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Lawsuit could muddle city plan to eliminate downtown parking regs

Thursday, March 7, 2013 by Michael Kanin

A pending lawsuit aimed at a perceived lack of accessible parking along two stretches of Sixth Street and a portion of South Congress Avenue could affect the City of Austin’s attempt to eliminate parking requirements in the central business district.


Council Member Laura Morrison brought up the lawsuit at Tuesday’s Council work session. “It’s been brought to my attention that there was or is a lawsuit…against the city concerning non-compliance with disabled parking in the (central business district),” she said.


In addition to the suit, Morrison and Council Member Kathie Tovo had additional questions, including those about amendments made last week to the resolution that would set up the new requirements. The official language of those amendments was still not available for Council members’ perusal as of Wednesday morning.


Last Thursday, Council members approved the elimination of parking rules attached to development by a 6-1 vote. At the time, city planner George Zapalac told them that – though the requirements would be eliminated – downtown would still have available parking.


“We aren’t trying to kill off parking downtown,” Council Member Chris Riley said Thursday. (See In Fact Daily, March 5, 2013.)


Though only Mayor Lee Leffingwell voted against the downtown parking requirement elimination, Morrison indicated that she would think about language in the change that would preserve some accessible parking.


The lawsuit dates back to mid-2012. However, its potential affect on the new parking rules was first publicly raised only Tuesday. 


According to the original petition filed in the case, suit plaintiffs Melissa Bryan and Doris Standlee filed their action “against the City of Austin for its failure to reasonably accommodate their disabilities by failing to provide accessible on-street parking in the downtown Austin business and entertainment districts generally, and specifically in (the) Historic 6th Street, East 6th Street, and South Congress areas.”


Bryan and Standlee’s attorney, Joseph Berra of the Texas Civil Rights Project told In Fact Daily via email that he was not familiar with the ordinance that aims to change downtown parking requirements. Still, Berra was able to speak generally about his concerns.


“I can see how elimination of downtown parking requirements might make all parking more tight,” Berra said in his email. “Our concern in the lawsuit is, of course, with street parking: namely that street parking should be accessible to people with disabilities on an equivalent basis as that available to able-bodied individuals.


“The way to achieve this is by ensuring a certain number of accessible parking spaces per block perimeter, usually about 1 per 25,” Berra continued.  “This ensures not only that there will be an appropriate number, but that they will be adequately dispersed block by block. This is our minimum demand for street parking, regardless of the downtown parking requirements.”


On Wednesday, Morrison continued to ponder the implications of the change in parking rules on accessibility from several angles including accessibility issues and those presented by Austin’s dramatically growing population of citizens aged 55 and older. “It’s important to carefully think through the impacts of this ordinance,” she told In Fact Daily via email.


“First, we need to know whether our Central Business District currently has an adequate amount of (accessible) parking.  Additionally, we have to factor in planning for the future, with the understanding that as Austin’s aging population grows, so will the need for more (accessible) parking spaces.  In the end, we must ensure that downtown is accessible for everyone to enjoy, not just for the young.”   


It seems likely that the item will, at the very least, be pulled off today’s consent agenda for an executive session discussion of the legal issues.

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