Charlotte’s light rail was supposed to change our attitude about cars. It hasn’t.
Along the Blue Line, new apartments are springing up with bicycle repair stations, walking paths to light rail stations, direct connections to the Rail Trail path – and hundreds of parking spaces for cars.
Most of the apartments along the Blue Line light rail and its extension north to UNC Charlotte have roughly the same ratio of parking as apartments in Charlotte’s car-dependent suburbs – about one parking space per bedroom.
It wasn’t supposed to be this way: The dense, urban developments along Charlotte’s light rail were supposed to show the city a new path forward, away from its post-World War II history as a car city.
Critics say Charlotte hasn’t done enough to encourage developers to stop building massive parking decks along the Blue Line, which add millions to a building’s cost and indirectly encourage every resident to own a car.
Developers say the market isn’t ready for apartments and commercial buildings with less parking, even next to mass transit, and that they can’t get funding for projects from lenders if they don’t include enough parking.
“Those are the best opportunities we have right now to build less parking,” Shannon Binns, head of Sustain Charlotte, said of the sites developers have been buying up for top dollar next to the light rail. The $1.2 billion Blue Line extension from uptown to UNC Charlotte is set to open by March of next year. “When we don’t maximize the land use around the transit investments, we really are undermining those investments.”
“We’re allowing a lot of that land to be spent storing cars,” said Binns.
Jeff Harris is head of Lennar Multifamily’s Charlotte office. They’re developing two major projects along the Blue Line, one at the former Pepsi Bottling site next to New Bern Station and one uptown at Eighth and College streets. Both will include hundreds of parking spaces in parking garages to serve the residents, shoppers, diners and office workers. Harris said parking is necessary to make the projects viable, especially in mixed-use sites that include shops people where are likely to drive.
“One day, car-sharing services and Uber may make this unnecessary, but not quite today,” said Harris. “We’re moving in that direction, but I don’t think it’s as rapid as people may have hoped or expected.”
To encourage developers to build less parking at projects next to mass transit, Charlotte established a new zoning category for “transit-oriented development.” Applied to land along the Blue Line, it’s the only designation that removes any required mandatory minimum amount of parking for new apartments.
$15,915Average cost to building a new parking space in Charlotte.Source: VTPI
That means in theory a developer could build an apartment building next to the Blue Line with no parking spaces and count on residents to either find their own on surrounding streets or get by with mass transit, walking, biking and Uber. The developers could also build fewer parking spaces than the traditional ratio of one car per bedroom – say, one space for every apartment rather than every bedroom, or one space for every two apartments, on the assumption that not every resident will own a car.
But so far, no developers have taken the city up on that. Charlotte planning staff are aware of only one apartment that has fewer than one space per bedroom – the Catherine 36 Apartments near the Carson Street light rail stop. The small building has 36 apartments and 32 parking spaces.
Benjamin Collins, senior director for Crescent Communities’ multifamily business, said there’s as much demand for cars along the Blue Line as in other parts of Charlotte. Crescent is developing large new projects with apartments and shops at the Stonewall Station and 36th Street Station light rail stops.
Building a parking space is expensive. The Victoria Transport Institute estimates that it costs an average of $15,915 to build a parking space in Charlotte. Multiply that cost by a 400-space parking deck, and a developer can add nearly $6.4 million to the cost of a new apartment building – costs that are later paid by residents in the form of higher rent.
“It significantly drives up the cost of development,” said Binns. “And that incentivizes people to own cars, because we don’t unbundle the rent and the parking.”
Other cities have seen more developers experiment with building less parking. Denver, Seattle and Portland all have had major new apartment projects in dense, walkable areas near mass transit built with zero parking. Even car-centric Miami saw a developer last year kick off a small apartment project with no dedicated parking.
Such projects often draw sharp backlash from neighbors, who fear their streets will be overrun with apartment residents leaving their car on any available square foot of asphalt.
“Is that a typo? 60 units with 5 parking spaces?” one resident said in Seattle in response to a nearly parking-free apartment proposal, according to the Seattle Times. “What is wrong with these people?”
Donald Shoup, a UCLA professor of urban planning who’s studied parking and advocates for removing mandatory minimum amounts of parking, said Charlotte’s Blue Line development shows the market remains a critical factor in determining how much parking developers include.
“Many people think that having no parking requirements means there will be no parking,” he said. “Charlotte has shown so far that’s not true.”
Terry Shook, an architect and urban planner based in South End, said the amount of parking in new buildings is driven by investors who expect new buildings they finance or buy to meet certain requirements.
“The truth is they’re actually products. They have certain rules to get them underwritten,” said Shook. “The parking is seen as something that has to go with the building. You’ve got to have a bedroom, you’ve got to have stairs, you’ve got to have parking.”
Although it’s not easy to get around Charlotte without a car now, Shook said he expects that to gradually change. The Charlotte Area Transit System is exploring a $6 billion plan to build more light rail. And ride-hailing apps and possibly even self-driving cars will likely reshape how we get around. Shook said the risk for Charlotte is building new apartments dominated by parking garages that are designed for the needs of today – but won’t age well.
“What does it mean for us when we build a city?...These things will be with us for the next 50 or 60 years before they’re ever torn down,” said Shook. “It’s a complicated matter, but (one) we as a community have to look into if we don’t want to end up with all these medieval forts of parking and apartments.”
Binns said the city should consider setting stricter maximum limits on the amount of parking that can be built at apartments next to transit lines. The zoning rules currently cap the amount of parking at 1.6 spaces per apartment in transit-oriented developments. That’s usually enough to allow developers to build one space for every bedroom in their apartments if they want.
Harris said that until mass transit in Charlotte develops to the scale it has in cities such as Washington, D.C. and New York, “A lot of people are going to feel the need to keep a car.”
“It really is a Rubik’s cube with a lot of different considerations you have to figure in,” said Harris. “It’s challenging.”