Allston’s No Parking Apartment Building is a Great But Terrible Idea

Boston’s absurdly under-priced street parking strikes again, killing an innovative proposal.

parking in boston

(Illustration by Peter Crowther/Debut)

Last week, architect Sebastian Mariscal proposed a new apartment building with a controversial feature: No parking for cars. Today, in the face of community backlash, the proposal is dead.

On first pass, the idea seems kind of brilliant: What better way to encourage people to take public transit, bike, or walk, then to construct a building without space for any cars? Beyond that, since the lot wouldn’t be marred by a parking garage or above-ground lot, Mariscal could put more green space on the property. As he told Emily Badger at the Atlantic Cities:

“When you remove the car component as the main design challenge,” Mariscal says, “your way of thinking about design is completely different. The possibilities that open for a more environmentally friendly and human design – they are endless.”

Granted, there are a few immediate practical concerns with a building with no parking: What if you get a new job in the suburbs and have to commute? What if you have a kid?

The biggest problem, though, is that there was no real way to enforce the building’s “no parking” rule because residents could simply get a free resident’s parking sticker and leave their car on the street. Which, of course, is exactly what Allston residents complained about in order to get the proposal squashed: Mariscal’s building was simply shifting the cost of on-site parking spaces onto the city—which is totally unfair.

Ultimately, the problem here is Boston’s absurdly under-priced street parking. As I wrote in October:

Boston has set aside a ton of spaces for resident-only parking in neighborhoods, and it charges nothing for the permits to use them. And what happens when it doesn’t cost anything to keep cars parked on the street? They stay there. Today more than 311,000 vehicles are registered in Boston, and more than 87,000 of them have residential parking permits. Each of those cars takes up around 160 square feet—the size of a street spot—of prime city real estate.“You have some of the most valuable land on earth, and you’re giving it away for free to cars,” says Donald Shoup, a professor of urban planning at UCLA, and the author of The High Cost of Free Parking. “It’s preposterous.”

Boston’s cheap street parking results in a bad case of trickle-down parking economics: Since the city charges nothing for resident spaces, you can justify having a car because it’s free to keep it on the street—even if your building doesn’t provide a space.

If, however, the city started charging a fair and accurate price for street parking, then we’d see far fewer cars on the street, because it’d be far more expensive to keep them here. In that case, Mariscal’s building would make total sense: If you really want to have a car, pay up. Our streets aren’t free.

  • Jami

    Sounds like a perfect opportunity for a Zipcar collaboration!

  • ohio man

    Requiring parking for every building (and here an apartment building, not even condos) needlessly drives up the market price of housing by requiring non-car owners to cross-subsidize car owners. If you don’t believe me, call Donald Shoup back and ask him.

    The free-riders using street parking and blocking car-less development are the ones who are being, to quote the author, “totally unfair.” A good way to end their free-riding would be to scrap minimum parking requirements across the entire city and let them compete with others for free street parking or else pay for parking.

  • Critical Transit

    We knew this development wouldn’t happen, and it’s a shame that car owners feel such a sense of entitlement to this valuable real estate at no cost. The city spends so much money on those spaces and the consequences of the driving they induce.
    Permit parking should go away entirely. You want a car? Find a place to put it at your own expense.

  • Joshua DeCosta

    I would’ve liked to see what sort of apartment building it would’ve become. If it had in apartment hanging for your bike or a green space for gardening, that woulde been a lovely addition to the Allston area. I would’ve considered moving there for it.

  • Mook

    This article is misleading. The proposal is not “dead”, but has augmented to include SOME car parking to appease the neighbors, roughly 35 spaces including 6 car sharing spaces, and spaces will be priced at a high rate and unbundled from the unit costs. Standard zoning requires 2 car spaces per unit (a bit high in a neighborhood that has 45% car-free renters according to the census), so to have ~35 spaces for 44 units is actually quite remarkable.

    The developer Sebastian, who will reside in and manage the building, will include a clause in the lease so that he is renting to car-free tenants, and personally oversee that commitment — thus negating your entire argument about on-street parking.

    The space that would be going toward a garage for 88 cars will be used for local retail and a PUBLIC green space that will host community events like outdoor movies.

    I have understood this from attending the public meetings as a citizen/resident and discussing with the developer. I propose Mr Doyle at Boston Magazine does the same before publishing these articles.

  • Taylor Aldredge

    I’d be willing to pay for resident parking as a driver in Boston. There’s a lot of us reverse commuters in Boston, though, and I don’t think it’s fair to alienate them too much. Look, we all want things to be fair for cyclists, drivers, and those who use public transportation. One overriding problem is the cost of public transportation keeps going up in Boston and shows no signs of stopping. There’s no way I’ll go back to riding the T if it costs more than $5 for a round trip subway ride. A gallon of gas is cheaper and can take me to and from Downtown Boston to Brighton possibly 10 times. I just think there’s a balanced approach of fixing the MBTA budget gaps, parking pricing for residents, and the general transportation infrastructure in Boston.

  • MarkinArl

    Clearly, what needs to happen is for Boston to start charging for parking stickers, likely with higher rates where the parking is most scarce. Let the cost ramp up over a few years. Then see how many excess parking spots open up and then consider developments with fewer parking spots. The city can also promote motorcycles and scooters which use far less space on roads and for parking by giving them free parking everywhere like bicycles now.