Boston Update: Trendy Architect Proposes “Carless” Housing

By Matt Bornstein

Architect Sebastian Mariscal has made local headlines recently with a proposed apartment complex in Allston.

At first glance, nothing about the project seems out of the ordinary.  The building would occupy a lot about 1.5 miles from HBS (at 37 N. Beacon St) currently filled by a used car dealership and a private home.  Key features would include modern design bizarrely out of keeping with the neighborhood (see image below), “green” construction techniques, and mixed residential / retail space.

Bornstein

Pictured: Mariscal’s conceptual rendering of proposed 37 North Beacon St project.  Not pictured: nearby anchor tenants KFC, Commercial Cleaning Service (a janitorial service), and New England Rubbish Removal.

What makes this project unique, however, is the parking plan.  Architect Mariscal wants to build exactly zero new parking spaces for residents of the building.  By forgoing parking, he says, he can create a number of “green-friendly” spaces, including a publicly-accessible walkway on the ground floor, private gardens for every unit, and dedicated bike lockers.

Interesting idea – except that it’s currently illegal. 

Boston, like most densely populated cities, requires developers to provide a minimum number of off-street parking spaces (generally between 0.5 and 2) for every new residential unit constructed.  The purpose is to limit congestion and pollution associated with increased demand for on-street parking.  Mariscal proposes to skirt this regulation by requiring all residents to sign a lease addendum stating that they do not own a car.

Think about that for a second.  Mariscal wants tenants to sign an agreement stating that they do not own and will not acquire a particular piece of private property – property which in no way interferes with the execution of an otherwise standard apartment lease.  Based on my minimal concept of contract law, I’m going to take a guess that this term would be unenforceable.

Going beyond the legal implementation, though, the proposal raises several important questions.  Mariscal claims that roughly half of Allston residents do not own cars; isn’t it OK to build apartments designed specifically for those residents?  How will we stop the proliferation of car-based transportation if we keep providing ample parking?

The answers are murky.  In theory, it seems fine – even potentially beneficial – to create “carless” housing tailored toward residents who rely primarily on walking, biking, and public transit.  We could create and maintain our dense urban core.  Building managers could offer incentives, such as lower-than-average rent, to take cars off the road.  In practice, though, this practice raises serious ethical concerns.  Developers would have the opportunity to profit off increased usable space without any real guarantees of long-term public benefit.  In a city with subpar public transit options, moreover, personal mobility is a major determinant of overall standard of living.  What happens when a housing-seeker can only afford a carless apartment – should he/she be denied the same transportation rights as everyone else?  There seems to be a fundamental difference between paying for a parking space (OK) and signing over personal property rights to get a discount (not OK).

At a deeper level, this question reflects the chicken-and-egg dynamic of large-scale behavior change.  It seems unfair to mandate top-down changes via city policy.  Yet bottom-up behavior shifts are unlikely without the supporting infrastructure in place (e.g., expanded public transit).  This issue will only get worse for Allston in particular (as planned New Balance and Harvard expansion projects come online) and US cities generally (as urban re-growth continues).

What do you think – is carless housing a good idea?

(More info on the 37 N. Beacon project available in the Boston Globe and the Atlantic Cities Blog.)

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2 thoughts on “Boston Update: Trendy Architect Proposes “Carless” Housing

  1. Matt brings up a very interesting topic and one that frustrates real estate developers around the U.S., not just in Boston. Many cities have the same requirement as Boston, which is that off-street parking must be built as part of a new development.

    The problem, however, is that garage-type parking space can take up valuable FAR or can be prohibitively expensive for developers to include in a project. The economics of certain cities or projects may allow developers to charge an additional parking fee to residents. However, revenues from such fees are unpredictable, and parking vacancies can do damage to a proforma the same way that residential vacancies do.

    Out of this dilemma, two potential solutions arise. City administrators could either “let the market decide,” or construct public parking facilities for residents of neighborhoods.

    The free-market solution would simply remove all restrictions on mandatory parking and let developers take a calculated risk on whether or not to include parking in their project. Presumably, certain residents will be in the market for housing with on-site covered parking and will seek a residence with such an amenity, while other residents who are sans car will seek out a place that does not have on-site parking and may be slightly cheaper as a result. This does not address the initial concern of lack of on-street parking, but presumably tenants will take such a shortage into consideration when finding a place to live.

    In the public parking solution, city planners could build and manage garages that are convenient to numerous residential developments. Such garages could be funded by developers or landowners who pay a “fee” or tax that goes toward the garage, much as the city of New York is planning to charge up to $250/sf per new development to fund additional infrastructure in the neighborhood.

    While neither of these proposals are without flaw, one thing is clear. New solutions are needed to fix the tricky issue of urban parking, particularly as more and more urban Americans shed their automobiles in favor of ZipCars, bikes, and the foot mobile.

  2. Having lived in Boston for the past seven years with a car (and for five of those years in carless housing) I find Mariscal’s proposal and the concept of intentionally building carless housing to be quite interesting. Though I understand the goal and agree with the belief that carless housing could help maintain a dense urban core, I think there are many factors that make the construction of carless developments difficult if not impossible.

    The cores of many existing high-density cities (for example, New York or Boston) already have a limited supply of parking in their centers and many if not most of their residents live in buildings without cars. This is sustainable only because of the convenience of amenities and public transportation. Boston is largely walkable and other incentives are in place to encourage people to forgo traveling by car (for example, Hubway). I think it would be very difficult to ensure that these necessities exist when attempting to expand a city or develop new high-density cores.
    City planning challenges aside, I agree with you that the legal repercussions for such a proposal seem insurmountable. The concept of requiring tenants to not own a car is unprecedented and absurd. Not even the government takes such an active position on shaping our transportation choices.

    I believe the key to minimizing car use is to provide people with alternatives rather than to force their behavior. Incentives should be used to encourage positive changes in behavior rather than such drastic preventative measures.

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