Should Langley Township restrict tandem garages?

Rather than parking working in the service of cities, cities have been working in the service of parking, almost entirely to their detriment.

– Jeff Speck, “A Walkable City”

“PARKING IS DESTINY”

Parking is finally becoming a major talking point for the Township of Langley council, which is crucial if council is to get serious about city planning. As famed urban planner Andres Duany quipped, “parking is destiny”. Parking is one of the greatest factors that will make or break good city planning. Already within the first few months of this term, there has been discussion about parking requirements in Aldergrove and Fort Langley, and now Willoughby tandem parking garages are being debated.

So far, the debates at the council table have occurred largely in a vacuum, focused on standalone policies without much consideration of the broader issues, like the cost of parking or who pays for it.

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In the Township of Langley, developers are currently required to place 2.3 parking stalls per townhome unit. This is usually achieved by having 2 stalls in the townhome and approximately 1 outside parking stall per 3 units throughout the complex (visitor or resident parking). Recently, the most common layout for new development is the side by side garage that takes up more land space than the less common, and less desirable, tandem (single file) garage. The square box-like layouts of side-by-side garages naturally consume more land, but feel more like true single family homes. Tandem layouts, in contrast, allow for narrower homes; providing for more density, and a lower price point. The cost and sale value of tandem units is significantly lower, due to reduced footprint and less desirability. They are often appealing to the entry-level townhome buyer, as it gives them the opportunity to purchase a townhome they otherwise couldn’t afford.

However, with interest rates at historic lows and many downsizing purchasers able to purchase premium townhomes with significant capital from their high single family home sales, developers have recently opted, at least in Langley, to build many more of the more desirable (and less affordable) side-by-side garages over the past 2-3 years. This has been a result of market conditions of the time, not council directives. There is no current restriction on the number of tandem garages per complex – developers were simply building for the marketplace. With a lack of inventory, buyers also don’t realize there is even the option for less expensive units: a casual look into current Yorkson pre-sales shows not a single tandem parking unit available.

Whether it is the lack of size, or the inconvenience of the space, most complaints about tandem garages are related to one thing: that the second parking stall is rarely used by a vehicle, thereby pushing more cars to valuable on-street parking. In a community that doesn’t have any on-street paid parking, this becomes a serious problem for residents. Since on-street parking in Langley is considered to be “free”, there is little incentive to utilize “inconvenient” parking as it was intended, and instead it can become a local resident’s permanent parking spot.

In hopes of solving a perceived parking issue with tandem garages, Township of Langley Council is now looking to limit the number of tandem garages in a development to 50%. The argument against the proposed 50% is that most developers aren’t building up past 50% tandem spaces anyway, so that requirement would be useless.

There will not be any real solution until the perceived lack of value parking is overcome. Based on the $3.0-3.5m per acre, the value of the land the size of the typical parking stall in Willoughby is around $18,000-22,000 without anything on it – no pavement, no building, no nothing – just dirt. So while parking certainly isn’t “free”, residents, whether in tandem or non-tandem townhomes, get to fill their garages with “stuff” and then use public on-street parking at no cost. This will continue to go on and on, until residents understand that there is a real cost to on-street parking.

Council is looking at this because there are genuine problems with the realities of tandem parking. The reality, however, is that there is very little evidence that non-tandem townhome residents utilize their garages any more efficiently than those in tandem townhomes. Having been a real estate professional in Willoughby for the past 8+ years, I’ve observed that the vast majority of side-by-side garages only have one car in there – no different from the classic tandem scenario. It isn’t rocket science, anyone can take a drive through these neighbourhoods and observe how one area full of tandem complexes (like South Willoughby) actually has less of a parking issue than areas with a glut of new side-by-side garages (like Northwest Yorkson). Whether it is the 50% restriction on the table, or something even more restrictive, we’ll get all the negative unaffordability as a result, with negligible positive benefit.

Real solutions to… fix it.

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Typical Willoughby tandem garage

As the market turns and sales soften, developers will hopefully utilize their continued flexibility to build townhomes that are more affordable for families that find apartments too tight for their needs, but otherwise priced out of the larger non-tandem townhomes. As mentioned, units with tandem garages are generally the entry-level units that sell for less, both new and resale. Eliminating these units will force buyers to either “upgrade” to something less affordable for them (if they can even do it), or to go back to an apartment. This is a direct attack on housing affordability and housing variety in the Township of Langley, when we need more of it, not less. Combined with a real parking strategy, tandem garages can be a huge benefit to building walkable, transit-friendly neighbourhoods.

Willoughby’s parking issues will not be solved by eliminating the most affordable, urban-friendly parking spaces in the area, especially not when non-tandem garage residents show the same behaviour as the tandem garage residents.

It’ll take a very brave politician to actually even consider the real solutions to alleviating parking problems in Langley’s most dense neighbourhoods (notably Yorkson). Only by treating parking as the valuable commodity that it is, will drivers stop abusing public space for their “inconvenience”. Whether it is by implementing a strictly enforced time-limited parking bylaw, or even paid parking, it’ll be the hard, but necessary, solutions that will fix the broken parking requirements in Willoughby’s urban environment.

Finding a scapegoat that will continue to promote premium housing costs is not the solution. While I doubt any local elected politician will endorse paid parking yet in a suburb like Langley, a more politically-friendly move would be to have an independent report look into a viable, sustainable parking strategy for Willoughby, and later the rest of the Township. This would, in my opinion, be wiser than piecemeal policies that will likely lead to adverse unintended consequences.

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