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The Benefits of Limited Waterfront Parking

October-November 2009

The Waterfront District

The Benefits of Limited Waterfront Parking

by Wes Frysztacki

Wes Frysztacki is a Bellingham resident and member of the newly-formed Bellingham Sustainable Transportation Roundtable. Anyone interested in joining BSTR is welcome to contact Wes at .

Editor’s Note: The former Georgia-Pacific property was initially called New Whatcom. Since the draft environmental impact statement was issued, the name has been changed from New Whatcom to The Waterfront District.

In April, the Bellingham City Council and the Port Commission approved the “Proposed Planning Framework Assumptions” for The Waterfront District. These assumptions dictate what happens to the former Georgia-Pacific site. They govern how the environmental planning process will be completed.

Previous Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) documents produced by the Port of Bellingham raised serious questions. Some have been addressed, others remain. The environmental planning process was suspended by the port after receiving too many negative comments.

Now that a positive City Council vote has been secured, the port will resume the EIS process, expecting a better result. That premise assumes the “Proposed Planning Framework Assumptions” are sufficient to satisfy all fundamental issues needed to proceed. They aren’t.

Parking was not included in the port’s “Proposed Planning Framework Assumptions.” This article explains why parking assumptions will dictate the ultimate environmental character and quality of The Waterfront District. The amount of parking, where that parking is located and how it is accessed directly determine development attributes.

How parking is treated will determine whether a walk through The Waterfront District is more like a walk along vehicle-oriented Meridian or through Western Washington University’s fabled Red Square pedestrian area.

Parking has been addressed in the transportation section of the port’s previous EIS documents. Those EIS transportation sections involved hundreds of pages of formal documentation, technically obscuring any relationship between community values and unintended consequences.

Few of us read those EIS pages. Not surprisingly, we rely upon public meeting presentations to be informed. Those presentations have been well done, often with many appealing graphics and colorful renderings. Negative impacts are camouflaged by enticing vocabulary. Soothing words such as “walkability” and “bicycle-friendly” were often heard.

Unfortunately, the transportation component of the EIS document does not include such words. “Walkability” and “bicycle-friendly” are not to be found. Those EIS pages do mention parking and do identify significant vehicle-related traffic impacts.

One gets the impression that those associated with the port’s EIS process view “walkability” and “bicycle-friendly” as arbitrary urban design attributes, not fundamental modes of transportation. It appears a determination was made that walking is something you do after you drive to the waterfront and park your car. Cycling is something you do after you remove the bungee cords strapping your bicycle to your SUV. Consequently, everyone needs a guaranteed parking space, including pedestrians and cyclists.

Guaranteed parking guarantees driving. Driving guarantees traffic impacts. Traffic impacts guarantee an environment that is not the “walkability” and “bicycle-friendly” environment many of us would like to envision for The Waterfront District.

The function of the transportation component of Bellingham’s Waterfront District EIS became predominantly one where how many parking spaces are needed was calculated. Answer: 12,892 parking spaces.

The negative impacts of all those walkers and cyclists driving to Bellingham’s Waterfront District was determined. Answer: 14 of 18 off-site intersections will be close to or exceeding their capacity.

Next, the mitigation action needed to offset the damage done by all of those walkers and cyclists driving to Bellingham’s Waterfront District was identified. Answer: the mitigation action is to tell the city of Bellingham the “bad news” – mitigating traffic impacts is the city’s responsibility.

When the last port EIS document was released, Mayor Dan Pike did not receive the EIS process “bad news” very well. His November 4, 2008 letter to the port was blunt:

“The full development of 6 million square feet, in either the rotated grid or the traditional grid, would have serious and unacceptable traffic impacts in downtown, Old Town, and other neighborhoods.”

The mayor’s letter set off a furor of bad karma. Various propaganda materials were produced, meetings hosted and more words exchanged.

It is now about 10 months later and enough people seem to be “happy” to move forward with the EIS process. Supposedly, all of the really important decisions are ahead. After all, the EIS is just a legal document, a bureaucratic requirement, not the real decision-making tool, right? Isn’t it best to get this EIS thing out of the way so the port can move ahead?

You probably guessed by now that the author of this article is not one of the “happy” people. Mayor Pike may be content since his letter became the focus of several months of intensive dialogue. Some adequate comfort level has apparently been reached by enough important people to proceed. This “happy” and “comfortable” state of affairs should make us nervous.

Some tension among governmental agencies can be a good thing, especially when it involves testing assumptions regarding a project so important to the future of a city. Thanks to Mayor Pike for making responsible comments and creating healthy tension. Thanks to the port in taking the mayor’s concerns seriously. Thanks to Whatcom Watch for giving a humble member of the public an opportunity to support the mayor’s original concerns in his November 2008 letter and offer some more thoughts on why the mayor and City Council still have more work to do.

