Proposed parking code changes get first read at Feb. 4 commission meeting

Changes to the parking rules are being considered by the city at at the Feb. 4 meeting, City Commissioners will consider setting a public hearing on the proposed changes for March 3.

In January, the city hosted a public meeting for the development community about the proposed changes and the city’s Planning Advisory Board has voted to recommend that the commission approve the code amendments.

City considering reduced parking, landscaping requirements for development; increased fees

The parking code changes are being considered first since the planning board split them from the landscaping changes during a mid-January meeting and didn’t vote to recommend approval for the landscaping changes until late January.

[READ: Drafts of documents to reviewed at the town hall can be found here.]

City staff are bringing the proposed code changes to the commission in March with planned implementation in mid-March, when the new development application software goes live.

City considering changes to parking code, including reducing minimum parking requirements for some land uses

During the Jan. 14 planning board meeting, only Brett Doney of the Great Falls Development Authority attended to offer comment about the proposed changes.

He said the flexibility being added into the parking code was important and didn’t have any issues with the proposed changes.

“I only have good things to say about this,” he said.

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Pete Fontana, planning board member, said of the parking changes, “I think this is a step in the right direction.”

The parking rules are contained in Title 17, the land development section, of the city code. The title was first adopted in 2005, as the city’s first comprehensive compilation of provisions relating to development, according to city staff, and has been modified in the years since to keep it relevant or correct errors or omissions in the original title.

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For at least the last year, city staff have been reviewing the city’s development review process and as part of that, looked at ways to update Title 17, particularly  the parking and landscaping sections.

The proposed parking changes include reductions in some required minimums for certain land uses; credit for bicycle parking; parking stall dimensions; paving options; and more.

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 planning office closed May 3, effort to revamp development review process continuing

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 during a December meeting that 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.

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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.

Land development code changes up for consideration tonight

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.

Process underway to update city land development code

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.