Last November, Boston’s Zoning Board of Appeals made a decision that brought the city’s real estate developers and affordable housing advocates together in a somewhat rare moment of unity. It rejected a 31-unit, solar-powered, mixed-use project in the city’s Roslindale neighborhood simply because it did not include any on-site, off-street parking. The Zoning Board’s decision to deny the project came in direct opposition to Boston Planning and Development Agency (BPDA), the city’s authority on development review, which had already granted approval.

The project in question, referred to by the site’s address at 4198 Washington Street, is a good candidate for redevelopment for a number of reasons. The location is currently a signal-level retail space, home to two locally owned businesses, and is in the center of a walkable neighborhood, flanked by multiple bus routes and a transit line. Roslindale is one of the most expensive neighborhoods in the city with the lowest percentage of affordable housing units of any neighborhood (12 percent in Roslindale vs. 18 percent citywide). It is also a neighborhood with more single-family homes than a typical Boston neighborhood, spurring higher-than-average housing values and residents with higher median household incomes.

The decision to not include parking in the plans was not a win either. The developer’s vision for 4198 Washington was rooted in two years of community conversations, including a tight partnership with the site’s current tenants to give them each new, modern space at below-market rent. The plan would have added much-needed housing to Roslindale with 40 of the proposed units offered to those earning less than 60 percent of the area median income. That is well above the city’s 13 percent affordability minimum for new developments with ten or more housing units.

Through their conversations with the community, the developer responded to neighbors’ concerns, reducing the height of the project from seven stories to four in the front, and five in the back (as to be not visible from the street). They also promised to subsidize public transit passes for all future residents and provide 20 leased parking spaces just a half-mile away. The new building would have been 100 percent electric, powered by solar, setting a new standard for sustainability in the neighborhood.

But it still wasn’t enough to sway the zoning board to vote in favor of the project and grant the zoning relief regarding parking needed to build.

Benjie Moll, Principal at Arx Urban, the developer for the project, shared his frustrations and the bigger implications for real estate development in Boston. “There seems to be a disconnect between the city’s goals for greener projects with less parking and what the zoning board views as a reasonable development,” he explained. “One of the keys to solving our housing crisis is to ensure there is predictability in permitting, especially after a multi-year process.”

Many high-profile neighbors spoke out in opposition to the decision including City Councilor Richard Arroyo and housing advocates including Jesse Kanson-Benanav, Executive Director of Abundant Housing Massachusetts. Kanson-Benanav highlights the significance of the project, “The Arx Urban project checks off all the boxes in terms of what the city wants a development project to be. If 4198 Washington can’t get approved, then what will?”

A city built by variance

Unlike New York, Boston doesn’t operate under a by-right development model. Jonathan Berk, Vice President at Patronicity and an outspoken advocate for placing the importance of creating housing for people over parking for cars, explains, “Almost every development in Boston requires zoning variances to be built and that opens up the project to criticism and litigation. Fundamentally, the city’s zoning code doesn’t reflect a growing Boston because it was created in the 1960s when the city was shrinking.”

In fact, the zoning code is in direct opposition to the Imagine Boston 2030, the master plan that is supposed to be guiding development and planning decisions. Finalized in 2017, the plan puts a premium on sustainability and housing affordability, two driving forces that weren’t even considerations when the city’s zoning laws were inked nearly 60 years beforehand.

The process for getting zoning relief not only extends development timelines, but it also jeopardizes project financing. Real estate investors and financiers don’t want to fund projects that may never break ground. When there’s no predictability about what a developer can actually build, capital is harder to secure.

The price of parking

The total price tag of parking can make a project impossible to pencil out. In Boston, on-site parking can cost $75,000-$100,000 per space to build, particularly because it usually means digging for an underground garage.

Kanson-Benanav explains that parking requirements are directly contributing to housing shortages in Boston and other cities across the country. “We are pushing the city toward eliminating broader parking requirements because it will reduce the cost of producing new housing and trigger more production of the missing middle of housing.”

In December, Boston did eliminate the requirement for on-site parking in multifamily projects with 60 percent income-restricted units, but that represents an insignificant number of all proposed housing projects currently under review in the city. In the case of 4198 Washington Street, this rule would not have applied.

One reason why parking minimums are so frustrating for housing advocates is that most spaces go unoccupied. According to the Metropolitan Area Planning Council, the regional planning agency for Greater Boston, 30 percent of parking spaces at new apartment buildings in the city are unused.

Parking remains a hot topic for projects going before the zoning board. In March 2022, a proposed 26-unit development in Boston’s Dorchester neighborhood was rejected by the ZBA because it lacked on-site parking even though the site sits directly between two subway stations on Boston’s red line. It’s less than a five-minute walk to either stop.

“Developers are buying sites that they can’t build on because they can’t get the permits or what’s permitted is unbuildable because of construction costs. Unless something changes, there will be fewer and fewer units built in Boston,” said Moll.

The new school of thought when it comes to parking goes back to basic economics: whether or not parking is included in a new development should be determined by the market. If people are willing to live in a place with no dedicated parking then they should have the chance. The argument against reducing parking usually has to do with increased pressure on city services like on-street parking. These worries can be easily eliminated by taking steps like those used by the developers of 4198 Washington Street.

Other cities including Minneapolis and Buffalo have eliminated all parking requirements from their zoning laws in an effort to reduce the cost of housing production and promote a lower dependence on cars. However, It’s too early to tell if those changes have made a significant improvement in those cities. A better comparison is looking at European cities like Amsterdam which is taking a systematic approach to not only reducing car parking on its streets but also banning cars entirely from certain areas of the city. These changes to parking availability are met with less pushback because Amsterdam’s residents rely less on their cars, with only 19 percent of residents driving daily.

There is a growing sentiment in the U.S for less car-centric development. But this doesn’t usually translate to development conversations when the lack of parking combined with proposed added density is weaponized by NIMBYs that don’t want change in their neighborhoods, even in urban centers like Boston. No matter how much we push for sustainable, affordable development, when people who oppose development sit on zoning boards, what happened to 4198 Washington Street becomes the norm, rather than the exception.

With housing production, particularly the affordable and workforce kind, years behind where it needs to be to ease the housing crisis, our communities will continue to suffer. Low-income families and seniors sit on housing waiting lists that are 5-6 years long. The American dream of homeownership is transforming into a nightmare for wishful first-time homebuyers. The typical family of four often can’t find a place to live, buy or rent, that’s under 50 percent of their take-home pay. But still, parking cars often trumps new housing because we allow that to happen. For cities, the question becomes more basic. What matters more: creating housing or parking cars? Sadly, the answer to this question for most American cities still isn’t clear.

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