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To park or not to park? Missoula City Council debates reduced requirements

The question this week hinged on whether eliminating parking requirements should be enacted now or considered later.
Missoula Parking Meter
Posted at 12:50 PM, May 04, 2023

MISSOULA - While the city's efforts to rewrite its building and zoning codes are only five months old, members of the Missoula City Council are already expressing disagreement on what should take precedence and how quickly the process should play out.

The question this week hinged on whether eliminating parking requirements should be enacted now or considered later in a package of recommendations that are based upon the findings of the city's consultant.

Council member Daniel Carlino is among two council members seeking to relax the city's parking requirements. He sought to achieve that on Wednesday but got push-back from others who wanted to wait.

“Parking mandates are used by us as a local government to say you cannot build housing or commercial development or small stores without providing X amount of parking spaces,” Carlino said. “That causes a lot of issues by turning land into concrete unnecessarily, by preventing additional (housing) units that could have been there instead, or preventing what could have been a garden or a lawn.”

The city in December kicked off an effort to reform its codes to better align with the Our Missoula growth policy. The process is likely to take several years to play out but once it's finished, the hope is that it streamlines development and makes it easier to deliver affordable housing.

Along the way, the consultants and city staff are expected to recommend a package of “early deliverables,” which the city could implement this year. The majority of council on Wednesday wanted to wait for that package to arrive, expecting it would likely include suggestions on parking, along with a slate of other tools.

“I think there's a lot of consensus to do parking reform. But this is our one chance to get this done right,” said council member Gwen Jones. “I'm hesitant to rearrange the work plans of our consultant. We're paying good dollars with a very difficult budget to get that expertise. I want to use that tool wisely. I want to see the code consultants come in with their rationale as to what's on the menu for early deliverables and why. It's going to be here in a few short months.”

More Debate

Members of the City Council spent nearly 4 hours debating code reform on Wednesday, and the issue over parking was tabled until the next meeting due to a lack of consensus.

While some want to rush the elimination of parking requirements through the process and place it ahead of other reforms, others suggested it should wait until a suite of recommendations are available that best address the city's housing needs.

Reducing the city's parking requirements couldn't take place in a vacuum without addressing other issues along with it, they added.

“It would be delusional to think that removing parking requirements mean less cars. It means that cars are going to go somewhere else, and we need to be prepared and ready to manage that additional requirement,” said council member Mirtha Becerra. “All of these things come together when thinking about making drastic changes to how we grow as a community.”

City staff also urged the City Council to wait until the full package of early deliverables is ready to consider. Pushing parking ahead of other goals could risk derailing the entire code reform effort, they said. Given a limited budget and staff time, it could also mean that other reforms go unfinished or get overlooked.

“If we're being asked to create that (parking) plan and execute it before we have assessed what the best path forward is, then that's a diversion of capacity,” said Eran Pehan, the city's director of development. “Will reducing or eliminating parking minimums increase housing? Yes. Will it increase housing more than the other recommendations that come from this report? We don't know and that's what we need to find out.”

But some weren't willing to wait for the full list of recommendations to be ready. Council member Kristen Jordan joined Carlino in urging City Council to adopt relaxed parking standards now to demonstrate its dedication to reform.

“I get confused sitting on City Council sometimes of where our priorities are,” Jordan said. “This (parking) proposal is a constituent-driven proposal that aligns with many of the city's values we have in place. Waiting for the consultants to decide our priorities, the tail is wagging the dog a bid.”

Jordan didn't say who those “constituents” were, prompting others to say a reduction in parking requirements wasn't universally supported, as Jordan had suggested.

Council member Heidi West said her Northside constituents want more parking as the area experiences rapid infill development.

“I would not assume there's universal support from our constituency for this,” said West. “I've heard some support and I hear lots of worry about the inadequacy of parking otherwise. It's very clear from our conversation there's no agreement on what substantive change (to parking requirements) means.”

Adhering to Process

West placed on a motion on the floor Wednesday asking the city's consultants “to explore alternatives to the current minimum parking requirements in order to create a diversity of housing types and flexibility in project development through the code reform process.”

However, Carlino and Jordan opposed it and the council didn't have time to vote on the measure. By rule, it will be required to do so next time the Land Use and Planning Committee takes up code reform and parking.

“Our preference is that we follow the process that has to be laid out by council,” said Pehan. “We agree that parking is something we should change as part of the code reform project. But we don't know yet if we'll get the most bang for our buck by elevating that as the first thing we do, and by dedicating all our capacity to that area. The code audit will tell us where we'll get the most bang for our buck.”