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Panel seeks to expand focus on parking to inner-city neighborhoods

Monday, November 28, 2011 by Kimberly Reeves

While they have gotten the most attention, neighborhoods around South Congress and Rainey Street are not the only places in Austin where parking is a problem. The lack of space in inner-city neighborhoods is leaving some residents wondering whether the goal of density actually is worth it.


Assistant Director for Transportation Gary Schatz came to the Planning Commission’s Neighborhood Plan subcommittee to discuss the kinds of solutions the city had considered for South Congress and Rainey Street — charging for downtown parking on Saturday nights, broadening impact reports to include both traffic and pedestrians, and increasing parking spaces with back-in angle parking.


But Commissioner Saundra Kirk said she was more interested in how the city could address parking inside city neighborhoods.


“What you’ve been talking about is all very valid, but I’d like to reframe the conversation so that we move into the neighborhood, where we’re getting into livability issues,” Kirk said. “In the dynamics of densifying the inner city, what we’re seeing is an increased resistance to any kind of density because it brings with it a laundry list of issues or problems.”

What neighborhoods need, Kirk said, is a tailored solution that can address the spillover parking that is occurring due to shared dwellings or additional commerce along streets such as South Congress.


Parking limitations on Kirk’s own street in Travis Heights brings its own raft of problems beyond simply being unable to park a visiting vehicle: street cleaners cannot sweep the street; furniture companies can’t deliver because they have no space to turn around; lawn services have nowhere to park their trailers.


“These are the kind of issues that they have,” said Kirk, noting that the parking was perfectly legal. “And we don’t have any recourse.”


Simply calling in the city to enforce code violations – if there are code violations at all – is a costly proposition, said Jeff Jack, who serves as an ex-officio member of the Planning Commission as the chair of the Board of Adjustment.


“Enforcement is expensive,” Jack said. “One of the underlying issues of the rising cost of living in Austin is that every time we move to find a solution, it raises the cost of living. If there’s an alternative that doesn’t do that, that’s my preference.”


At the core of the issue, Jack said, is the relationship between zoning requests and the actual businesses that result from those requests. The city needs to stop granting zoning exceptions to parking for businesses when the obvious cumulative effect is that parking will be pushed into surrounding neighborhoods.


“The parking requirements shouldn’t be reduced unless the business owner can guarantee that 80 percent of the patronage for the reduced spots can be supplied by transit,” Jack said. “There should be a triggering mechanism.”


Unfortunately, Capital Metro is moving away from bus service that might be useful to neighborhoods, replacing service along South Lamar with high-speed express service, Jack said. Such choices only compound neighborhood problems, especially as business density increases


The pressure on properties, especially in areas such as South Lamar and Rainey Street, can be great, Jack said. The cost of land is so high, choosing to build a high-traffic cocktail lounge often is the only option available to owners.


“The result of upzoning Rainey Street to CBD is that we have 14 more bars on the way,” Jack said. “The taxes are sky high, and the only way they can afford it any more is to turn it into a bar, so now everyone wants to put in a pub or bar.”


Chair Dave Sullivan said the solutions to parking problems don’t have to be complicated. For instance, Sullivan suggested painting available parking spots and no parking spaces along residential streets in high traffic areas. Such efforts could be limited to streets alongside or near major commercial corridors that suffer from overflow parking issues.


In Kirk’s neighborhood, a local apartment complex has instructed residents it has limitations on guest parking. That’s led to cars up and down the adjacent neighborhood streets, Kirk said. And, of course, it’s a public street, so there’s no real recourse for people who actually live in the houses on the street, even as spaces remain vacant in the apartment complex’s parking lot.


“This is impacting our ability to be good neighbors to each other,” Kirk said. “We need to start folding what we know into a whole set of workable solutions.”


The time has come to look at what’s on the books in Austin and determine whether existing ordinances need to be strengthened or new options created to help overflow parking issues in neighborhoods, Kirk told Schatz.


“We need to come up with some real concrete ideas,” Kirk said. “I did hear you when you talked about managing the supply and demand and expectations. I think we need to look at our current set of tools – what the ordinances allow us to do now – and see what we can use that’s already on the books.”

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