This morning The Seattle Times took a look at Seattle’s parking market and did not like what they found. It appears some poor forgotten cars could be going without a roof over their heads. A relaxation of parking requirements in the densest parts of the city could be casuing this crisis of sorts. Meanwhile, Seattle also has some 11,200 people without roofs over their heads.

The poster child in this parking shortage story is The Emerald, a 40-story tower of 262 condominiums and 62 parking stalls, which apparently is the lowest ratio of any new residential tower downtown. “[T]he 62 parking spots in The Emerald — available only to owners of penthouses and two-bed, two-bath units, which start at $1.5 million — are in such high demand they’re going for as much as $100,000,” Katherine Khashimova Long wrote. That a million-dollar-condo owner would have to pay an extra $100,000 for a reserved parking stall hardly seems a crisis.

Nowhere in the story is the cost of building parking mentioned (nor climate change for that matter), but I was reminded of another Seattle Times headline from a few years back: “$100,000 per space? Costs soar for Sound Transit’s Kent park-and-ride garage.” It appears Seattle condo market has finally priced parking near its actual cost after years of being a hidden cost foisted on all residents. While the developer of The Emerald might not have the same costs per stall as Sound Transit, underground parking in Downtown Seattle clearly isn’t cheap to build. $100,000 likely isn’t far off.

What the story seems to lament is the days when parking was subsidized by all residents, regardless of whether they use it, and plentiful thanks to government mandates. In such a system, people who don’t own cars still see higher housing costs since parking costs were bundled in. The parking reforms of the last decade have weakened the socialism for cars system, but developers are still building vast sums of parking by choice–except for in a few exceptional cases the article highlights.

Overall, 1.6 million parking spots and counting exist in Seattle, according to a Research Insitute for Housing America estimate. It’s hard to see that as a shortage. Especially, if the region is serious about climate action, meeting Paris Climate Accords targets, and achieving carbon neutrality. The transportation sector overwhelmingly accounts for Seattle’s carbon footprint, and continuing to overbuild parking only feeds this destructive addiction.

The Emerald is nestled next to Pike Place Market. (Credit: Hewitt Architecture)

The Emerald’s Marketing Director Josh Nasvik reports only about 25% of condos are reserved ahead of its summer opening, which is considered light compared to rival condominiums–one broker said a pre-lease rate of 55% was average in our condo market. However, Nasvik blamed “a molasses-like condo market,” not the relative lack of parking for The Emerald seeing a bit weaker lease-up.

Our sense of normal in Seattle may also be skewed. In a healthy housing market, we probably wouldn’t see condo buildings nearly sell out before they even open. But a decade of underbuilding housing does skew things–and parking requirements did help drive that underbuilding by driving up housing construction costs.

The Seattle City Council further eased parking requirments in 2018 in a parking reform package that increased flexibility and waived requirements in areas served by Frequent Transit Service (even if outside of Urban Villages). The majority of Seattle continues to be governed by parking requirments and single family zoning. The Seattle Times Editorial Board has generally opposed parking reform, and endorsed candidates who vowed to strengthen parking requirements, such as Councilmember Alex Pedersen.

Khashimova Long does note that Emerald residents have the option to rent stalls in nearby parking garages–Downtown Seattle is awash in them–and the Emerald arranged an agreement with the hotel next door, which has an excess of parking, to secure 20 long-term parking leases available to residents at a rate of $375 per month.

All this is to say, is there really a parking shortage problem here? Or are some real estate brokers just gloating that their competition is having to work a little harder to lease their units?

Perhaps a better society would be one that has a strong social safety net for humans rather than for cars.

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  1. I’m someone who was considering buying a unit at The Emerald and some other similar new construction condos. I think the actual point is being missed by both the original article and this one. And its a fairly simple point.

    Non-luxury, affordable condos without parking will be very popular because they’ll be appealing to younger professionals who don’t already own a car. Maybe they’re considering buying a car vs living closer to work to maintain the carless lifestyle.

    Luxury condos like The Emerald are only affordable to older or more affluent people who likely already own a car and/or have a lifestyle that necessitates having one. They’re very unlikely to ditch the car just to buy one of these condos.

    Making Seattle look more carless like Manhattan starts from the ground up, not the top down.

  2. Good article, this article in the Seattle Times caught my eye as well!

    It’s very ‘Sky Is Falling’ click-baity of the Times. Will it be harder to sell in the short term? Sure. But the decreased construction costs and long term profitability I’m sure remain VERY strong. There’s no reason we should cater to parking when there clearly is a growing market for these apartments and when public transit is only forecasted to get better. Perhaps the Emerald is ahead of their time but short term pain does not = long term gains missed. I’ll bet on less parking 10 times out of 10 as a more sustainable construction model.

  3. The use of “socialism” in the headline appears to be clickbait. Freemarket decisions on whether and how much parking to provide has nothing to do with socialism.

    • My point was in the US we have socialism for cars, but austerity for people. We’ve constructed a “free market” in the US that mass produces parking while keeping housing scarce, and the government does likewise.

  4. I think the developer kind of misjudged the luxury market. Most people living in 10 million dollar penthouses aren’t going to think much of spending another $100k on a parking spot for their BMW.

    My question is: why do we care that some condo built for Russian billionaires to park their cash isn’t selling? The Emerald isn’t really representative of the Seattle market. Even in the original article they mention that most other condo projects without parking are selling well.

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