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Council backs ordinance to eliminate downtown parking requirements

Tuesday, March 5, 2013 by Elizabeth Pagano

City Council took a step towards eliminating downtown parking requirements last week. Though there was a lengthy discussion surrounding the details of such a change, in the end the measure passed on first reading with very little conflict.


Planner George Zapalac presented the proposal to Council, emphasizing that while the ordinance would eliminate parking requirements, no one expected that it would eliminate parking itself from the downtown area. 


Instead, Zapalac said market pressures would determine how much parking there would be in the downtown area. Zapalac explained that people who finance downtown projects generally look for parking as a sign that a project is economically viable.


One exception to the elimination of requirements would be a minimal amount of parking maintained for disabled citizens and bicycles.


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.


So far, the changes have won the support of the Urban Transportation Commission, Downtown Commission, Downtown Austin Alliance and Downtown Austin Neighborhood Alliance. The Planning Commission also endorsed the recommendation, though they asked a plan to evaluate the changes after two years also be put in place.


Council Member Chris Riley made a number of amendments to the ordinance, including one that would increase the size of exempted historic buildings to those that were up to 12,000 square feet (from the previous 6,000 square feet.) Though these buildings would not have any parking requirements at all, Riley also added direction for staff to look at the possibility of on-street ADA-parking and other ways to ensure that the city could get the appropriate number of ADA spaces “in the most efficient way possible.”


“We aren’t trying to kill off parking downtown,” said Riley. “We actually have a wealth of parking downtown that is not currently utilized very much. We have a huge number of parking garages downtown that sit empty. Many of them might not even be made available to the public.”


Riley said that one of the reasons parking was sitting empty was that renting out parking at night is sometimes a conditional use, which requires a lengthy public process for approval. As an amendment, he suggested adding language that would make parking a permitted use instead to allow existing parking garage owners to more easily open their garages to the public.


Council Member Mike Martinez explained that the new amendment would allow buildings to use neighboring parking structures without going through the city process, which could help rejuvenate some of the older buildings downtown that lack parking.


Riley also proposed an amendment that would open up downtown alleys for loading and unloading, by right. In response to a question from Council Member Kathie Tovo about activating the alleys in non-commercial ways, he said that he would be interested in other alley uses, but they just weren’t happening.


“What has been happening is that people don’t take those alleys very seriously, and then we very casually discard those alleys,” said Riley, who pointed to a list of lost alleys from Austin’s recent history. “That, to me, is the real risk…They don’t get used and then they wind up just getting vacated.”


Larry Graham, who is the chair of the Downtown Austin Alliance, spoke in support of most of the changes. However, Graham said that the DAA did feel that a proposed parking maximum on residential projects was a “vital area of concern,” however. He said that the proposal hinders predictability, and could be detrimental to downtown development.


Mayor Lee Leffingwell proposed that the cap on be removed from the ordinance, something Riley said he “agreed with it in spirit,” but could not support.


“I think our code has actually been working very well, as far as ensuring that as far as there is excess parking, it is structured so we don’t get an abundance of surface parking downtown,” said Riley. “My other concern is that there may be a situation where someone just goes hog wild, and wants to build crazy amounts of parking downtown…We would have no way whatsoever of managing that.”


Leffingwell doubted this would be a concern, calling the plan to go hog-wild and build ten times the amount of parking required “a foolish move.” He pointed out that amount of parking that would be built would be determined by the market.


Though all of the other amendments passed unanimously, the proposal to lift the parking cap was the only amendment that failed, with Mayor Lee Leffingwell and Council Members Bill Spelman and Martinez voting in favor.


In the end, City Council voted 6-1 to approve the parking ordinance on first reading. Leffingwell voted in opposition saying, “I’m going to say no, because my amendment didn’t pass.” 


Council Member Laura Morrison said that she would consider the language surrounding ADA-parking over the next week, particularly in regards to how it will be applied to historic buildings. She also worried that not recognizing the impact of an aging population could present a problem in the future.

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