Space: a precious commodity in Seattle
Space: a precious commodity in Seattle digidreamgrafix / GETTY

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The City Council voted to approve sweeping changes to Seattle’s parking code, a move that lawmakers hope will eventually encourage more commuters to ditch cars and opt for public transportation.

The legislation, which passed 7-to-1, attempts to limit parking requirements and maximize the city’s current supply of parking spots through a bunch of complicated tweaks to city law. Council member Kshama Sawant was absent.

In a statement, Mayor Jenny Durkan said she plans to sign the ordinance. "With too many Seattle residents struggle with rising rents, we need to provide more housing. We also have to make frequent transit a reality, and we will continue to work with Metro to increase service on our most popular routes in neighborhoods across Seattle," Durkan said.

One of the biggest changes approved by the council strikes a rule restricting a building’s parking spots to tenants. Under the new code, property owners will be allowed to rent their excess spots to other drivers, like shoppers and commuters, through a new “flexible use” code. Currently, about a third of private parking spots go unused.

Another change would change the definition of “frequent transit service” areas, which are exempted from parking requirements for new developments. Currently, "frequent transit service" means a bus comes every fifteen minutes for at least 12 hours a day. Under the new definition, it would mean a bus is scheduled to come every 15 minutes between 6 AM and 7 PM on weekdays and every 30 minutes between 7 PM and 12 AM on weeknights. To qualify as "frequent transit service," an area needs to be within 1,320 feet from a bus stop.

The bill would also lower parking requirements for low-income housing developments, increase bicycle parking requirements and unbundle the cost of parking from housing leases.

Over time, supporters hope the reforms will preserve more space for housing people, rather than cars, as the city continues to experience explosive population growth.

"I come to this because I believe it’s unfair for us to have a city where parking is abundant and free and housing is scarce and expensive," said council member Rob Johnson, the legislation's primary sponsor.

Council member Lisa Herbold, the sole no-vote, said she supported the goals of the legislation but voted against it because it was created "without consideration of the social justice impacts on low-income folks who need their vehicles.” Lawmakers voted 6-to-2 against an amendment Herbold that would have given residents the ability to challenge developments with little or no parking. Under current city policy, city officials can’t use the State Environmental Policy Act to mitigate the impacts of development on parking availability in areas without parking requirements. Herbold’s amendment would have authorized city officials to take steps to require parking in areas where parking capacity is at or over 85 percent.

Johnson noted that Seattle's parking reforms are modest compared to some other cities.