Why Does Easton Have Parking Minimums If They Can’t Be Enforced?

Tom Coombe:

Schyrhys, who owns several Northampton Street properties, testified that no other downtown restaurants have their own parking, and rely on the same sources he would: the city’s main garage, the parking lot at Our Lady of Lebanon church, and (eventually) the intermodal garage.

Board members had no issue with Schyrhys’s proposal.

“We all know parking is non existent downtown,” said board member Michael Civetella. “It’s the way of the world in Easton.”

The board is rightly dismissing the minimum parking requirements because enforcing them would mean drastically restricting what kinds of businesses can open downtown.

So what’s the point of having the parking minimums on the books in the first place? If “we all know” there’s no way to add new curb or surface parking downtown, then what’s the use in having prospective businesses and developers request variances? If a proposed use seems especially parking-intensive, then you can have that discussion, but the default should be no parking requirements.

Dennis Lieb’s Neighborhood Parking District Proposal is Dead-On

I think Noel Jones is being too hard on Mike Fleck here, but I do want to promote this post because Dennis Lieb is totally on point with this Neighborhood Parking District proposal:

After everyone else was done talking, Lieb finally spoke up, and said, “This meeting is already long, so I’m going to try to keep this short. I’ve never heard the issue of parking come up at a council meeting, so I’ve never bothered to speak up on the issue, but I’m pretty sure that I know more about parking than just about anybody in this room, and I just want to say that there is an answer to all this that has been successful all over the country.” At that point, he lifted a hard-backed tome heavy enough to kill a small animal, and said, “This is The High Cost of Free Parking by Donald Shoup. It’s 605 pages and anyone who would like to borrow it is welcome to.

It basically it explains that a successful parking plan is one that always maintains 15% of its parking spots open. This ensures that customers of businesses in any particular area will always be able to find a spot. Parking is a product, that earns revenue, and it should be treated like a business. If you give the product away for free, it doesn’t work. People just park in the spots all day when it’s free, and residents and customers can’t find parking.” Lieb went on to explain the concept of the Neighborhood Parking District, “The meters should be charging at all times. People initially scream at that idea until they realize that it keeps spots open for their customers, and that the meters are making them money, and that all of that revenue is going directly back into their neighborhood parking district, to fix up their blocks in any way they want to–whether it be facade grants, sidewalk steaming and repair, planting trees, signage, etc.–whatever they decide as a neighborhood district to do.


If the residents have parking passes so they don’t have to pay the meters, and they’re in a neighborhood parking district, they’re less likely to get upset if there isn’t a spot open right in front of their house–because they know at least that that meter is making them money for their block. And if they wanted to use it to pay for something like the Ambassadors, they could.”

A key component of doing this is throwing out Easton’s minimum parking requirements. Consider this, from Ed Sieger:

The zoning board also granted Schy-Rhys Development a parking variance for a 92-seat jazz lounge on the lower level of the Bank Street Annex.

Schy-Rhys plans on creating a roughly 4,300-square-foot lounge that serves food and drinks separate from the first-floor catering business. Greg Schuyler, a partner in Schy-Rhys, said plans include two new entrances onto Bank Street, and he expects the lounge would be open four or five evenings a week.

City zoning code requires 33 off-street parking spaces, but Bank Street Annex, like nearly all Downtown restaurants, simply doesn’t have the space for parking, attorney Dan Cohen told the zoning board.

The building is about a half block from the city’s Pine Street parking deck and is busy at night, when space is available in the parking deck, Schuyler added.

And:

As for the burrito restaurant, Juan Martinez, co-owner of the State Cafe and Grill on South Fifth Street, plans a 30-seat burrito restaurant in a college-owned property that previously housed a clothing shop and Lafayette’s ROTC office.

City zoning code requires 10 off-street parking spaces, but no off-street spaces are proposed. Martinez said his business plan focuses heavily on pedestrian traffic in the College Hill neighborhood, specifically Lafayette students, who would be able to use their meal plans to eat there.

Coincidentally, I’m actually reading The High Cost of Free Parking right now (just came out in paperback!) and one of the key point Shoup makes early on is that there’s no rhyme or reason to the number of parking spaces cities require. Floor area, as it turns out, is a terrible proxy for parking demand, which is what most cities use. Figuring out parking minimums is a pseudoscience. Planners don’t actually know how to do this.

So it’s much better to throw these faulty requirements out and let market prices manage parking demand – no more and no less than people are willing to pay for. City council really needs to listen to Dennis on this one, he’s exactly right.

