Condo, heal thyself …

Google photo shows QE Towers


Part of the controversy about the Laurier Separated Bike Lanes relates to who gets to use the street. According to the Bank Street BIA, it’s for cars and deliveries, period. Less strident but still vocal are the various condo owner and management groups in the core. Let’s look at one downtown condo, Queen Elizabeth towers, and their parking issues.

Built in 1975 (left tower, 500 Laurier, 238 units) and 1978 (right tower, 530 Laurier,  217 units)  these 26 storey big block condos are a well known downtown presence. For these 455 units there are 455 parking spaces (according to the building manager’s office), as the building was built back in the days of 100% parking (new projects have much less, often less than 50% parking). There are four visitor spaces. Several units have more than one parking space but I don’t know if there are additional spaces or if some people bought more spaces and some units do without.

On the street in front of the building (Laurier Avenue) there are 28 on-street parking spaces between Bay and Percy. These are not exclusively for the building, as there are numerous other condos nearby as are downtown offices. And of course there are other blocks, other streets … to park on.

At least some condo residents here object to the Laurier bike lanes due to loss of “visitor” parking. Yet on any given day, you can look into the garages (they are open at street level) and see dozens, perhaps hundreds of empty spaces.

Presumably some residents live here but drive to work elsewhere, leaving these spaces unused all day. And I have an acquaintance who drives to Florida in early December, leaving his parking space vacant for 3-4 months. Why can’t visitors park in these spaces?

Part of the problem lies in the nature of the parking space as property. Residents buy a parking space along with their unit. Early buyers get better-located spaces. Condo parking spaces are sold for about $30,000 each (sometimes this is included in the unit price, sometimes it is quoted separately, but either way, the cost is there)*. Each condo owner who owns a space therefore pays about $40 per month in property taxes on this space, plus condo fees for its maintenance (somewhere around $20 per month) plus the monthly principle and interest on the $30,000 in their unit mortgage (say $30 per month). So each parking space costs its owner at least $90 per month, over $1000 per year.

It is important to identify how much a space is worth to determine if it has market value.

One of the reasons condo residents can pressure the City/taxpayer to provide cheap or free on-street parking is because it doesn’t cost them anything directly out of pocket, but you don’t see condos running about asking to build extensions to their parking garages for more visitor parking since each space will cost well above $30,000 each. “If we can’t afford to provide visitor parking, we’ll demand the City do it for us…”

As mentioned, in most buildings individual spaces are titled or assigned to individual owners. There is no mechanism that I know of to “let out” spaces on a monthly or even a short term basis. (note to hi tech entrepreneurs: invent a software allowing owners that exit the garage to mark their space as rentable til time x). However, at QE Towers there is on-site security guard right at the entrance to the garages who could assign visitors a known empty space and charge a fee for that space. The fee would be split between the condo management (for admin costs) and the space owner (their incentive to rent it out…). Only residents who agree to rent spaces would do so. Given that there are only 28 street spaces in front of QE Towers, it wouldn’t take many cooperating owners to double or triple the amount of “guest parking” available to residents.

Other options might include granting residents the right to park but not to an assigned space. Any commercial garage owner knows how many spaces he can rent out compared to the number of spaces actually there; trust me, they sell way more permits than there are spaces. Commercial garage owners are pros at managing parking levels to maximize revenue because they understand that each space has value, and an empty space is foregone revenue,  whereas too many condo residents persist in ignorance of their costs (and consequently ignorant of the opportunity cost in a vacant space…).

The easiest thing for a condo board to do is set up a swapping web site or paper sheet whereby those with longer term available spaces (for example, available all month/week/everyday between 8 and 5pm) to offer them to residents or repeat visitors. The user of the space, of course, pays a rent or parking charge. This is a similar process to what happens now when a unit owner who doesn’t have  a car but owns a space rents it out to someone else who wants a parking space. The mechanism is sufficiently cumbersome some people don’t bother, and it wouldn’t be worth it for short term occasional visitors.

Does the City or condo have data on how many visitors are occasional, short term parkers vs regular visitors, either someone like a CAC worker or visiting friends? You cannot manage what you don’t measure.

