, what are some of the other options cities have put into place?

The AIA has issued a document showing the relationship between urban form and the parking requirements.

I think it might be useful to have the parking commissioner and other neighborhoods consult with them, as they have offered so they can show how parking requirements in excess of market demands create the strip mall urban forms that they do.

I also wanted to mention that the North End Neighborhood Council supports removing the off-street parking requirement primarily because the attractive and pedestrian friendly parks of the district were built without the requirement.


If Proctor had to be rebuilt today, the city would not permit it to be rebuilt in the attractive form it currently has. Few people realize this. Fortunately, there is an architect on the NENC Board who had some insights in the matter.

With that said, the later developments in Proctor have been little more than one story strip malls.

The good parts of Proctor which are held out as an example of an "urban village" are considered "non-conforming" by the city while the strip malls in Proctor which are basically boxes in the middle of parking lots are in compliance.

However, Proctor is not unique. Many of the mixed use centers have some attractive buildings in them which make for a walkable area. Yet most of them could not be rebuilt.

by jenyum on 4/14/2008 @ 2:27pm
I suggest that anyone worried about "neighborhood pushback" park in the extra Bombay Bistro lot across the street, next to the gas station, over a period of several days, and note occasions on which it is used. (Hint, never.) Better yet, bring a video camera and take a time-lapse video, which you can show to anyone who complains.

I cannot believe the restaurant was forced to build this useless, empty parking lot, not only causing them great expense and delay in opening, but also creating a dead zone along a portion of 6th Avenue that needs more walkable retail.

And that's just this one location, where a business actually stuck it out and decided to follow the requirement, as opposed to simply deciding to locate elsewhere in a strip mall or another city. The result benefits no one, and costs the neighborhood.

How many otherwise viable business locations sit empty in this city because of this ridiculous requirement? Just change it, City Council! Do it now!

by Gorman on 4/14/2008 @ 2:45pm

I agree that parking regulations are hurting development downtown, and should be changed. But it seems there could be some negative consequences of removing the requirement altogether.

It makes sense that in a residential building that the developer would decide to build some parking as that would affect the value of the units. However in an office or retail building, what motivation would there be for building parking?
I know other cities have eliminated the parking requirement, and it's worked out well, so maybe I'm missing something, but it seems like it could possibly create a parking nightmare too.
Of course a better transit system would help out immensely.

by Erik on 4/14/2008 @ 6:27pm
I know other cities have eliminated the parking requirement, and it's worked out well, so maybe I'm missing something....

It works out because there is still a large demand for parking cars and developers realize that. That's why the buildings in Seattle, Portland, Bellingham and San Francisco contain significant parking. They weigh the costs and benefit of all uses of land: retail, commercial, housing and parking and make a decision as to the most efficient combination.

Plus, banks won't usually finance a building with significant parking.

Tacoma and Federal Way force larger amounts of land to be allocated for parking than the market demands though which forces a suburban design and other bad effects.

Plus, it amounts to a defacto impact fee for someone consider to doing business in Tacoma.

by morgan on 4/14/2008 @ 9:28pm
I think Marty and others are reading "remove off-street parking requirement" as "eliminate parking" which is not the case at all. Even with the parking requirement removed, developers will build parking because there is value in having parking for some projects. But other projects may not need parking and to having parking be mandated by the city for no other reason than to satisfy a requirement put in place 50 years ago is absurd at best, harmful to the city's future at worst.

Erik- I would take the removal of off-street parking requirement a step further and (maybe they are already doing this?) put design guidelines in place so that we don't have garage entrances and exists where retail or office should be. Drive by the Roberson condos and you'll see what I mean.

by NineInchNachos on 4/14/2008 @ 10:18pm
yeah the requirement is all. That sounds easy enough. What do we do? Hassle the council? email our congressmen?

by Gorman on 4/14/2008 @ 11:23pm
Ok, I understand your point, and I agree.
But, imagine the off street parking requirement is removed, and a developer proposes a 20 story office tower downtown w/o 1 parking stall. This may not make sense, because who would lease the space, right? But, what's to stop the developer from doing so. He might figure - I can still make a larger profit, by not providing parking, and still build it. Would a project like this concern you? Well, maybe it would all work itself out. In this scenario, maybe another developer 1 block down would see this as an opportunity to build a large parking garage and have a high demand.

I'm not trying to raise obstacles, I'm just trying to think of all the possible ramifications.

by Erik on 4/15/2008 @ 12:13am
Even with the parking requirement removed, developers will build parking because there is value in having parking for some projects.

Yes, they built plenty of parking in Seattle, Portland, Bellingham, San Francisco and Olympia cities where parking is built on demand.


Well, maybe it would all work itself out. In this scenario, maybe another developer 1 block down would see this as an opportunity to build a large parking garage and have a high demand.

That's pretty close. Parking is just another use for land and has a value and will be supplied at the amount people want it the same as retail and commercial space.

Some of the higher end condos actually supply more parking that is currently required.

One of the first things it might do is to allow some of the devasted parts of downtown to be appropriately rebuilt such is this lot by the Drakes:


What do we do? Hassle the council? email our congressmen?

The issue is currently before the Tacoma Planning Commission. They are taking public input on it. There are some enlightened people on it but it is still going to take some work. Here's the contact information for their board:


'm not trying to raise obstacles, I'm just trying to think of all the possible ramifications

Professor Donald Shoup is the foremost parking expert in the world. Fortunately, he has a slew of articles on the subject. Check out some of his articles on it here:


by Gorman on 4/15/2008 @ 12:38am
I noticed in some of the examples of cities that have eliminated the parking requirement, that this was done in the downtown area only.

What would you suggest to be the extents of this parking requirement elimination for Tacoma?

by Erik on 4/15/2008 @ 1:22am
What would you suggest to be the extents of this parking requirement elimination for Tacoma?

The AIA document applies to Tacoma's mixed use centers. There are other commercial areas in Tacoma such as Old Town, but they are not mixed use centers so they would not be effected. The articles by Shoup and others applies to commercial centers generally.

by jenyum on 4/15/2008 @ 7:00am
To clarify the parking requirement for those who may not have come into contact with it before:

- parking must be off street parking, so even if an area generally has plenty of street parking available, a business would have to have 1.5 parking spaces per 1000 square feet of their establishment.
- parking must be directly adjacent to, or within a certain distance from the property, or you must follow a process to have this requirement altered for a particular lot you plan to use.

Take the example of the Drake's area, I've been down there quite a bit the past few weeks. Generally, there is ample free street parking available, and the lot next to Drake's (which is paid) sits empty except for a couple of long-term cars.

I would like to see the requirement eliminated all together in neighborhoods where there are a certain percentage of vacant businesses. Currently, the first thing the city will tell you when you call about a business license for a particular property, is that you must meet this requirement, unless a space has not been vacant for a certain period of time and has already been operating as a similar business. In other words, vacant buildings, if they've been empty for a while, are then more likely to remain that way because of this requirement. Who does that serve?

by fredo on 4/15/2008 @ 7:58am
There is an opportunity for public comment on existing and proposed parking requirements for Tacoma's Neighborhood Mixed Use Centers, and for The Community Mixed Use Centers (not including Downtown).

The event is the Mixed-Use Centers Regulatory Review Meeting. Details are as follows:

Location: Bates Tech. College-South Campus Auditorium
Date: Wednesday, April 30
Time: 6-8 PM
Address: 2201 South 78th


The event is organized by the Tacoma Community and Economic Development Department.