Free Parking at Schools is a Regressive Handout to Wealthy Families

Before anyone goes raising property taxes, the lowest hanging fruit for raising revenue is parking fees for students and school employees. And yet, Saucon Valley School District is mulling the removal of parking fees.

Some of the Board members seem not to understand how this works. Here’s Lanita Lum:

It irks Saucon Valley School Director Lanita Lum that students must pay $20 to park in the high school parking lot while everyone else gets to park for free…

“It may seem like peanuts, $20 for a kid to pay for a parking pass, but they don’t charge anybody else,” Lum said. “I know it’s a little issue but I think it makes a huge statement.”

And here’s Susan Baxter:

While Baxter said she doesn’t have any strong feelings about the fundraising, she agrees students should be able to park for free. The board considered the parking fee along with a slew of other revenue-generating options, such as pay-to-play. Baxter opposed the fee then and still does today.

“We need a parking lot and it’s not because the students are driving to school that we need a parking lot,” Baxter said.

This is bizarre. Why else would you need such a big parking lot if students weren’t driving to school? Free parking is a strong incentive to drive to school, and fewer students would do it if it was more expensive.

Here’s the situation: the school district owns a limited amount of land. The physical school building takes up some of the land. Athletic fields take up some of the land. And parking takes up some of the land. The school building produces value, and the athletic fields produce value, but the parking lots consume value, producing nothing. It would be much better to shrink the amount of space devoted to parking, and replace it with uses that produce value for the school district and the taxpayers, such as more classroom space.

What Lanita Lum and Susan Baxter want to do is drastically increase the demand for parking by taking away pricing. If you take away the price, some kids who live in nearby neighborhoods will decide to drive instead of walk. Kids who could be taking the bus will drive instead. If you charge teachers and adminstrators to park, some will respond by carpooling or taking the bus.

Ms. Lum has a good point that it’s unfair to charge students $20 for parking if everyone else is parking for free, but it’s unfair because everyone else should be paying to park too.

The real “huge statement” the current policy makes, and what the auction shows, is that parking is valuable and it is expensive. Student drivers are subsidizing free parking for school district employees. If school district employees also paid to park, the money could be spent on replacing lost revenue from Tom Corbett’s budget cuts or reducing the fee for students.

The “huge statement” Ms. Lum and Ms. Baxter are making in their crusade to introduce a a commons problem in the school parking lot is that students who can’t afford a car ought subsidize wealthier students who can.

Cars are expensive. Lots of high school students are not wealthy enough to afford a car, so they walk or take the bus to school. They do not benefit when the school districts subsidizes free parking with higher property taxes. If wealthier families and school district employees pay for parking, everyone else can pay lower property taxes. If parking is free, property taxes must be higher to offset the cost.

Removing the parking fee for students who drive to school would be a straightforward regressive subsidy from poor families to wealthy families.

Healthy Food and Parking Minimums

Another point to make about the problem of limited mobility is that it’s a pain to get out to the suburbs to the grocery stores that have a better selection of fresh food. Yes, personal preferences and market forces play a big role in the fact that low income correlates with poor nourishment, but bad zoning rules make it much worse at the margins. If you require grocery stores to provide a minimum amount of parking, that necessarily bars them from opening in denser areas with an urban street grid.

So while it’s great to see the Obama administration engaging on this issue with the Healthy Food Financing Initiative (based on Pennsylvania’s Fresh Food Financing Initiative), it would be smart to tie the money to local zoning changes.

Smart Meters in Easton

The big story out of Easton yesterday was same-sex marriage benefits, and that’s obviously a huge progressive win, but I want to focus on the smaller progressive win – smart meters. Tom Coombe reports:

In other business, council approved a lease with a company called Streetsmart Technology, which will bring new “smart meters” to the city.

Councilman Jeffrey Warren, who held a hearing in March on the issue, said he recognizes that residents are hesitant about the meters, but also argued that “we’ve been stagnant for awhile in this area.”

This is something the city has been discussing a lot in the past few months. The mayor has said Easton is “backwards” in some aspects of its parking, for example, charging more to park in the city’s parking garage than on the street.

Councilman Roger Ruggles objected to one aspect of the smart meters: the way the meters reset after a driver pulls out of a space.

“I think that’s thivery. I think the city is stealing that money from me,” Ruggles said.

“Nobody’s making you move your car,” Warner told him.