I don’t normally advocate for more City interference in private markets, but I do recognize that private decisions have influences  (sometimes costly ones) on the taxpayer. The City does regulate how many spaces the condo must provide, and how many visitor spaces. It isn’t too much of a further step to require unassigned spaces and to let visitors use the empty spaces.

Note that this does not turn the condo garage into a public parking garage. It is still their private property, they can charge revenue for parking, they can regulate the uses (for example, limiting parkers to visitors to that building).

More extreme is the CCOC buildings down in the Market. Residents and general public parking users share the same parking structure and spaces. According to CCOC, there is rarely a problem with a resident being unable to find a parking space when returning at night. This results in an efficient use of all available spaces.

Less extreme is to encourage or require condo builders and condo associations to give parking spaces to VirtuCar or similar car sharing groups. Research shows that each VirtuCar means that 17 households do not buy a private vehicle. Can  you find a cheaper way than that for a condo to free up lots of spaces for guest parking? If QE Towers provided parking for two shared cars (even if they bought the spaces from private owners for $30k each), they would have more parking than out front on Laurier Avenue, and they wouldn’t have to share it with anyone else!

Downtown condo residents complain to the City about losing parking spaces along Laurier based on the assumption that the highest and best use of scarce public space is … for parking cars. They huff and puff while sitting on dozens or hundreds of empty spaces within their buildings. Condo, heal thyself.


* while researching this post, I checked out some condo listings. The selling price differential between units with and without a parking space was often way less than $30,000, which means the owners forgot what they paid and are discounting the spaces … or buyers of units without parking are underestimating the discount they should be getting for foregoing a parking space.


Another related topic is maximizing parking within the existing garage. Too many condos have super wide aisles and underused spaces. If someone is going south for the winter, why not tandem park the vehicle with another (at the end of an aisle or other suitable place), freeing up one of the spaces to rent?

18 thoughts on “Condo, heal thyself …

  1. Great Post!
    I occasionally look at condo prices, and I shake my head at how high the condo fees are.
    $500/m? For what?
    The idea of having commercial parking in the condo lots makes lots of sense. I am pretty sure then new Mondrian building downtown has a few floors of commercial parking. If the condo boards contracts out the management to a parking company, condo revenues will go up, so fees can go down. If the condos are downtown, and residents drive to work (I know, there are morons everywhere) or better yet has not car, the parking company could rent out the space to a suburbanite who is too important to take the bus to work, making money for the spot owner.
    I would love to see some regulation forcing all new condos to have 4 or 5 virtu cars, and some rental bikes too.

  2. Hey Eric,

    I beleive, but where is the research?

    Research shows that each VirtuCar means that 17 households do not buy a private vehicle.

  3. 17 households: I read this from a report in New Jersey which specifically addressed the issue of how many household demands were met by a virtu car type operation, because the city was supporting the idea and needed the facts. I read it on the Planetizen site but didn’t save the original story. Yes, I shouldv’e.

    If time, I will google the subject in the next few days and try to find some data for virtucar, zipcar, hertz and similar projects.

    I supose another way to look it at would be to ask virtucar how many members have no (private) cars in their household and then divide the fleet of cars by that number.

  4. I supose another way to look it at would be to ask virtucar how many members have no (private) cars in their household and then divide the fleet of cars by that number.

    I was a Vrtucar member for many years and they told me that over half of the membership had no car while a very signicant number use Vrtucar as their ‘second car’. Vrtucar keeps a lot of people from needing to buy a car but it also allows a great many families to avoid buying that second car that you see in every suburbanite family’s driveway. I would honestly guess if there are two thousand members, than that can’t be too far off two thousand privately-owned cars not on Ottawa’s roads that otherwise would be.

  5. I hope you have a permit to make all the sense you’ve been tossing about lately. Wouldn’t want to run afoul of by-laws, zoning, or your community association.

  6. Good post. Four visitor parking spaces! That is too funny. This argument about losing parking spaces also strikes me as a nimby thing. Most opponents of the segregated lane don’t mind if it is moved to another street. Just not their street. Clearly, the city cannot provide guest parking for all the condos and apartments in the downtown. Nor should they.