There was another letter sent to the port at the same time the mayor sent his letter. It was two days later, dated November 6, 2008. Maybe the port will get around to it now. My plan is to keep writing articles for Whatcom Watch until I hear from them.

An article in the June issue (page 4) of Whatcom Watch questioned why 12,892 parking spaces are needed for The Waterfront District. This month’s related article offers some assistance in answering the mayor’s letter with a proven, policy-driven regulation to avoid the dire consequences caused by those 12,892 parking spaces the EIS document predicts are needed and the mayor seeks to avoid.

Consider the University of Washington (UW) parking saga. In the 1970s, the UW area was a rapidly growing activity center. The campus was more than just our state’s top university. The UW had nationally-competitive athletic programs, a top-ranked hospital and heavily-funded research programs. This complex was surrounded by a mix of reasonably tranquil residential areas, less sanguine campus housing establishments and an array of predominantly campus-related mixed commercial areas. The city of Seattle was being presented plans for even more intensive redevelopment on and around the campus.

Vehicle traffic around the university was already unacceptable. After great debate, the city of Seattle imposed a permanent limit on the absolute maximum number of parking spaces allowed at UW to restrain vehicle traffic growth. The limit was set at 12,300 parking spaces. In contrast, the city of Bellingham has imposed a permanent limit of 3,200 parking spaces on Western Washington University (WWU). Strangely, Bellingham’s limit is a minimum requirement, not a maximum like in Seattle.

So, who is wiser, Seattle or Bellingham? Consider some observations. The 12,300 maximum limit set in 1983 has been maintained for more than a quarter of a century. Between 1983 and 1999, UW grew by more than 5,000 students, staff and faculty with no increase in parking spaces. Between 1999 and 2012, UW will be growing by another 9,000 students, staff and faculty with no increase in parking.

In 1999, UW was a development of 14.9 million square feet supported by 12,300 parking spaces. By 2012, UW will have 19.5 million square feet supported by the same total of 12,300 parking spaces. So, why does the Port of Bellingham need more parking spaces for just 6 million square feet than Seattle needs for 19.5 million square feet?

Zero additional parking while allowing millions of square feet of new development wasn’t an easy achievement. Attracting and retaining top employees with no parking perks is challenging. Enormous pressures existed to park on residential streets around the campus. Residential Parking Zones (RPZs) were created around the campus. RPZs restrict use of on-street parking to local residents. RPZs have since been expanded throughout Seattle and are a common sight in places such as Capital Hill, Queen Anne and Wallingford. Altogether, Seattle has 27 RPZs.

A Transportation Management Plan (TMP) at UW was established with a wide variety of incentives for students, faculty and staff to use carpools, vanpools, cycling and transit. The UW TMP delineates many details necessary to achieve the travel demand results accomplished by UW.

WWU has successfully emulated these UW RPZ and TMP programs, making it all the more curious why such alternative transportation tactics weren’t addressed by the port’s EIS work.

Instead, documentation was produced by the port and its many consultants using out-dated methodology and Bellingham minimum parking space requirements unsuited for the waterfront vision. Consultants used Level of Service (LOS) calculations to determine how many intersections would be near or exceeding their design capacity by being assigned a LOS of E or F. LOS used in these situations is a measure of vehicle flow effectiveness where LOS E is unstable vehicle flow and LOS F represents a breakdown in vehicle flow.

The result was an analysis in the port’s most recent EIS document that determined 14 of 18 off-site intersections would be at LOS E or F by 2026, whereas only 4 of those intersections would be at LOS E or F in 2016. Going from 4 to 14 intersections with traffic issues in just 10 years is a stunning increase in vehicle traffic congestion. This would be tragic if allowed to happen. The mayor recognized the problem. His letter is to be applauded – a laudatory voice of reason amid a choir of others who seemed to want the city and port to get along regardless of what that required.

The recent UW Campus Master Plan EIS represents the results of a better approach. UW developed a new TMP sufficient to allow 4.6 million square feet of additional construction, but not a single new parking space. An EIS was produced using the TMP projects and programs, negating the need for parking. Only 10 of 79 off-site intersections were determined to have a LOS E or F, the same number at these levels as in 1999.

In the heart of the Seattle metropolitan area, infamous for cataclysmic traffic snarls, less than 13 percent of the intersections around the UW remain at LOS E or F after 4.6 million square feet of additional construction. But in Bellingham, where cyclists thrive, transit is booming and dreams of LEED awards are routinely voiced, intersections with unsatisfactory LOS E or F performance climb from 22 percent to 78 percent.

How can this be? Simple: in Seattle, citizens and policymakers intervened. That is what we must do in Bellingham to avoid the foreboding warning at the end of the port’s EIS transportation section. The port’s EIS “Significant Unavoidable Adverse Impacts” section declares that:

“… added congestion would contribute to measurably poorer performance of the transportation network, in terms of increased delays along several of the corridors and at some specific intersections. The increase in traffic and higher volumes of pedestrians and bicycles would result in more conflict points and increased hazards to safety.”

