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Planning Commission endorses new downtown parking regulations

Thursday, February 14, 2013 by Elizabeth Pagano

The Planning Commission moved forward swiftly with new downtown parking regulations Tuesday night. They voted unanimously to recommend the code amendment, which would eliminate downtown parking requirements, except for parking for the disabled.


The vote was 8-0 to recommend Council adopt the ordinance that would amend the code, with Commissioner Alfonso Hernandez absent.


“This ordinance is not going to get rid of parking in the downtown area. But it will basically leave it to the private market to determine how much parking is provided,” said principal planner George Zapalac.


Zapalac said that several lenders that he spoke with confirmed that they would want to see a certain amount of parking provided in order to be assured new projects would be economically viable.


Staff also recommended the change. Zapalac said that while the switch could present some challenges, none were insurmountable.


The current parking regulations are more complicated. No parking is required for historic buildings or uses of less than 6,000 square feet in pre-1997 buildings. The current requirements are reduced for other downtown buildings also. At present, they only have to provide 60 percent of the normal requirement for residential uses and 20 percent for other uses. Overall, downtown buildings may not provide more than 60 percent of the normal requirement, unless the parking is located in a garage.


Zapalac presented a list of possible consequences of the change to the Planning Commission, based on what had occurred in other cities that eliminated their parking requirements. Several were positive, like lower development costs, and an increase in pedestrian-friendly land uses and alternative transportation.


Ex-Officio member Jeff Jack zeroed in on one of the potentially negative impacts – an increased cost of existing parking spaces.


Jack wondered whether the possibility of lower tenant costs took into account the added cost of parking, which could be greater after the change. He recalled a space in Chicago being offered for $60,000 a year, and asked whether that cost might be offloaded.


Zapalac explained that Austin’s university overlay district had a requirement to lease parking separately from apartment units.


“What we have found in that situation is that some developers have provided more parking than the minimum… because they can lease the spaces and it’s fairly lucrative,” said Zapalac. “That is a possible consequence, but we are not including that provision in this ordinance that the spaces have to be leased separately from the use itself.”


Other potentially negative consequences include spillover of parking into surrounding neighborhoods. However, noted Zapalac, most of the neighborhoods had residential parking permit programs already in place which could “compensate for this possible effect.”


Commissioner Danette Chimenti expressed mild concern with this plan, noting that residential permitting programs, or RPPs, have faced push-back in the city. She clarified that she was “all for” the plan, but warned that it was important to protect nearby neighborhoods from ripple effect.


“The businesses don’t want neighborhoods to get RPPs, because that takes away parking from some of their customers,” said Chimenti, who pointed out that could be problematic for neighborhoods wishing to implement RPP.


She was less-than mollified by a reminder that the Judges’ Hill neighborhood – which is the neighborhood most likely to be impacted by the change – already has such a program in place.


“I understand that,” said Chimenti. “There’s some permit parking in the areas around South Congress, too. But the city is looking at a process whereby some of that might be revoked – because of influence by the businesses.”


Zapalac also acknowledged the switch could increase downtown traffic congestion, and mean less parking for people with disabilities.


“Disabled parking is based on the number of spaces that are provided, so if there no parking required, there could, naturally, be fewer spaces for the disabled,” said Zapalac.


Staff recommends that a maximum limit on parking and requirements for disabled spaces and bicycles remain in place, as well as making off site parking a permitted use.  Currently, off-site parking is a conditional use, which makes little sense in a system where there are no parking requirements.


Additionally, they ask the city to modify off-street loading requirements in concert with the code amendment, in order to add more flexibility.


“We’ve discovered some problems with our off-street loading requirements,” said Zapalac. “In some cases the loading requirements in our downtown area are actually stricter than outside the downtown area, which we didn’t feel was reasonable.”


The amendment has already been presented to the Urban Transportation Commission, the Downtown Commission, the Downtown Austin Alliance and the Downtown Austin Neighborhood Association. Zapalac said that they had not received any negative comments about the plan. City Council will hear the case at its Feb. 28 meeting.

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