If there's anything that gets people in Bend fired up, it's talking about parking. Whether it's the relatively recent addition of paid, permitted parking around Drake Park or the recent conversation happening among the Bend City Council about eliminating parking minimums in the city, people are passionate about the topic.
In order to comply with the State of Oregon Land Conservation and Development's Climate Friendly and Equitable Communities rules that were adopted in July, cities of a certain size—including Bend—are presently tasked with reforming their rules around parking. The idea is that by reducing the number of parking spaces required for new developments, there will be more room for housing for people—a higher need in Maslow's hierarchy than the need for a place to put someone's 10,000-pound rolling pile of steel.
This notion of eliminating parking minimums, of course, is causing angst for many. There are some legitimate concerns with the City's plan to eliminate all parking minimums—especially as it pertains to areas such as the Bend Central District, where the proposed plan might only require Americans with Disabilities Act-compliant parking when and if a development puts in any parking at all. Groups including Bend Bikes, The Environmental Center, the Core Area Advisory Board and Central Oregon LandWatch have brought this concern to the City's attention, and rightly so.
Where that parking scenario exists, the City should make a provision to at the very least require a certain number of ADA-compliant parking spaces on the streets. If this is an effort to make our cities more equitable, the needs of our neighbors with disabilities have to be factored into growth.
The arguments that are less compelling are the arguments against eliminating parking minimums that challenge the notion that this will negatively impact Bend's "quality of life." Here's something to consider: One reason people currently think they need abundant parking at their disposal is that our cities have historically been designed in a fashion that makes us dependent on the automobile.
What would it feel like to be able, even in the wintertime, to be able to pop out the door and walk a block or two to the nearest store that provides basic sundries? How much better would our lives be if we were able, instead of heating up the car and loading up the kids to visit a favorite local haunt, we could instead simply stroll close by to a beloved restaurant? A lot of Americans don't know this feeling, because their homes, constructed when single-family zoning and single-family neighborhoods far from services were the norm, have never lived in such a place. But they do exist.
For some people in Bend—such as those who live in Northwest Crossing or close to downtown—this is presently a reality. Ask someone where the most desirable neighborhoods in Bend are, and very likely many people will cite Northwest Crossing. That's what mixed-use, walkable communities look and feel like.
If we can dream about what parking minimums might do—coupled with the will of a planning commission and City Council that support these efforts—we can imagine that one day, eliminating parking and single-family zoning (as has been done in Oregon in recent years) will translate into more walkable, bikeable communities where one does not have to drive everywhere they go to meet their basic needs. In this vision of our city, reserving less space for vast swaths of pavement for cars would mean more space for the restaurants, bars, shops AND dense housing that make neighborhoods charming and attractive. The new planned development off Stevens Road in east Bend aims to do this.
This is a cultural shift, to be sure. But what starts as a dream cooked up by policy wonks at the state and city level can actually translate into a higher quality of life that people talk about, but have yet to see in a real sense, thanks to the decades of zero-zoning or exclusive zoning or just downright adherence to the god that has been the automobile.
People in this area, a combo of rural, suburban and increasingly urban dwellers, are going to want and need to drive. We are not such idealists as to imagine that driving is going to go away completely. But what we are seeing right now, in our city and in so many cities in our state and nation, is a shift to a different way of thinking that could result in a different way of life. If the City gets it right, a better quality of life for far more people will be the ultimate reward.
As we write this, the Bend City Council seems poised to adopt the plan to eliminate parking minimums at its Dec. 7 meeting. The Council should address the concerns around ADA compliance, and then move forward with this new vision for Bend.