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Originally published March 22, 2012 at 9:44 PM | Page modified March 23, 2012 at 9:56 AM

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Parking around Seattle may get worse as city planners favor transit

Seattle city planners are recommending that the city eliminate parking requirements for new developments within a quarter-mile of frequent transit, under the theory that more people will take buses and light rail and fewer will own cars, particularly in dense urban neighborhoods like Queen Anne's West Galer neighborhood.

Seattle Times staff reporter

Public hearing

Seattle City Council will take public comments on a number of changes to Seattle's land-use code and regulations including eliminating the requirement for developers to provide parking within one-quarter mile of frequent transit service:

9:30 a.m. Wednesday, City Council Chambers, 2nd Floor Seattle City Hall, 600 Fourth Ave.

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The nine "no parking" signs and threats to tow 24/7 at Jim Hobbs' auto shop on Queen Anne don't deter people determined to run across the street to Trader Joe's or duck into any of the nearby cafes, coffee shops, offices or churches.

"They don't work," Hobbs said of his signs.

And parking along West Galer Street, an arterial three blocks west of Queen Anne Avenue, the hilltop's crowded business district, is likely to get worse.

Seattle city planners are recommending that the city eliminate parking requirements for new developments within a quarter-mile of frequent transit, under the theory that more people will take buses and light rail and fewer will own cars, particularly in dense urban neighborhoods like Queen Anne's West Galer neighborhood.

Before 2007, the city generally required that new developments outside of downtown provide parking for people who would live or do business there.

A 28-member round-table appointed by Mayor Mike McGinn as part of his 2010 Seattle Jobs Plan recommended eliminating the parking requirement, along with a number of other proposals.

The goal, said the mayor, is to reduce red tape and encourage job growth while enhancing the city's commitment to the environment.

Other proposals in the land-use package would:

• Eliminate parking requirements for major institutions such as colleges and hospitals in urban centers when they expand.

• Eliminate environmental review for developments smaller than 75,000 square feet — about the size of a full-service grocery store — if they are part of a mixed-use project and within an urban center or near a light-rail station. The state in 2007 allowed cities to raise the threshold for environmental review of mixed-use developments as a way to promote density.

• Allow small commercial development — up to 2,500 square feet — in what are now low-rise residential zones.

• Drop the city's current requirement for ground-floor retail along arterials outside of neighborhood business districts in an attempt to fill the many empty storefronts in new buildings around the city.

The Seattle City Council's Planning, Land Use and Sustainability Committee will hold a public hearing next week on the recommendations.

Proponents say they know some of the proposals are controversial. Ref Lindmark, a transit advocate and Green Lake resident who served on the round-table, said the relaxed requirements bring Seattle closer to the future it wants — fewer carbon emissions, a smaller contribution to global warming, more reliance on transit, fewer single-occupancy vehicle trips.

"The community is ready to have this conversation," Lindmark said.

But even some advocates of a less car-dependent city wonder about the pace of change.

"I agree with the premise that if we want to create denser, livable, walkable neighborhoods, we should build less parking," said Martin Kaplan, an architect and member of the Seattle Planning Commission.

But he added: "It's a painful transition. Some people want to do it overnight, and some of those people are politicians."

New direction

The city has over the past several years been moving in the direction of requiring no parking for new development, eliminating it first in urban centers and around light-rail stations and last year in multifamily zones with access to frequent transit.

"The region and the city has been investing in transit. We want to take the city out of the parking equation and give developers some flexibility to provide parking when it meets the needs of their future tenants," said Mike Podowski, urban-planning supervisor with the Seattle Planning and Development Department.

Seattle Central Community College, which is within the Capitol Hill urban center, supports the proposal to eliminate parking requirements around major institutions. A multistory garage built by the college is rarely full, and a new light-rail station is planned just across the street, said spokeswoman Judy Kitzman.

"This is in alignment with our commitment to encourage the use of mass transit/light rail/bus/etc. and ultimately reduce pollution and traffic congestion," Kitzman said in an emailed statement.

But activists in several close-in neighborhoods say there already is a shortage of parking on residential streets near their business districts and around colleges and hospitals. Many of the city's older apartment buildings and churches lack parking lots, pushing more visitors onto surrounding streets.

Residents also question whether the city's transit service is frequent and reliable enough to prompt people to give up their cars. And they worry that existing businesses will be hurt as shoppers struggle to find places to park.

"All the available street parking is already taken," said William Zosel, a member of the Squire Park Community Council, a neighborhood that borders both Seattle University and Swedish Medical Center's Cherry Hill Campus (formerly Providence Hospital).

Not mandating additional parking for new development "could result in fewer people driving to the neighborhood," he said. But he added, " the city needs to work closely with Metro to see that this ideal alternative actually exists."

People riled up

People in the West Galer neighborhood of Queen Anne were riled up about parking even before the city announced it was taking up the issue.

Aegis Living has proposed a four-story, 66-unit assisted-living facility at Third Avenue West and West Galer, immediately west of Hobbs' shop. Because it is proposing senior housing, Aegis is required — and would still be required under the city's proposed regulations — to provide 22 parking spots under a complex formula that estimates the number of residents, the size of the staff and the frequency of visitors.

About 200 neighbors in the surrounding blocks have signed petitions opposing the Aegis facility, largely because of their ongoing concerns about parking and traffic. Aegis plans to put 26 spaces in an underground garage — more than required — but residents say that won't be enough.

They are also skeptical of Aegis' claims that only two of 66 residents will own a car, that 40 percent of the staff at the 24-hour facility will use transit and that half of the residents will have family members who live nearby, further reducing the need for on-site parking.

Richard Gordon, a psychotherapist, restored an old house on West Galer and converted it into nine professional offices. The therapists park on the street. So do their patients.

"Yes, cars do pollute. We need to think up something different. But for now, we need parking to survive."

Aegis executives say they want to be good neighbors. They compiled their estimates of parking needs based on their other facilities and on those of another Queen Anne assisted-living facility, said Michael Derr, vice president for development.

Derr also noted that, under the city's existing rules, if the company were building a new apartment building, it would not have to provide any parking at all.

To Jim Hobbs, who has run his car-repair shop for 30 years, the city's proposal to eliminate parking requirements smacks of a political agenda that ignores the way most people still live.

"The city of Seattle doesn't want us here," he said of his auto-centric business. "It's the whole anti-car thing. They say that in an urban village you can get everything you need within walking distance. But I can't afford to live up here. I drive in from Everett. My employees drive in.

"Everybody owns a car," he said. "Or two."

Lynn Thompson: 206-464-8305 or lthompson@seattletimes.com. On Twitter @lthompsontimes.

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