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Commission rejects parking changes

Thursday, August 28, 2014 by Elizabeth Pagano

A proposal that would allow businesses to count metered street parking toward their parking requirements found no friends at Tuesday night’s Planning Commission meeting.

Currently, city code requires that businesses outside of downtown fulfill minimum parking requirements primarily through off-street spaces. Downtown parking requirements were eliminated last year.

Though recommended by staff, the commissioners did not support the change. In fact, they voted unanimously to oppose the code amendment, with Chair Danette Chimenti absent.

“I’m in favor of flexible parking options,” said Commissioner Stephen Oliver. “But I don’t think we’ve got a cohesive strategy together yet that’s not going to create unintended consequences. I think everything has got to be on the table at one time, instead of one-at-a-time. This year has been a lot of one-at-a-time, to considerable frustration to a lot of people who can’t see how it all adds up.”

City Council adopted a resolution asking for the metered parking ordinance last October. That resolution said parking requirements can overburden small businesses and those hoping to repurpose existing buildings in densely developed areas. The resolution also states that reduction in surface parking furthers the “compact and connected city” envisioned in the Imagine Austin Comprehensive Plan.

That may be the case, but the Planning Commission worried that the timing was wrong.

“This is the right policy, but it is the wrong time,” said Commissioner James Nortey, who wanted to make it clear the commission wasn’t against parking reductions per se, just at this point in time.

Zilker Neighborhood Association member David King spoke out against the change. King said he was concerned the amendment could lead to more businesses opening or expanding in areas of the city that were already highly congested. He also cautioned against assuming this measure would be universally embraced by businesses owners, and said that some might not want the change.

“We don’t have enough mass transit already in the urban core of Austin,” said King. “Yet, here we are, pushing on the accelerator for more density, more businesses and more traffic. This is too soon. This is too early to be pushing on the accelerator for this kind of strategy.”

Nortey said King was absolutely right.

“Although I do believe that we need to be futuristic and think about the city where we want it to be … the city hasn’t answered the question about what we need to do in the meantime,” said Nortey. “It does look like we are pushing the cart before the horse.

“This is absolutely the direction that the city needs to go, once there is a robust, multimodal infrastructure for people to get around and walk and take mass transit … We haven’t proved up to the community that this will work,” Nortey continued.

Commissioner Brian Roark struggled to understand the rationale behind the timing of the change.

“Is there a theory that if we just stop requiring parking that it’s going to somehow facilitate more mass transit?” asked Roark. “We’ve already done away completely with downtown parking. This is another incremental step toward doing away with any required parking citywide … It seems like that is what is coming down the pike.”

Oliver said that was, indeed, one theory. He noted that it seemed Austin was trying to forward things like walkability and sustainability while continuing an auto-dependent culture.

“I think we are just looking for different strategies and seeing what is palatable, to who, and why,” said Oliver. “And then, hopefully, justifying those reasons before we make rash decisions.”

Planning Commissioners are considering asking City Council to provide an overall strategy for small changes like this proposal, so that they can be considered holistically instead of individually.

City Council will take up the code amendment at its Sept. 25 meeting.

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