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2019 could be the year to end city parking minimums

Thursday, February 7, 2019 by Ryan Thornton

The Pedestrian Advisory Council is asking City Council to confront a broad spectrum of issues this year with a simple change to the city’s dated land use code.

In a unanimous vote Monday evening, PAC approved a recommendation to Council to eliminate mandated parking minimums from the city’s land use code entirely. Among other requests, the recommendation includes managing parking supply with dynamic pricing adjustments, citywide expansion of the current Parking Benefit District structure and disincentivizing construction of aboveground parking garages in new developments.

The PAC recommendation specifies that each development will still be required to provide ADA-compliant on- or off-street parking spaces if parking minimums are removed from the land use code.

The city eliminated parking minimums from the Central Business District in 2013, allowing developers to determine how much parking is appropriate for their site. As PAC member Branigan Mulcahy clarified prior to the vote, the removal of parking minimums from the CBD has had only a modest effect on downtown developments.

“If you walk around, you see there are still buildings that are one-third parking and it can look relatively absurd, but in reality that’s probably half of the amount of parking that would be required if you were to build it under the old code,” he said.

Outside of downtown, however, where the old code still reigns, developers are faced with the choice of building expensive vertical garages or paving vast swaths of land to meet the parking requirements. Because developers often opt for the latter, the PAC recommendation says the resulting consumption of land “makes walking impractical and often impossible.”

Vertical garages are not much better for walkability as they are often built at street level, again creating space between pedestrians and their destinations. PAC is asking Council members to remove incentives for aboveground garages by including all aboveground parking in the city’s floor area ratio (FAR) regulations, which correlate to how much floor space a development may contain in relation to the surface area of the site. In the absence of height restrictions downtown, FAR is the only measure restricting the size of a building. But because parking does not contribute to FAR, developers have no real incentive to put that parking underground.

To ensure that parking is always available as demand increases, PAC is also recommending citywide adoption of demand-based dynamic pricing for parking. Speaking in support of the recommendation, former Council Member Chris Riley said the goal should be to maintain parking capacity at around 85 percent, simply adjusting the cost of hourly parking on each block according to demand.

“A lot of neighborhoods are very anxious about the removal of parking requirements because of what they fear they’re going to see on the streets,” Riley said. “The reason they fear that is because we have not been doing a good job of managing the parking situation on the street.”

Demand-based pricing of on-street parking could also be a significant source of revenue to city neighborhoods. Austin’s Parking Benefit District structure allows neighborhoods to implement parking meters and use 51 percent of that revenue minus city costs for infrastructure improvements. The program has already provided funds for several projects, including the protected bike lanes along Rio Grande Street in West Campus.

PAC is asking Council members to permit all neighborhoods to implement the Parking Benefit District structure if parking demand is sufficient to cover the costs and maintenance of the kiosks. Revenue would potentially be used for sidewalks, parks or other pedestrian benefits.

Over email following the vote, Jay Blazek Crossley, PAC chair and executive director of nonprofit Farm & City, said that to be the “smart city” Austin wants to be, it needs to abandon “dumb old policies” like parking minimums, “lacking any basis in data, research or cost-benefit analysis.”

“I think the unanimous vote of the PAC reflects a growing consensus from housing, safety and climate activists nationwide that this particular policy choice has no theoretical or empirical grounding and little benefit, yet imposes substantial known costs,” Crossley said. “Enhancing every person’s ability to walk or wheelchair safely to places they actually want to go to nearby is an essential strategy for a 21st-century city, and parking spots are getting in the way of progress.”

The PAC is requesting a response from each Council member regarding its recommendations before its May 6 meeting.

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