Redtape Removed for Railroad District Business Owners as City Council Leaves Decisions to the Market

by | Apr 27, 2022

On the night of Tuesday, April 26th, City Council passed a seemingly minor text amendment to the zoning ordinance that governs the Railroad District, formally known as the Norfolk and Western Historic Overlay district. The action alters just a few sentences from the existing language, but advocates say it will substantially impact it. 

The change removed specific requirements for retail shops, restaurants, churches, residential developments with less than 25 units, and all other non-residential uses that often hamstrung city approval processes. Under the newly passed ordinance, property owners can now determine the appropriate amount of parking spaces needed. Without mandates from the city defining a minimum number of required parking spaces, property owners will have significantly more flexibility in finding the highest and best use for their buildings. 

In an area built to historical standards, the city’s previous mandates caused many problems with development and renovations. In the past, property owners were often required to lease parking spaces on other properties, tear down existing structures to make room for parking, take on costly paving projects, or downsize their plans to accommodate parking. 

Advocates say that removing these regulations allows property owners to build the amount of parking they see fit, leaving the issue up to the market. If inadequate parking space negatively impacts the viability of the business or inconveniences residents, there should be repercussions seen in the market value of that space. Meanwhile, property owners who prefer transportation choices like bikes, transit, and ride-sharing are free to put their land to more productive uses. 

According to Planning Commission documents, affordable housing and resilience efforts also benefit from the change. Construction costs related to parking are often passed on to the consumer in the final rent prices. Similarly, architects and project leads may choose to use the land formerly required for parking to include more units in new housing, which would allow for more significant increases in the housing supply. 

On the resilience front, paved surfaces like parking lots contribute disproportionately to runoff and stormwater problems, and now business owners and residents alike can choose to build a little less. 

These supportive arguments came in public comments, letters of support, and formal recommendations from business owners, the neighborhood association, city staff, the Architectural Review Board, and the City Planning Commission itself. Strikingly, during a public meeting on the topic prior to last night’s City Council meeting, not a single person spoke in opposition to eliminating the minimum parking requirements. The consensus that is firm on any civic issue has been rare in recent years. 

While the removal of parking minimums and the reform of parking mandates have just entered, the issue has gained momentum on the national stage. Urbanist groups like the Parking Reform NetworkStrong Towns, and the Congress for the New Urbanism have elevated the issue. With last night’s vote, Norfolk is now (literally) on the map in these conversations. The question remains if this change for the Railroad District will spark more neighborhoods to follow suit. 


Paul Stetson Rice

Chelsea, NFK

Paul is the creator of He was born and raised in Norfolk, graduated from Virginia Tech, and narrowly avoided law school. Chat with him about economics, entrepreneurship, hip-hop, and hiking. When he's not working on five different projects, you'll catch him sharing a beer with friends at a local brewery.

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