Steve Abell guest writes this analysis. He is a resident of Bellingham.
That question may be frequently asked by people driving in and around the future University Ridge (UR) student housing project proposed by Ambling University Development. The location of this project, comprising 40 two-bedroom units and 124 four-bedroom units for a total of 576 beds, is in the Puget Neighborhood along its southern border with Samish Neighborhood. The answer to the question will be determined by how many parking places are created within the complex relative to how many residents of the complex will need parking places. Present planning documents call for 420 parking places. What? 420 spots for 576 college students, all old enough to own and drive cars? How will that work? And how about guests, visitors, and employees? Where will they park?
The developer’s proposal claims that many residents of the complex will use public transit to get to campus and back. They predict heavy use of the Lincoln Street Park & Ride lot. How many students will actually do this is debatable, but apart from commuting to and from school, residents will have ample other reasons to own cars. They will have social lives. They will need to shop and access services. They may have jobs to go to. They may want to go back home occasionally to visit friends and family. For these reasons they will need a car… and a parking place for it.
Insight into the question of the number of future UR residents who will own and operate vehicles, and therefore will need parking places, can be gained by talking to local property and apartment managers who rent mainly to students. Much can be learned from experienced managers who work with tenant parking issues on a daily basis. This writer had recent conversations with managers along the 32nd Street rental corridor near Sehome Village, and walked away with a new appreciation the importance of parking.
For example, a manager of a complex comprising about 130 one-bedroom units said “parking is huge” when she talks to prospective tenants. Her property has 150 parking spots. She counted herself very fortunate to have ample parking for her tenants and their guests, which she said is very rare close to campus. In fact, she uses her parking situation as a strong competitive advantage when talking to prospective renters. Her observation is that, in addition to the normal discussions of monthly rent and lease requirements, being able to offer ample parking was often enough to close the deal on the spot.
In another case, a manager with 24 years experience in the local student rental market echoed the point that parking was very important in attracting and retaining good tenants. Her apartment complex comprises 1, 2, and 3 bedroom units for a total of 105 beds. For this year, and in the recent past, her tenants are 95-100% college students. Her complex has 107 numbered parking places. This year 102 vehicles were registered to tenants. Last year the number of registered vehicles was 94, and the year before that, 97. Keep in mind that this complex is much closer to campus, shopping, and transit than University Ridge will be. In spite of that, there is nearly one vehicle per bedroom. It seems quite reasonable to expect the demand from UR student residents for parking spaces will be the same or greater. This manager said visitor parking, especially on weekends, is a “nightmare.” Weekend visitors, assuming they respect the tenants’ own spaces by not parking in them, are forced to park on the street or in other parking areas, where cars may be subject to towing or car prowls.
The developer’s architectural plans for UR show that the required number of parking spaces for 576 bedrooms is 288, or one space for every two beds. This may be the normal ratio for conventional multi-family housing in which about half of the family residents own vehicles. University Ridge, as currently envisioned, will definitely not be typical multi-family housing. The developer is planning 420 parking spaces. The recognition that 288 are insufficient is laudable, but 420 do not go nearly far enough. The overflow parking from residents who need a space but can’t find one inside the complex, plus parking needs of employees, visitors, and guests, will overwhelm the surrounding neighborhood with parked cars, regardless of how many residents walk, bike, or take public transit to and from school.
Based on parking observations and issues at student rental complexes in the WWU area, 420 parking spots for 576 potential car owners at UR, with no extra provision for employee, visitor, or guest parking, will lead to extensive parking on surrounding neighborhood streets, most of which were not designed to handle this. The adverse effects and safety hazards of parking overflow that will fall on University Ridge residents, and neighboring Samish and Puget residents, include:
1. Increased traffic hazards in and near the complex while residents, parents, visitors, and guests drive around hunting for a place to park. The hazard level increases any time traffic in a crowded parking lot or on narrow residential streets increases causing minor collisions, fender-benders, and potentially worse as incidents become more frequent.
2. Traffic lanes narrowed by parked cars can lead to unsafe conditions for everyone, renters and homeowners alike, who must use these streets for access to their residences.
3. Especially on weekends, close proximity of cars, both moving and parked, together with drivers who may be neither patient nor sober, can be extremely hazardous.
4. Dramatic change in character of the immediate single-family residential area due to parked vehicles and pedestrians walking to or from those vehicles on many of the side streets.
5. Increased risk to current neighborhood residents whose line-of-sight to check for approaching cars as they leave their driveways is reduced by parked cars.
6. Likely increase in car prowl crime as many parked vehicles will be outside the protection of the complex itself.
7. Possible damage to front lawns and increased litter along streets.
8. Potential interference with emergency vehicle access.
9. Possible violations of the city ordinance limiting parking on city streets to no more than 24 consecutive hours in one place.
Our Planning Department must take a hard, realistic look at the parking capacity proposed by Ambling, and recognize that at a minimum one space per bedroom will be needed to avoid a serious and hazardous parking overflow problem. Even that may not be enough when employees, visitors, and guest parking needs are taken into account. Failure to do this will result in turning the neighborhood streets into little more than an overflow parking lot.