Panto said it’s possible to install the meters without that feature, and that it’s something the city can look at before they’re implemented. The city is also looking at putting meters that could accept coins, cash and cards at the lot on Third Street, the mayor said.

So two points here:

Panto’s right, the prices should nudge people to park in the garages if they’re going to be parking for longer than two hours. I realize time limits just got increased to 3 hours, but I would’ve voted against that. I think you want to aim for 15% of parking spaces on each block to be empty at all times so that it’s easy for people who need to park right in front of their destination to be able to do so – but they should pay for the convenience with higher meter prices. Ideally you’d have the meter prices rising or falling throughout the day to meet demand. For anything longer than 2 hours, you want people parking in the garage. You can use relative prices to communicate that.

Roger Ruggles is wrong. Obviously we all put too much money in the meter sometimes just to be safe, but nobody tries to shake down the city over 50 cents. Under the current system it gets transferred to the next person who parks your space. Under the new system it would be collected by the city as revenue. Who cares? Either way you’ve lost some pocket change. If the city needs less in property taxes because it’s getting more revenue from parking leftovers, that’s clearly an improvement. Don’t overfeed the meter and you won’t have to worry about it.

Response to Gerard on Parking in Easton

Jonathan Gerard has a blog post up at Easton Patch suggesting a number of downtown parking solutions. There are a number of good ideas, especially for making people feel better about paying parking tickets, but he stops short of endorsing the most obvious conclusion of some of his own ideas - that the key to getting the right number of vacancies per block is getting the pricing right.

Items 3 and 4 indicate that Mr. Gerard clearly understands the relationship between parking prices and demand. He says suspending meter fees during a specific time will encourage more business (low price creates higher demand), and auctioning off one space per block per month will raise lots of money (willingness to pay is the fairest way to allocate a scarce resource). The assumption is that a parking space near the city core is a valuable thing, and indeed it is. But why do this on a monthly basis, and for all day? Surely the winner’s car won’t be sitting in the spot all day every day for that month.

Electronic meters and sensors would allow you to run this “auction” in real time, all day every day. Other than meter technology, there’s no reason that meter prices should remain the same all day. They can and should fluctuate in response to demand. During periods of peak demand, prices would rise. During periods of low demand, prices would fall. That’s how the new system in San Francisco will work.

Probably variable pricing would result in much more revenue being collected from parking meters (unpopular!) so that’s why I like Mr. Gerard’s idea to donate the proceeds to a good cause. Personally I think this would be a good way to fund the Ambassadors and Easton Main Street Initiative. This would probably be more politically sustainable since people would see their parking money directly funding cleaner streets, facade improvements, business loans, etc.

Bethlehem Zoning Changes

A few points about the proposed Bethlehem zoning changes Lynn Olanoff wrote about:

The changes to be discussed Wednesday include changing building height regulations to better address concerns about where commercial zones meet residential areas, Heller said. The new code originally included regulations to allow buildings of up to 150 feet in Center City, but the new proposal would reduce those limits in areas that border homes, she said.

This would be a mistake in my view. Capping building height increases residential and commercial rents. It’s a basic supply and demand issue. The housing market fundamentals point to rising rents, and capping height will make it worse. It doesn’t make sense to be talking about downzoning anything.

The historic district is never going to get taller buildings, and that’s as it should be, but that means that to keep rents affordable you need to upzone the nearby non-historical areas on Broad, New and further down Main St before the Broad St intersection.. The rest of the central business district on the North Side shouldn’t have any height limits, and there definitely shouldn’t be any height limits anywhere on South Side, especially the former Steel land. Joe Kelly has acknowledged that all the new development on South Side is going to increase the value of nearby land, so to keep rents down, you need to increase density. Limiting building height will make the city unaffordable.

This is also something I don’t understand:

Another proposed change would address residents’ concerns about switching zoning on North New Street between West Walnut and West Market streets from residential to commercial, Heller said. City officials had proposed the change to better fit with existing uses, but neighbors opposed the change, so city officials decided not to go forward with it, Heller said.

This is right downtown. It would be a big mistake to limit commercial uses. Darlene Heller needs to stand up to the NIMBYs on this one.

This is moving in the right direction but doesn’t go far enough:

The city also has proposed to reduce parking requirements to allow more development in the Center City and South Side business districts, Heller said.

Parking minimums are best understood as a tax on people who don’t own cars. Mandatory parking increases the cost of goods. You should be able to put something like a grocery store on South Side without requiring a huge surface parking lot. Get rid of all the parking minimums and let the free market determine the real price.