Car-free development taking root
New buildings come with lots of amenities – but no parking
THE PROPOSAL FOR a five-story, 56-unit residential apartment building on Dorchester Avenue includes a lot of the amenities that are now standard features in new development projects: A ground-floor gym and “media room,” a storage room with a rack for several dozen bicycles, and a community room on the top floor adjacent to a roof deck.
What the plans don’t include is any off-street parking spaces for tenants in the building, which would be adjacent to Ashmont Station at the end of the MBTA’s Red Line. What’s more, the developers plan to include in tenant leases a provision stating that they can’t own a car that is parked on the street. They will backstop that by registering the building with the city’s transportation department as an address for which no residential parking permits are to be issued.
It was Tom Menino, a late-in-life convert to the joys of bicycling, who declared in 2009 that “car is no longer king in Boston.” But it’s been in the decade since then that the idea has really begun to take root, with city officials promoting “transit-oriented development” near T service as a way for the city population to grow without adding lots of new cars.
Boston seems to be enjoying mixed success. According to Census data compiled recently by a New York-based transportation consultant, the number of households in Boston with a car grew faster from 2012 to 2017 than the population as a whole. But it’s not from lack of effort by the city to push back on the trend.
Meanwhile, even in projects that include off-street parking, the trend by city planners has been to get developers to reduce the ratio of spaces to housing units, with some projects now calling for just .4 or .3 parking spaces per unit.
“We’re trying to push parking ratios down and even down to zero in some cases,” said Jim Fitzgerald, senior transportation planner for BPDA.
For decades, it was assumed that residential growth meant a growth in automobiles, putting a squeeze on scarce street parking in more tightly packed communities and adding to area traffic woes.
But that thinking is changing, especially in urban areas enjoying the kind of the boom Boston is seeing.
“This is part of a greater trend, both regionally and nationally,” said Chris Dempsey, director of the advocacy group Transportation for Massachusetts. “A lot of our zoning requirements for parking are products of the 1960s and 1970s, when cities like Boston were shrinking and the sense was more and more people were going to have cars and want cars. We’ve got a city now and a region that is growing quickly. I think even drivers would agree there’s not a whole lot more space left on our roads.”
Fitzgerald said one strategy city planners have adopted is to encourage development projects to decouple the cost of parking spaces from housing units, rather than have the cost of a parking space folded into the rent, which can encourage more car ownership. “We don’t want to incentivize people to say, well, the apartment already comes with a space,” Fitzgerald said. Including free parking, he said, “is a fertility drug for cars.”
Jenn Cartee, executive director of Greater Ashmont Main Street, a nonprofit that works to promote the Ashmont area business district, said parking is one of the chief concerns raised about development proposals. “Dorchester-wide it’s one of the key points of contention,” she said. “But we have the capacity for greater density with good transit access.”
Tim Long, a partner in the development team proposing the new 56-unit project, which would go in a now-empty lot right next to Ashmont Station, said there is a market for the car-free building. “We’re hoping for students, professional people you see on the T every day,” he said of the studio and one-bedroom rental units the building will have. “We’re also hoping for neighborhood people – the empty nesters who don’t want cars and driveways and shoveling.”
The developers plan to offer a rental discount to tenants who buy monthly MBTA passes, and they are hoping to arrange a further discount from the T.Sitting at the end of a branch of the T’s busiest subway line and with 10 different bus lines converging there, Ashmont “is the definition of a transit-rich location,” said Dempsey.
“I think it’s encouraging,” he said of the projects with minimal or no parking that have been built or proposed near the station. “It’s a recognition that one-size-fits-all housing makes no sense, that we need a diverse housing stock to support a diverse community, and that part of that diversity includes people who choose not to own a car.”