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Seattle builds lots of new apartments, but not so many parking spots

By Mike Rosenberg Seattle Times

As Seattle grows into a larger and denser city, urban renters are giving up a long-held luxury: the apartment-building parking space.

It’s now common for buildings to open completely free of parking in a city where, not long ago, the average renter was guaranteed spots for one or two cars.

In downtown and areas near frequent transit service across Seattle, 30 percent of new apartment developments proposed in the past several years included no parking at all, according to new data analysis provided by the city.

But even buildings that do include garages are shrinking them: On average across the city, developers now include 60 percent fewer parking spaces per unit at new buildings than they did a decade ago. Now, only about half of new apartments come with even an option for a parking space.

The change is based on the bet that more people will give up their cars, and that cutting out costly parking garages will allow more apartments to spring up, helping ease the city’s affordability crisis.

But it’s been a bumpy ride: Some residents have complained it’s still not possible to live a car-free lifestyle in Seattle, and that vehicles have simply migrated from apartment garages to parking on increasingly crowded city streets. And while the change has spurred construction of thousands of new apartments each of the past few years, the city’s rents are among the fastest-growing in the country.

Either way, with Seattle’s roads at capacity and new parking regulations not going away, the trend certainly appears to be the future of the city.

“You’re seeing a major shift as the city grows up and gets dense,” said Greg Smith, CEO of local developer Urban Visions. “The trend clearly is less parking. We’re going through this transformation, and any time you go through changes, it’s stressful, and you see that right now.”

The parking spots began to disappear after the city put new regulations in place between 2007 and 2012 in an effort to reduce traffic and cut down on developer costs so they could add more apartments.

Now, in addition to all of downtown, parking is not required in select areas near bus and rail lines in neighborhoods such as Ballard, Fremont, the University District, Northgate, West Seattle, Columbia City, Beacon Hill and Rainier Beach.

The change means that for the first time in the city’s history, anyone living in a new building in these neighborhoods is typically no longer guaranteed a parking space.

In 2004, apartments built in Seattle had an average of 1.6 parking stalls per unit, making it possible for renters to have as many as two cars even at new apartments. But that figure has fallen nearly every year since. Next year, according to the Dupre + Scott research firm, the latest apartment projects are slated to have only 0.6 space per unit, a record low.

By contrast, the suburbs – where getting around without a car is much more difficult – have kept their parking-space requirements largely intact. Throughout the Puget Sound region, areas outside Seattle still have more than one parking space per new apartment, on average.

Enough parking?

Despite the angst, it turns out Seattle has no shortage of parking in apartment buildings. A study last year by King County Metro found that only about 70 percent of the apartment parking spaces both in downtown Seattle and in the rest of the county were actually being used overnight.

Developer Mark Knoll says one of his new 30-unit buildings in West Seattle offered just two parking spaces near the entrance, and in three months he hasn’t been able to rent out either spot for $75 a month.

Alex Brennan, a senior planner for Capitol Hill Housing, a public entity that owns about 2,200 apartments, says federal rules often require it to offer parking spaces to its low-income tenants for free – and even then many of the spaces sit empty.

“It might not be obvious, but there is a significant oversupply of parking spaces in Seattle,” said Clark Williams-Derry, a researcher who has studied parking in apartments for the Sightline Institute, a local urbanist think tank. Though it might be tough to find a spot on a Saturday night in Capitol Hill or lunchtime downtown, within apartment buildings in general, “there’s a glut of parking and it’s hard to charge people the full amount to cover the cost.”

It costs about $35,000 to build the average underground space in Seattle, and even if each stall is occupied and paid for by tenants, the building owner often takes a financial loss.

Some researchers have argued that developers make up the cost by adding to rents across the board – even to tenants without parking. A local study by Sightline found buildings in Seattle with parking charged about $250 more per month for rent than those without a garage. Researchers from around the world have come to similar conclusions.

