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Parking cars: Missoula debates current needs, future trends

Missoula Parking Meter
Posted at 1:54 PM, May 27, 2022
and last updated 2022-05-27 15:54:33-04

MISSOULA - A large apartment complex proposed for Midtown Missoula has some saying it doesn’t provide enough parking, with just one spot per residential unit. Others say it has too much, creating a sea of asphalt that could go toward better uses.

The debate over parking with new development is everlasting in Missoula, where land is both limited and expensive. Using it to park cars is costly, and it may fall out of vogue as ride share and public transportation grow to provide new mobility options.

As one reader suggested, “Many developers either discourage car ownership or provide a small fleet of vehicles for residents to use. There are alternatives to huge parking lots.”

In downtown Missoula, Ian Ortlieb, director of the Missoula Parking Commission, said the COVID-19 pandemic “put everything in a tailspin” around parking. Demand dried up as people stayed home and the economy slowed.

Now that restrictions have been lifted, many businesses have turned to new work models like telecommuting or a hybrid schedule. If the trend holds, it could reduce the demand for downtown parking over the long term.

“As we monitor what’s going on – the recovery process in Missoula – we’re paying close attention to the demand for parking,” said Ortlieb. “But I think it’s early at this point to really figure out what’s going on.”

City planners in larger cities have already begun to rethink how people get around and what the future of mobility will bring. At some point, they project, autonomous vehicles will deliver passengers to any point, reducing the need for personally owned cars while rendering large parking lots obsolete.

Already, ride share like Uber and Lyft provide new transportation options, and new development in other cities now include drop-off zones over hard parking. Missoula has a handy public transit system in Mountain Line as well, which is poised to expand services to make the system more convenient.

But that will require more density in certain parts of the city – something that’s hard to achieve when parking takes up so much room.

“In looking at the future of the area in which we manage, the density is only going to increase,” Ortlieb said of the downtown area. “So how can we increase parking supply without necessarily increasing our footprint with parking lots? You can fit in a lot more parking spaces in a garage over a surface lot.”

According to the Washington Post, cities like Cincinnati and Los Angeles have new parking garages with flat floors and higher ceilings. That allows them to be converted to apartments or offices if the demand for parking dwindles.

In downtown Missoula, the need for parking isn’t equal and it varies in different areas, Ortlieb said. The city provides around 1,200 on-street spaces including short-term, long-term and metered parking. It provides an additional 1,300 parking spaces in its lease program, including surface lots and garages.

“We don’t get the complaint that there’s too much parking,” Ortlieb said. “Just about everywhere, there’s localized shortages. But some areas seem a little tighter than others.”

Another measure of demand may be the revenue brought to the city through 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 already has brought in more than $2.1 million.

Nationally, the 25 largest U.S. cities collected roughly $1.5 billion total from parking, according to “Special report: How autonomous vehicles could constrain city budgets.”

“We’re projecting a little higher than last fiscal year. I’m hoping that’s a sign of recovery out of the pandemic,” Ortlieb said of this year’s parking revenue.

Outside of the downtown district, Missoula city and county codes require a set number of parking spaces depending on a project. This month, however, the City Council began exploring potential incentives for developers in exchange for more affordable housing.

One of them would permit a developer to reduce parking by as much as 50% in exchange for a set percent of affordable housing units. Providing parking is expensive and drives up the cost of development, so paring back the amount of parking could bring building costs down.

It could also free up land for better building design and other uses – something members of the Missoula Redevelopment Agency noted in a recent apartment project proposed 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 parking lot set within the development. Some say it’s not enough parking while others contend it’s too much. A similar debate is unfolding around the large Ravara project on Scott Street.

“It would be nice to see some innovative thinking into some parking grid that’s not all asphalt – asphalt being a heat sink,” said MRA commissioner Nancy Moe. “Considering that temperatures are going to go up, 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 said, though the options cost money.

“One of the things we’ve been pricing out for our construction estimator is looking at doing some underground parking so we can reduce the size of that surface lot,” he said. “It’s something we’d like to accomplish but obviously, cost is significant with that.”