City considering changes to parking code, including reducing minimum parking requirements for some land uses
City staff are proposing changes to the city’s parking and landscaping codes.
In December, staff briefed City Commissioners on the proposed changes to the parking code, but ran out of time to talk about the proposed changes to the landscaping code since discussion with the airport board took up the bulk of the work session.
Craig Raymond, planning director, said staff has been looking at a lot of changes to the development process as well as possible code changes.
On Jan. 8, city staff are hosting a town hall on topics related to development review including an updated development process guide, changes to city code, supplemental engineering reference documents, changes in fees and software changes.
Developers and design professionals are encouraged to attend the meeting from 3-5 p.m. in the commission chambers at the Civic Center.
Drafts of documents to be reviewed at the meeting can be found here.
The city development codes are largely made up of international codes that have been adopted by the state and the city for plumbing, fire, electrical, building and more.
There are some sections that are often cited as impediments to development in Great Falls.
In reality, many of the requirements are similar to those in other major Montana cities.
For example, in Bozeman, a retail store is required to have one space per 300 square feet of floor area.
In Missoula, retail is required to have one space per 360 square feet.
In Yellowstone County, retail stores smaller than 5,000 square feet are required to have one space per 200 square feet of floor area. Retail stores larger than 5,000 square feet are required to have 25 parking spaces plus one space per 300 square feet in excess of 5,000 square feet.
Currently in Great Falls, retail stores are required to have one space per 240 square feet or for retail larger than 5,000 square feet, it’s 20 spaces plus one per 300 square foot in excess of 5,000.
City staff is proposing to change it to one space per 300 square feet of gross floor area for all retail under 60,000 square feet. They’re also proposing to make a category for retail stores that are larger than 60,000 square feet, which would require 200 parking spaces plus one per 500 square foot in excess of 60,000.
To highlight the impact of the proposed change, Alaina Mattimiro, a new hire in the city planning office, said the Walmart on 10th Avenue South has 764 parking spaces. Under the proposed code revision, about 170 spaces could have been eliminated.
The code would still allow developers to have 20 percent over the minimum parking requirement if they believe its necessary, Mattimiro said.
“Land development codes aren’t static,” Andrew Finch, the city’s transportation planner, said during the December work session.
To review the parking code, the city convened a working group of staff and local design professionals. For the most part, the group didn’t have major issues with the parking minimums in the code, though there were some projects with site constraints, Finch said.
The group looked at the city’s growth policy, long range transportation plan and comparable cities in the region, including some in South Dakota, Wyoming, Idaho and Montana, as well as the American Planning Association reference guide.
There’s “already a lot of flexibility built within the land development code,” Finch said, but the group worked to enhance that flexibility.
The flexibility already in the code includes design waivers for the size of parking stalls and variances for the number of parking spaces required depending on site constraints.
Some sections of the city’s parking code weren’t being used, so Finch said, staff is proposing to remove those sections to clean up the code.
The focus is on safety, Finch said, and the growth policy included language on making the community more pedestrian friendly. In a number of projects, he said, there have been issues with parking lot design that has vehicles backing over sidewalks and that’s something the proposed changes would help clarify and prevent.
Finch said staff wanted to give developers more flexibility within the code and did that through their proposal to increase the credits for bike parking.
“That’s fairly significant,” Finch said.
Some cities require bike parking, but Finch said the current proposal for doesn’t make it mandatory in Great Falls.
Staff is also proposing flexibility with surfacing and the downtown.
The code currently requires paving for parking areas, but staff is proposing to add the ability for developers to use permeable paves, which is a benefit for developers and the city alike, Finch said, since it treats the water as it trickles down and helps with stormwater management. Some developments, including West Bank Landing, have started incorporating permeable pavers and other stormwater management systems into their parking lots to meet new, stricter requirements from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
The proposed changes would also allow for gravel lots in industrial areas.
In the downtown area, developers and business owners can ask for a reduction in parking spots already, but staff is proposing to make it a developer choice to provide paring for downtown projects. Finch said staff is hoping that will encourage more developers to reuse buildings downtown and increase usage of existing city and private parking facilities.
Staff is also proposing changes to the parking stall dimension requirements, since the city gets a lot of design waivers for those dimensions, Mattimiro said in December.
Staff is proposing a size range to give developers more flexibility.
Changes are also being proposed for off-street parking and allowing it to be in the vicinity of a development if not directly onsite. Currently, the off-street parking that isn’t directly on the development site has to be within 400 feet of the site. Staff is proposing to increase that to 1,000 feet with approval from the planning director.
That doesn’t mean that developers can use other private parking lots in their parking requirements, unless there’s a shared parking agreement in place that meets city requirements.
Craig Raymond, city planning director, said if the parking can’t fit onsite, developers can use adjacent locations and, in the spirit of Get Fit Great Falls, encourage people to walk a bit.
Accessible parking provisions remain, but they are regulated by the building division so the proposed code changes would reflect that, according to staff.
In looking at reduced parking requirements, staff researched other cities including Minot, Rapid City, Missoula, Bozeman, Casper and others.
Mattimiro said most of those communities require more parking compared to Great Falls’ existing requirements, but the group found areas to make reductions.
Areas proposed for reduced parking minimums include banks and finance companies; bars, lounges and taverns; exercise facilities and spas; office, business and professional; retail.
Retail was the main area of concern, Mattimiro said and staff received more feedback about big box stores hence the proposal to change the retail requirements based on size.
Staff also proposes adding a category for vehicle sales businesses that would require two parking spaces per service area plus 1.5 per employee.
Raymond said that so far, feedback from developers indicated that they like the proposed flexibility.
Some communities have eliminated parking minimums, but Raymond said he wasn’t sure Great Falls was quite ready for that.
“We’re watching that,” he said.
Staff are also proposing changes to the landscaping code and those will be discussed during the Jan. 7 commission work session at 4:30 p.m. in the Gibson Room of the Civic Center.
The commission is starting its work session an hour earlier than normal on Jan. 7.