RENX.ca: LRT and residential development: How much parking is needed?

By John Clark, VP, The Regional Group of Companies, Inc.

Too many, too few, or just enough? For the modern urban core that is remaking itself with transit-oriented development in mind, what is that Goldilocks zone when it comes to parking spaces?

Take these two recent examples from the far ends of the spectrum.

In June, the Ottawa Business Journal reported Toronto development group 250 Besserer Limited Partnership had filed a site plan application with the City of Ottawa to build a nine-storey building with 99 residential units in the neighbourhood of Sandy Hill. The plan calls for nine visitor parking spots, but not a single parking spot for a resident.

The developers intend to “encourage alternative modes of transportation,” with 99 bicycle parking spaces on site as well as 12 more just off the property.

Now, bear in mind this site is only 300 metres from the University of Ottawa campus and less than 600 metres from the new Rideau LRT station. The target resident is obviously going to be a student or a young person who walks, bikes and takes public transit (the rental units are a mix of bachelor, one- and two-bedroom apartments).

Do some developers miss the point?

This shift away from onsite parking given the arrival of Ottawa’s new LRT system is understandable.

But then we have the example at the other extreme: Claridge Homes’ substantially larger multi-tower complex earmarked for 383 Albert St./340 Queen St. This is a prime downtown location much closer to a new LRT station than the 250 Besserer site.

There is a whole other story about how Claridge Homes has had this project on the drawing board for years. Aside from the influence of LRT, record-low vacancy rates in the nation’s capital have driven renewed interest in multi-family rentals as an investment class and spurred new development.

But the key takeaway for today’s teaching moment is how many parking spaces Claridge is still looking to have on site despite the proximity of that new LRT station. The current plan calls for a four-storey underground parking garage with 335 vehicle spaces. (Bicycles get around 200.)

This is intended to serve a 26-storey tower with 160 rental units, a 25-storey tower with 229 condos and a nine-storey tower with 177 rental units. There will also be 2,152 square metres for retail on the ground level (and maybe a hotel as part of the mix down the road).

That means Claridge is planning to provide parking for around half of the residential units. (That’s a rough estimate, without knowing how many spots may be designated for customers on the retail side.)

In a recent feature on transit-oriented development by OttawaStart.com, Catherine McKenney, councillor for Ottawa’s Somerset Ward, criticized this as a step in the wrong direction. She said the ideal would have been parking spaces for only 10-20 per cent of the total condo and rental units. (It also must be noted zoning for the property reportedly allows for substantially more parking than the proponent has planned.)

“If you want to encourage other modes of transportation and in this case, especially transit … you really can’t induce demand for driving, you really have to limit that and encourage people to use transit,” McKenney said.

I have to agree, but developers also don’t just throw money around. They must have concluded there is a certain level of parking demand in this part of the downtown, and the project’s economics might not work without the planned amount of parking.

Another pairing of extremes

Another massive project along the new LRT line is 900 Albert St., which also seems to be missing the point of transit-oriented development. It calls for 1,241 residential units between three towers (along with office and retail space), with 1,059 parking spaces spread between six levels of underground parking.

Then there is this example: Montreal’s Place Dorée Real Estate Holdings recently filed a site plan with the City of Ottawa to build a 25-storey mixed-use tower at 81 Slater St. that would include 196 rental units and some ground-floor retail space. Like 250 Besserer, there will be no designated parking spaces for residents, only 18 for visitors. Bicycles will get 105.

This site, by the way, is located in what is deemed “Ottawa’s burgeoning downtown ‘urban tech’ district,” according to the Ottawa Business Journal.

Do you see the pattern here?

Size and location are big factors.

The much larger mixed-used developments located away from the more densely developed part of the city’s downtown, and which are moving along in the context of transit-oriented development, continue to favour the private motor vehicle. Cars and parking remain big factors in some developments even if they are located only about a kilometre from these other sites where virtually no parking is planned. 

Meanwhile, it is these smaller and more niche projects that target specific demographics as residents – students, young professionals, tech workers – which are daring to leave the automobile behind in favour of a new and greener mode of downtown living.

When you consider owning an automobile costs at least $6,000 a year on average, plus parking, not having a car could pay for most of a tiny apartment or half of a mid-sized unit. From a developer’s perspective, not providing parking to residents means you can charge more per square foot for the livable area, and eliminate the construction and maintenance costs of below-grade parking, while at the same time offering a total package that may be less than the combination of rent and car ownership elsewhere.

By catering to and encouraging a car-free lifestyle, some downtown developers may also be adding significantly to the long-term viability of their projects.

Catherine McKenney