The port’s EIS “Significant Unavoidable Adverse Impacts” terse statement conveys a grim future. Do we want “added congestion,” “delays,” “more conflict points” and “increased hazards to safety”? Aren’t these avoidable? Yes, they are.

The UW Campus Master Plan EIS has a far more appealing statement in its “Significant Unavoidable Adverse Impacts” section. It conveys an entirely different result:

“The increase in total campus population would increase the demand for pedestrian, bicycle, HOV and transit facilities. With implementation of the proposed TMP measures, significant impacts would not be anticipated.”

The above quotation is the entire statement in the UW Campus Master Plan EIS “Significant Unavoidable Adverse Impacts” section. There are no alerts about added congestion, delays, conflict points and safety hazards as found in the Port of Bellingham’s EIS caused by the auto-dependence of the proposed plan.

Mayor Pike has repeatedly expressed his desire for the type of outcome for The Waterfront District achieved by the UW’s EIS. His letter included the following recommendation:

“I suggest that other mitigation measures be included, which would reduce the automobile-dependence of this development, and therefore reduce auto use and associated traffic impacts. These measures should include a much more aggressive expansion of transit, bicycle, and pedestrian facilities. I also suggest adopting a strategy to place significant constraints on parking. It is likely this plan will build out over the next 50 years. If we plan for cars we will get cars. If we plan for people, we will get a livable place, without significant adverse impacts on our community.”

Mayor Pike’s recommendations are outstanding. If heard and used, they will make the difference needed resulting in the special place so many of us have said we envision. In the summary of the public meetings the facilitator for the four community meetings observed that:

“Transportation is a major issue and concern. Nearly all of those commenting on the transportation elements of the plans want to make certain the waterfront is not too “‘car-centric.’”

There should be no doubt that what is proposed by the port is about as car-centric as you can get with 12,892 parking spaces. The last EIS produced by the port made a weak effort to acknowledge this flaw. A recommendation was made to lower the parking spaces required to a range of between 11,485 and 12,007. This is still 10 percent to 15 percent more than the estimated parking demand. Supposedly, extra parking spaces are needed to reduce the volume of vehicles recirculating through parking areas.

Directing vehicles that need to park to where spaces are available eliminates any need for such adjustments. Realtime electronic informational signage is common throughout the world in urban areas with shared parking programs. Sea-Tac uses such a system effectively. The cost of a realtime electronic parking occupancy monitoring system is far less than the 1,044 or more extra parking spaces specified in the EIS for which there is no parking demand.

The EIS estimates maximum hourly parking demand at 10,441 vehicles without a TMP. A TMP should be prepared to cut this parking demand in half while allowing the same amount of land development desired by the port. A maximum parking capacity for the 6 million square feet of 5,220 is still considerably less ambitious than what has already been proven to be possible and desirable in our state.

A reduction in the parking requirements eliminates up to 7,672 spaces. The required capital investment for typical urban surface parking is about $10,000 per space. This would reduce Waterfront District development costs by up to $76,720,000.

Reduced financing cost is just one benefit of limiting parking supply. An acre of land is required for every 100 parking spaces. Just go to WWU’s 7-acre remote parking lot along Lincoln Street (the former Samish Twins Drive-In property) and count parked cars to verify this fact. Wouldn’t it be nice if those 76.7 acres were available for open space and parks?

Of course, 76.7 acres were never set aside for parking. Where was the port planning to put all of the parking? This is unclear, but it was likely to be within the areas set aside for development under buildings or in parking structures. Structured parking increases the capital investment 2 to 5 times over the cost of surface parking. Ask anyone involved with parking issues at WWU to verify these facts. WWU has struggled for years to determine how to finance the high cost of various parking structure proposals.

Parking costs are hundreds of millions of dollars more than necessary. The presumption that each development would pay for its own parking or that parking revenues would offset capital costs would likely result in a pro forma that does not pencil out without huge public parking subsidies. One could argue that such expectations essentially render the fundamental elements of the overall Waterfront District plan as fiscally nonviable.

The Bellingham City Council and Port Commission voted in April to adopt the “Planning Framework and Planning Assumptions.” Parking was not considered sufficiently important at the time to warrant inclusion in this document. That was a mistake. An appropriate parking policy must be established now if The Waterfront District is to be both a fiscally viable project and one that reflects the community values voiced at virtually all of the public meetings.

The mayor thought parking constraints were important back in November. He was correct to recommend adopting a strategy to place significant constraints on parking. He needs to be the one to propose this strategy. That should be done now so that more consultant effort is not wasted on another undesired outcome. §

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