Some say a large apartment complex proposed for Midtown Missoula does not have enough parking spaces, with only one space per residential unit. Others say it has too much, creating a sea of asphalt that could be put to better uses.
The parking debate with new developments is perennial in Missoula, where land is both limited and expensive. Using it to park cars is expensive and could fall out of use as carpooling and public transport expand to provide new mobility options.
As one reader suggested, “many developers discourage car ownership or provide residents with a small fleet of vehicles. There are alternatives to huge car parks.
In downtown Missoula, Ian Ortlieb, director of the Missoula Parking Commission, said the Covid-19 pandemic “sent everything into a tailspin” around the parking lot. Demand dried up as people stayed home and the economy slowed.
Now that the restrictions have been lifted, many companies have turned to new work models like telecommuting or a hybrid schedule. If the trend continues, this could reduce downtown parking demand in the long term.
“As we monitor what’s happening — the recovery process in Missoula — we’re paying close attention to parking demand,” Ortlieb said. “But I think it’s early at this point to really understand what’s going on.”
Urban planners in big cities have already started to rethink how people get around and what the future of mobility will bring. At some point, they predict, self-driving vehicles will transport passengers to any location, reducing the need for personal cars while making large parking lots obsolete.
Already, ride-sharing like Uber and Lyft are offering new transportation options, and new developments in other cities now include drop-off areas in hard-pack parking. Missoula also has a convenient transit system at Mountain Line, which is set to expand services to make the system more convenient.
But this will require more density in some parts of the city, which is difficult to achieve when parking takes up so much space.
“Looking into the future of the area we’re managing in, the density is only going to increase,” Ortlieb said of downtown. “So how can we increase parking supply without necessarily increasing our footprint with parking lots? You can install many more parking spaces in a garage on surface land.
According to the Washington Post, cities like Cincinnati and Los Angeles have new parking lots with flat floors and higher ceilings. This allows them to be converted into apartments or offices if parking demand drops.
In downtown Missoula, the need for parking is uneven and varies by area, Ortlieb said. The city offers approximately 1,200 spaces on the street, including short-term, long-term, and metered parking. It offers an additional 1,300 parking spaces in its rental program, including surface lots and garages.
“We don’t get the complaint that there’s too much parking,” Ortlieb said. “Just about everywhere, there are localized shortages. But some areas seem a bit narrower than others.
Another measure of demand may be the revenue brought to the city by parking. In 2021, Ortlieb said, the Missoula Parking Commission brought in $2.4 million in overall revenue. In the first three quarters of this fiscal year, it has already grossed over $2.1 million.
Nationally, the 25 largest U.S. cities raised about $1.5 billion in total from parking, according to “Special Report: How Self-Driving Vehicles Could Limit City Budgets.”
“We expect a little more than the previous year. Hopefully this is a sign of recovery from the pandemic,” Ortlieb said of this year’s parking revenue.
Outside of downtown, Missoula city and county codes require a set number of parking spaces based on a project. This month, however, the city council began exploring potential incentives for developers in exchange for more affordable housing.
One would allow a developer to reduce parking by up to 50% in exchange for a fixed percentage of affordable housing. Parking supply is expensive and drives up development costs, so reducing the number of parking spaces could lower construction costs.
It could also free up land for better building design and other uses — something members of the Missoula Redevelopment Agency noted in a recent proposed apartment project on South Avenue.
As presented, the Casa Loma project would create 132 new housing units. It would also provide 132 parking spaces in a large car park located within the development. Some say it’s not enough parking while others argue it’s too much. A similar debate is taking place around the great Ravara project on Scott Street.
“It would be nice to see some innovative thinking in a parking grid that isn’t all asphalt – asphalt being a heat sink,” said MRA Commissioner Nancy Moe. “Given that temperatures are going to rise, it would be nice to see something on the sustainability side.”
Nate Richmond, a member of the Casa Loma development team, didn’t disagree. Surface parking isn’t ideal, he says, although the options cost money.
“One of the things we assessed for our construction estimator is to consider doing underground parking so we can reduce the size of that surface lot,” he said. “It’s something we’d like to accomplish, but obviously the cost is significant with that.”