By Karen Klinger
Increasing the number of off-street parking spots in Cambridge for Zipcars initially might have sounded like a fairly innocuous, green-friendly concept, but it became a hot-button issue when opposition surfaced to the car-sharing company encroaching into residential neighborhoods.
Especially controversial was the idea that someone with a parking spot in a driveway could rent it to Zipcar or a shared-vehicle competitor (although only Zipcar now operates in Cambridge).
Now, the Cambridge Planning Board has met some of those concerns by deciding to recommend to the city council that zoning regulations be changed to allow Zipcars to park in residential areas, but with restrictions that would prohibit them in almost all driveways.
“It really is that Zipcar in the driveway that I object to,” the board’s chairman William Tibbs said at a meeting June 2.
Other board members agreed with him, asking staffers to draft a letter to the council recommending that Zipcars be allowed to park only in driveways with a minimum of five parking spaces and which are at least 10 feet from a wall with a window.
The parking spaces also would need to meet dimensions that conform to the zoning code-- meaning they are at least 8 ½ feet by 16 feet in size--and no tandem parking would be allowed.
Suzanne Rasmussen, the city’s director of environmental and transportation planning, said the restrictions “would rule out most driveways” for Zipcar parking, leaving multi-car lots in apartment buildings or condominium complexes as the primary places for the vehicles to park in residential zones.
The board’s recommendations would alleviate one worry expressed by City Councilor Craig Kelley that owners of houses with driveways would be tempted to rent a space to Zipcar and then park their own cars on the street.
Currently, zoning laws prohibit property owners in residential neighborhoods from renting parking spaces for Zipcars or in fact, for any vehicle whose owner is not also a tenant.
But, as Rasmussen freely acknowledged, the regulations are widely disregarded and the city has mostly turned a blind eye. “Zipcar locations as they exist today do not follow the existing rules,” she told the planning board.
She said there are now 200 Zipcars in various locations throughout the city that are used by about 10,000 Cantabrigians with Zipcar memberships. Those that are parked in commercial districts—the vast majority—have prompted few complaints but cars that are kept illegally in non-commercial areas are another matter.
In an attempt to encourage more drivers to share vehicles, city officials proposed that the zoning code be changed to allow them in residential neighborhoods as well as to increase the spaces they are allowed to 10 percent of most commercial lots and an unlimited number in fee-charging public facilities such as parking garages.
The changes for commercial zones have met little opposition, but the prospect of Zipcars parking in residential areas has sparked a public debate noted by the planning board.
Board member Theodore Cohen said he felt the city needed to move carefully so that however the zoning code is altered, “it feels like it’s not changing the nature of residential neighborhoods.”
In a letter to the board, Joan Pickett, president of the Mid-Cambridge Neighborhood Association, said that while “the intended goal of Zipcar is admirable,” its expansion into residential areas could have the effect of displacing existing off-street parking and increasing “parking costs to residents who will now have to compete” with a commercial operation.
John Howard, president of the Porter Square Neighbors Association, said in another letter that residents “deserve a forum in which to raise objections or offer support before a Zipcar spot is allowed.”
He added, “Neighbors should also have a means of filing complaints about disruptive or undesirable operations. Restaurants and other business permits require neighborhood input, as do zoning variances. A similar process should be followed here.”
The planning board asked staff members to bring the draft recommendations back for review at their next meeting June 16 before sending them to the city council, which will make the final decision on the zoning changes.