South Boston’s Bonkers Obsession with Parking

People do not drive in Boston like they once did.

Parking Meters by Tim Pierce via Flickr/Creative Commons

Parking Meters by Tim Pierce via Flickr/Creative Commons

Even though Boston is one of the most pedestrian-oriented big cities in America, it still has a mind-numbingly dumb obsession with parking.

Take South Boston, perhaps the hottest neighborhood in the entire city, if not the state. Tired housing stock in the once rough and tough Irish enclave is being revitalized into upscale condos faster than you can flick the channel between HGTV and DIY, and undeveloped lots are being converted into much-needed housing as soon as permits are pulled.

A group of Old Harbor Street residents in South Boston banded together over the summer to fight against this wave of development rolling over South Boston.

In June, the residents expressed their anger at the Cronin Group’s proposal to build nine new condos on a garden known as Mary’s Garden for its statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary. The owners of the garden, a group of nuns who operate a nearby nursing home, made the sale in order to prop up their nursing home.

Like all development fights in South Boston, this one boiled down to parking and density.

Old Harbor Street residents were terrified at the prospect that the new project would exacerbate the area’s parking woes, even though the nine-unit development included 11 on-site parking spaces, more than the city’s already ridiculous parking requirements.

“There just isn’t enough space,” said Phyllis Allison to the Boston Globe at the time of the first meeting.

Of course, this is wrong. There’s always more space in major cities, particularly American cities where cars too often take priority over people. It’s classic NIMBYism. “I got mine, everyone else can go screw.”

Never mind that newcomers to Boston do not embody the habits of car-obsessed Old Boston—that doesn’t seem to come up. People move to Boston because of its density; because of its walkability, not to pretend they still live in the suburbs where a car is required for every daily activity.

The Old Harbor Street residents ultimately prevailed in their fight with developers, but instead of demanding even more parking (as is normally the custom in these asinine fights) they killed it outright by countering the Cronin Group and buying the garden from the nuns.

What do they want they plan to do with the old garden?

Turn it into a surface parking lot with 18 deeded parking spaces worth $70,000 a piece.

You can spruce up a surface parking lot with some nice landscaping and a statue of Our Lady, but it’s still parking lot.

In Sunday’s Boston Herald, columnist Peter Gelzinis praised the residents as if they had just stopped the construction of a six-lane highway and even compared them to David fighting Goliath.

“If we didn’t want all the extra congestion and the extra cars, then we had to come up with both a plan and the money to back it,” said Rudy Ventresca.

Ventresca, like Allison, is wrong. With more parking comes more cars and more congestion. If you increase the number of available parking spaces, then more people will drive and park, not fewer. This is an economic phenomenon called induced demand. The end result of this is more traffic, more cars, more air pollution, and more headaches for South Boston residents, not less. This is well documented.

The condo project would have added people and, maybe, some congestion to the area, but odds are the new residents would not have caused anywhere near the problems the Old Harbor Street residents feared. The project would have added 9 desperately needed residential units to a city starving for housing, but now instead Boston gets 18 parking spaces and some nice landscaping.

In October, must-read South Boston blogger and one-time State Senate candidate Maureen Dahill expressed OUTRAGE! when she discovered three  spaces in a public parking lot were being used by car-sharing services as part of a new city program.

In Dahill’s eyes, the elimination of three parking spaces in a South Boston surface lot as part of an effort to get people to live without cars is a colossal waste of time and a crime against the good, car-loving people of South Boston.

So the fact that the city is now taking away coveted parking spots doesn’t make much sense to us.  What does make sense? How about start enforcing tickets for non-residents parking overnight on neighborhood streets.  If they don’t get a ticket, they will keep parking there.  In most cases a parking ticket is less expensive than paying for parking.

Parking in South Boston is a nightmare and these newly dedicated parking spots for car-share companies just add insult to injury – specially when the car has an out of state plate.

The parking crunch that Dahill and Old Harbor Street residents endlessly fret about will only worsen if policymakers acquiesce to their demands for more parking. Planners should make parking more difficult and expensive, because cars degrade the quality of life for everyone in dense urban areas.

If the city provides residents—particularly newcomers who are prone to be less interested in owning a car—with easily accessible alternatives to driving, such as regularly available car-sharing opportunities or bike lanes, they’ll embrace them and not own a car.

Even as the city strives to build more mixed income/mixed use housing to accommodate these newcomers, parking spaces are still at a premium, and developers find themselves pressured into giving up precious development space to parking lots in order to avoid resistance from NIMBYs who don’t want to see more cars on the road. What car-centric NIMBYs don’t realize is that the policies they demand, as well as their push to make the city more suburban and more accommodating to car-owners, will backfire and only add to the dreaded congestion they decry.