Foss: Downtown parking in Schenectady merits study

This aerial view of State Street in downtown Schenectady was taken on Aug. 15.
This aerial view of State Street in downtown Schenectady was taken on Aug. 15.

Categories: News, Opinion, Schenectady County

Call me a tentative supporter of eliminating Schenectady’s parking requirements for downtown apartments.

If I say tentative, it’s because I agree with the idea in principle, but have concerns about how it might work in practice.

From an environmental and planning perspective, eliminating parking minimums makes sense, which is why more cities are doing it.

What I’m concerned with is whether the city of Schenectady is capable of enacting such a sweeping change without creating more headaches for businesses and residents.

Just last week, one local business owner spoke to me at length about the lack of on-street parking for customers due to downtown workers occupying metered spots all day long.

How would eliminating parking minimums impact him and other business owners? How would it impact people who live downtown? How would it impact people visiting downtown for a show at Proctors or fun event, such as the Soup Stroll?

These are the kinds of questions the city needs to ask if it’s serious about scrapping its longstanding mandate of 1.5 parking spots per apartment.

Which is why it’s encouraging to hear city Planning Commission Chair Mary Moore Wallinger, who recently expressed support for eliminating the regulation, say that the city must conduct a strategic parking study before making a decision.

A strategic parking study of downtown is sorely needed.

Frankly, it’s astonishing that the city doesn’t already have one, given all the development that’s occurred over the past decade. Over 1,000 apartment units have been built downtown since 2013. How many of the people who live in these units have cars? Where do they park? 

I’ve heard a lot of different complaints about downtown parking, and while that’s hardly surprising, it does suggest that the subject might benefit from deeper analysis.  

A parking study would provide data on who parks downtown, where they park, peak parking times and lots/spaces that are underused. It would examine the needs of business owners, but also of residents and visitors. It would tell us whether the city has too much parking, just enough or too little.

And it would help shape future parking policies and practices, providing insight into whether the city’s parking minimum is an outdated and unnecessary requirement.

Parking minimums force developers to provide a certain number of off-street parking spaces – a mandate that seems sensible, because it ensures that people can find a spot to park when they need one, but is actually quite costly.

In recent years, urban planners have come to view parking minimums as a hindrance that drives up the cost of development, making housing less affordable. They maintain that cities actually have an abundance of parking, and that requiring developers to create new spaces fills cities up with underused parking lots.

“There is nothing wrong with a business opting to provide parking for its customers, or a residential building providing it for its residents,” the non-profit organization Strong Towns, which advocates for the abolition of parking minimums, states on its website.

“But those businesses are perfectly capable of assessing their own need for parking, and weighing it against the other, potentially more valuable things they might do with the same land. Only when parking is not mandated can we do that weighing, decide what it’s actually worth to us, and price it accordingly.”

All of which sounds perfectly reasonable.

But I still have a lot of questions.

And until a parking study provides answers, I won’t be able to offer a more enthusiastic endorsement of eliminating Schenectady’s parking minimum.

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