  7. Totally agree that the City should not be in the business of providing visitors’ parking to condo owners on Laurier – buyer beware I say!

    I hope the city councillors don’t cave to the condo owners or the Bank st BIA and pass this pilot project next Wednesday – it is a critical piece of the cycling plan that is missing in the core.

    I am considerIng joining vrtucar because I don’t want to buy the second car. Plus I can get an ecopass with my membership (I take transit to work every day). My brother-in-law is a member and he doesn’t have a car.

    1. I was a buyer beware. I had 69 spots on Laurier. Now caregivers, service providers and health care workers have to park a block or two away and then bring their equipment up or downhill in the worst weather. We had to beg to get an opening in front of our building so paratranspo could pick up. Salvation army has refused to pick up donations at some Laurier buildings because 1. They can’t stop legally. 2. There is no place to load the truck. Drivers – yes there is that ugly word – are forced into oncoming traffic in rush hour while the fedex, Canada post or whoever blocks the lane and then leaves. This is why we are fighting

    1. What on earth would possess anyone to do this? An extreme dislike for mowing lawns? Completely out of character for that old neighborhood. To each his/her own but…

    2. This is an interesting case. I thought I was going to see sidewalk in between and I would have said: It’s up to the city to ensure only one normal width of curb cut/ramp , no matter what stupid thing you do with your front lawn.
      This is trickier…I might research the history of the property and find out how much is legal driveway ramp and start parking in front of the part that isnt…

  8. One problem with allowing people other than owners to park under a condo building like the QE is the secure access issue. For long term renters of parking, I can see it could work but not for short term.

    As for condo fees being $500 and “for what”, it takes quite a bit to maintain a high rise building and it all goes to the common elements. Have a look at the monthly or annual financial statements and you’ll see every penny is accounted for. A big portion is the reserve fund which is spent on replacing elevators, repaving he parking garage, fixing the foundations (in the parking garage), windows, etc. etc. There are multi-million dollar items.

  9. In Vancouver, the City is allowing a developer to build with no parking, and their claim was that each parking space saved $40,000!

  10. I’m not going to touch the issue of getting 455 condo owners to agree on a complete shift in the way their parking is owned, governed, and used–especially if this is ostensibly a two-year pilot project. They don’t own these spaces as a commercial venture; profiting from them or extracting their maximum value is not their purpose.

    But I did want to add a few points:

    As pointed out previously, their building was built withouit visitor parking spaces because the City at the time told them to (in fact, North of Gloucester, visitor parking still isn’t required in the zoning for new condos), in order to encourage people to use other forms of transportation. A plumber isn’t exactly going to take the bus. The visitor parking spots they do have were added after the fact. I don’t think it’s unreasonable for them to be upset.

    Chriis B, the cost of a parking space to the builder depends on the size, configuration, and geology of a site. The price at the point of initial sale doesn’t always reflect this for various market reasons. The aftermarket value of the spot can be very different again due to supply and demand.

    Hwy418: What pilot project on Wednesday are you referring to?

  11. As a resident of Laurier I must tell you that your arguments are very weak for the following reasons:

    1. It does nothing to solve the fundamental problem. Even if every parking spot in every condo was filled 24/7, we would still need parking for deliveries, caregivers, taxis, etc. do you think it’s fair that an elderly or disabled person has to walk up a hill or around a block because a ParaTranspo bus can’t park in front of her front door? And no, I’m not exagerrating.

    2. There’s the matter of security. In my building at least, owners aren’t allow to rent their spots to people who don’t live in the building as a security measure. What you propose couldn’t possibly be administered effectively.

    3. If the bike lane west of Lyon was only on the north side of Laurier, everybody would have won. Residents would have some street parking, the barriers to delivery people and emergency vehicles would be gone, and the relatively few people who bike up the hill would be happy.

    5. It may interest you to know that the city’s own analysis showed that Laurier was not the best site for the bike lanes. It didn’t even come in second. Somerset and Gladstone were thought to be superior.

  12. Most of these buildings have rear access to quiet streets with parking. Can’t back or side doors be used? I think the bicycle lanes are a modest experiment for the benefit of cyclists, and a little inconvenience for motorists should be accepted.

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