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Panel rejects plan for businesses to lease parking space in city parks

Monday, April 22, 2013 by Kimberly Reeves

A Planning Commission committee firmly rejected the idea of leasing excess parkland parking spaces to surrounding businesses, an idea they labeled “the Casa de Luz” problem at a meeting on Tuesday night.


Casa de Luz’s issues began back in 2011, when code compliance officers cited the facility for “borrowing” parking spaces at Butler Park in South Austin to accommodate the traffic to its macrobiotic restaurant. Casa de Luz was informed it needed to find another 50 parking spaces, and pronto, to keep its restaurant open.


The center’s supporters lobbied and late last year Council directed the city’s Parks and Recreation Department to come up with options for a “parking utilization plan,” one that would allow businesses to lease excess parking spaces to local businesses.


Planner Ricardo Solis presented the plan to the Planning Commission’s Codes & Ordinances Committee on Tuesday night. The department put plenty of conditions on the arrangement: The business would have to be within 1,000 feet of the park or park parking lot. It would not apply to recreational facilities or cultural centers like the Mexican-American Cultural Center. The Parks Department director would authorize the agreement. The business would have to prove it was a last resort. And any lease, for six months or a year, would require a Chapter 26 hearing to discuss re-use of public parkland.


“I see increased demand, especially in the inner city, for something like this,” Solis told the committee. “This could apply to 3,200 businesses at 93 parks.”


Attendees, and especially the Zilker neighborhood, repeatedly called such an arrangement “bad policy.” David King led off with the protests.


“I’m from the Zilker neighborhood, which is honored to have the first park being targeted for this ordinance,” King said, tongue in cheek. “Businesses are going to be waiting in line to get those parking spaces. And as I understand from the ordinances, spaces would be designated for use but not marked.”

So, for instance, Casa de Luz could lease 50 spaces from the Parks Department, but it would be impossible to tell which cars were park visitors and which were Casa de Luz patrons, much less whether they were strangers driving down Toomey Road, simply hunting for a free parking space.


“You’re not going to know if those people are parking for the business or visiting the park. Will the Parks Department even see a dime of this?” King asked. “What is the market rate in the area where the business is located? Maybe it’s $10,000, $20,000, $30,000, $40,000 a year?”


King saw the proposal as a problem all around, for both the park and the public. Blake Tollett of the West Austin Neighborhood Group agreed. “It just seems to be really bad public policy,” Tollett said. “It’s almost inconceivable we would be selling off these parking places. They already need more spaces at Laguna Gloria and Deep Eddy, with all those restaurants around it. Sure, most of them are grandfathered as far as parking requirements, but what if someone else needs parking there? I would encourage you to really look hard at this, and to make this as tough as possible.”


Of course, Tollett’s preference was to ditch the idea altogether, which Committee Chair Danette Chimenti appeared to favor. She questioned whether the Parks Department had the staff time to be considering a bunch of parking applications. Solis said it would depend on the number of interested businesses.


Jeff Jack, an ex officio committee member, also saw the proposal as problematic, saying it was impossible to define any quantitative measure to provide that the applicant had considered all options on the table. What if the solution was a trolley service for Casa de Luz patrons rather than additional parking spaces?


“I don’t even know how you get there with this ordinance,” Jack said. “We’re potentially facing immense problems and cost for one business.”


And Jack pointed out, it was Casa de Luz that created its own problems. The wellness compound easily could have moved to a site with sufficient parking.


“In business, if you grow, you might outgrow the site,” Jack said. “Casa de Luz has the financial resources to open up a very good restaurant in some other locations in the same area. They just have to do what every other business has to do in these circumstances, move.”


Chimenti moved to vote down the ordinance. Her colleagues agreed. That committee recommendation will be forwarded to the full Planning Commission and then back to Council.

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