For quite some time, I've been struggling with an application for a variance to allow a developer to provide bus passes to the tenants and employees in his building instead of providing the required off-street parking, and could use some words of wisdom from the cyburbia throbbing brain...but first a brief description of the situation and some caveats on what I'm not looking for in an answer.

The building was constructed last year in our downtown area, where parking has a reputation of being hard to come by, lots are small, uses are diverse, etc. (feel free to imagine other typical downtown descriptors here) The developer was granted a variance to allow the required parking spaces to be provided farther from the building than our code allows--the limit is generally 500', but there really aren't any lots available to be turned into parking within even 1000' of the project site, so the developer, like many of his neighbors, provided the parking nearly a half-mile away, and made intricate provisions for shuttling employees and tenants between the parking area and the building.

Like many of the buildings in this part of our downtown, this particular building caters exclusively to the cruise ship tourist--it is occupied by a furrier and a jewelry store on the ground floor, storage for the retail outlets on the second floor, and apartments for the employees above that. Because both companies on the ground floor are seasonal (they move to warmer areas during the winter, when the cruise ships don't come here), the employees are as well--in fact, the employees work for the same company year-round, and just move back and forth between ports according to the cruise schedule. As such, they don't have cars in town, and therefore really don't need places to park. The customers, who arrive on cruise ships, also lack cars, so even if there was a parking lot right in front of this building, it would always be vacant. The parking lot that is a half-mile distant is also vacant, as can be expected.

Now to the crux of the matter: The developer wants to get rid of the off-site parking, which is never used, and is a huge financial burden on the owner of the building (it wastes a lot of land to boot). The developer has applied for a variance to reduce the parking requirement to zero--in return, they will provide the employees and tenants in the building (who are actually the same people, as the employees live on-site) with bus passes. Logically, it works brilliantly: it gives the employees a way to get around town, it gives the transit department more revenue and ridership, and it frees up land that is only being used on paper to be put to a real use. Heck, it's even supported by our Comprehensive Plan, which calls for supporting initiatives to reduce dependency on private automobiles, especially in our downtown area.

But how would we ever ensure that the passes were purchased, even for a period of a year or two, not to mention over the long term? For off-site parking, we generally require a 30-year lease as a minimum, but who ever heard of a 30-year bus pass? And if the current owner sells the building in five years, how would we ensure that the new owner followed through on this requirement?

The developer's agent and I have discussed recording an agreement requiring the purchase of the passes, and they are even willing to pay an annual administrative fee to cover the cost of having city staff check on compliance, but the idea of having city staff check every month (even if it's just during the summer, when the building is occupied) for the next thirty years to ensure that the passes were purchased seems like an administrative nightmare, fee for such services notwithstanding.

Furthermore, what if the building is sold and the new owner wants to use it year-round (which we would actually prefer to the seasonal use that is now taking place)? Year-round tenants would be much more likely to own cars than the seasonal employees who now live on-site, so the bus-pass for parking trade wouldn't make sense in this case.

OK, now the caveats on what I'm not looking for in an answer:

If you have read any of my parking-related posts, you know that I've read The High Cost of Free Parking, so please don't suggest any of Mr. Shoup's ideas about transit-in-lieu-of-parking, or the inappropriateness of parking requirements in urban settings--I know all about that, and believe me, I'm working on it. We just aren't there yet (this request is really just ahead of its time as far as I'm concerned. In a few years, they may not even need a variance to do this, if I can get the changes I'm working on adopted).

I've had extensive discussions with the director of our transit system about this project and the possibility of having annual passes, or photo ID passes, or other long-term passes that would reduce the administrative hassle of monitoring compliance with this proposal, and for various reasons beyond either of our control, we can't do that yet (again, I'm working on it).

Even though I fully support the concept of this request, I just can't see how we can ensure that it works over the long term, when the building is under different management or ownership, or even once I'm no longer in this position to keep an eye on it.

Does anyone out there have any words of advice, experience with similar requests, or a fresh way of looking at this? I really don't want to tell the applicant "no," but don't know what else to say at this point. I've met with everyone who has a chance of making this work, and I'm out of ideas...

Thanks for mulling it over