Op-Ed: The Tyranny Of On-Premise Parking

by | Jul 26, 2021 | OPINION

Is there something wrong with the fact that parking lots downtown sit empty as residents circle blocks for 20 minutes looking for somewhere to put their cars? Brock Hall thinks so, and he has a theory about how this problem could be solved here in Richmond.

My stepdad was visiting Richmond recently and he invited me out to lunch. Not being from the area, he asked me what I wanted to eat, so I suggested going to En Su Boca on Arthur Ashe Boulevard. I recently had a good time there with a friend of mine and I enjoy how food there can actually be spicy.

However, while we were driving over, we had a hard time finding a place to park. Yet we passed by dozens of empty parking spots. Unfortunately, we were forbidden from parking in any of them because they were on-premise for another building. We had to make a decision; take our chances that a tow truck wouldn’t notice us or go someplace else that had available parking. We chose the latter, and a local restaurant lost two customers.

I was mulling this over during a public Teams call with a couple Richmond city employees and a council member. The city is currently rewriting their zoning policies, including parking requirements. There were maybe 20 people on the call in total and they were discussing zoning along Broad St. near Arthur Ashe. I was overall glad about many of the changes (certainly unhappy in other ways too), but I noticed there were a variety of complaints about residential parking. I raised my hand.

“I’m curious; if I wanted to open a public parking lot in a residential zone, would that be legal?” I asked.

“Um, no,” replied the city employee.

“OK, so what if there was extra, unused on-premise parking. Would I be able to turn that into public parking?”

“No,” they replied.

I asked if that seemed like a problem to them. Perhaps making new parking illegal could be why there isn’t enough parking? By the way, public parking means for-a-fee rental parking, as Google maps has deceived me about enough times. 

The city has multiple mandates regarding on-premise, or off-street, parking. There is a formula deciding how much precious land is to be paved over with fossil fuel byproducts. Those lots are required to be used exclusively by the tenants of said building, to ensure they remain mostly empty. It also appears I exaggerate when I say new parking is illegal; building it is fine, but letting anyone park on it for a fee is what’s illegal. The city’s plan for more parking is to deny tenants, businesses, and owners a source of income and instead rely on the charity of landlords and towing companies (and we know how that typically goes).

When I put it that way it makes perfect sense (I say sarcastically).

There are exceptions upon exceptions, and special permits for those who beg the city appropriately, of course. The uselessness of this policy is outdone solely by its obscurity and dreary dullness.

It gets worse when you consider the cost of paving and maintaining parking spaces. This cost is passed from developers and landlords on to tenants in the form of higher rent and lesser competition; costs they pass onto consumers in the form of higher prices. It’s an invisible tax paid for by anyone who doesn’t drive. This is particularly harmful when we consider small businesses and low-income renters.

I recall going to Belmont Pizzeria some years ago. They had expanded to include an indoor dining room (pre-COVID, of course), which they were forced to close because the city said there wasn’t enough parking. No matter that they couldn’t afford to build more, or that there was nowhere to build it, or that there was a nearly empty parking lot just a block away (with many warnings not to park there without patronizing the adjacent, national-chain convenience store). 

This issue cuts across ideological lines. Every required, half-empty parking lot is less green land, fewer houses, fewer affordable apartments, fewer businesses, more regulation, and even less public parking. A multi-family building is required to either eat into their height limits or pave over existing buildings, destroying the character that used to be there. Open-air lots contribute to the urban heat island effect and are a major barrier to affordable housing. 

Driving around looking for parking means more traffic, longer commutes, more distracted drivers and people walking farther alone at night. I could go on and on, and anyone who knows me (or was unfortunate enough to match with me online) can attest to that.

On-premise parking requirements and effectively banning public rental parking are utter failures of public policy. Please, let this zombie policy die.

Note: Op-Eds are contributions from guest writers and do not reflect RVA Mag editorial policy.

Top Photo by Tim Meyer on Unsplash.

Brock Hall

Brock Hall

Brock is a local area stand-up comedian and freakonomics fan with an Economics degree from VCU. He is always overthinking, and is also a firm believer that the best conspiracy isn’t secret, it’s boring.

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