Living without parking

Kelly Hostetler and her boyfriend, both in their late 20s, rent an apartment in a Capitol Hill building that doesn’t have parking – but they didn’t want to give up their car, which they use for trips outside the city and the occasional Costco run.

“Parking can either be, ‘Oh my god, it’s a miracle, there’s a spot right in front of our building,’ or it can mean we could spend forever” looking for a space, she said. Often they’ll drive to an area they know has more free spots that’s a 10-minute walk from their apartment.

She said even if their building had parking, they likely wouldn’t pay the $100 to $150 a month they were quoted during their apartment search to rent a spot. Some landlords even require tenants to pay for a parking spot, making her parking-free building a cheaper option, Hostetler said.

Allie Sachnoff, 27, also lives in a parking-free apartment building in Capitol Hill but she doesn’t have a car.

“It’s definitely tricky to have visitors and friends over, and have parties. Parking is definitely a concern,” Sachnoff said.

But Sachnoff picked an urban locale largely so she didn’t need to drive.

“I really value living somewhere I can walk everywhere, where there’s light rail and buses within a five-minute walk,” Sachnoff said. “It works out well for me, but I’m also willing to plan my day around the transit options available.”

Parking prices in residential buildings are climbing at about the same rate as rents: The average garage parking space across Seattle now costs $133 a month, up 11?percent from a year ago, and up 55 percent since 2012, according to Dupre + Scott. In downtown, where parking is scarcest, the average garage space is now nearly $200 a month.

Parking-free boom

The new parking rules combined with the ongoing building boom have had a big impact. Developers are now proposing or building about 5,000 parking-free living units per year in Seattle just downtown and in areas near transit – about the same as the number of units that do have parking in those areas.

Some buildings, especially those made up of super-small (and cheaper) micro-housing, can include dozens or even more than 100 living units without a single parking stall.

Long-term, the trend is likely to accelerate: With the passage in November of the $54 billion light-rail and bus expansion measure – which includes big money to study housing near new stations – planners will likely move more neighborhoods into zones where parking isn’t required.

And developers are moving in that direction: About 25 percent of buildings proposed near transit had no parking in the first couple of years after the full parking rules went into effect in mid-2012. Last year, the rate increased to about 35 percent.

“I think it’s very much the new thing,” Smith said, citing a younger generation of urban renters that is increasingly likely not to own a car. “If you’re going for the younger crowd, you better think like they do.”

In neighborhoods like Roosevelt, already an urban village where apartment buildings can be built without parking, communities are expecting big changes.

“For sure, it’s going to make street parking a lot tighter,” said Scott Cooper, president of the Roosevelt Neighborhood Association, who supports added density but knows not everyone there does. “I didn’t move to Roosevelt because it’s got amazing parking, I moved here because it’s a center for people, restaurants, cafes, shopping. For the people who have been here longer than I have, decades, I know it’s a harder transition and a tougher pill to swallow.”

Cooper said a neighborhood committee works with developers as soon as proposals are unveiled and has occasionally had success in altering plans, sometimes by getting more parking added.

Bill Zosel, who lives in central Seattle’s Squire Park neighborhood, one block from a new micro-housing project with very little parking, said he can tell most people living there don’t have cars. He said community concerns over the parking-free projects often just serve as a proxy to protest development in general.

“They’re not so much concerned about parking as they are trying to keep the neighborhood the same as it is,” said Zosel, who sits on the board of his community council.

But angst remains. When Knoll filed plans with the city in 2014 for a new West Seattle Junction building that called for 60 apartments with five parking spaces, the West Seattle Blog wrote a brief item on the idea, and dozens of people quickly commented on the site: “There goes some of the free parking spots, for sure!” one read. Another: “Is that a typo? 60 units with 5 parking spaces?” Others were angrier: “What is wrong with these people?”

Knoll calls this a double-standard: He notes that people in buildings with garages still park in the street, too, as do their visitors, and that plenty of families in single-family homes clog the streets with multiple vehicles, too.

“The need for housing outweighs the need for free street parking,” Knoll said. “My opinion is that free street parking is a privilege, not a right.”

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