Staff proposes exchanging parking for sidewalks
Friday, August 30, 2019 by Ryan Thornton
There is a controversial assumption informing the work of the Land Development Code revision team: That is, shrinking the city’s mode share of motorists driving alone from 74 percent to 50 percent in the next two decades will require, to some extent, giving less priority to parking.
Per City Council’s direction in May, staffers are proposing a framework to consider context when deciding how much parking space, if any, should be mandated by the new city code at a given site. That context, said Annick Beaudet, assistant director of Austin Transportation, is the “adequacy of the sidewalk system.”
While the proposal would generally eliminate minimum parking requirements in areas within a quarter-mile of major corridors, Beaudet said an exception would be made for sites with inadequate or missing sidewalk segments.
Council Member Jimmy Flannigan said the policy, which would hold sidewalks to the standards of the Americans with Disabilities Act, could ultimately save taxpayers money by enticing developers to pitch in for sidewalk improvements in order to take advantage of the new policy.
Noting her opposition to eliminating parking minimums in general, Council Member Leslie Pool said the city needs to ensure internally that sidewalks are adequate for mobility before giving developers freedom to decide on the need for parking. As a trade-off for any reductions in mandated parking, Pool said, “We have to ensure as a community that the sidewalks are going to be passable.”
Pool pushed for a process to fast-track sidewalk projects with the Public Works Department in which sidewalk improvements could be done by default in tandem with other street renovations, making sure that parking reductions happen simultaneously with an overhaul of the city’s sidewalk network.
However, with sidewalk improvements happening on an ongoing basis (the Fiscal Year 2019-20 budget dedicates $10.8 million to such improvements), Council Member Greg Casar questioned the wisdom of tying long-term land use decisions to the present condition of a sidewalk.
A given sidewalk repair, he said, could very likely be resolved in a year or two, while the potential conflicts foreseen by getting rid of parking minimums would only happen at the pace of new development, assuming those developments opted to provide less parking space.
Beaudet said staff is still working out the details of the proposal but is aware that a parking lot could ultimately come at the long-term expense of more housing units, the primary goal of the code rewrite.
Consultant Peter Park said the city has already made such an investment along the major corridors that 70 percent of those areas will have adequate sidewalks within five years.
To speed up that timeline, the Pedestrian Advisory Council passed a resolution in February requesting that Council eliminate parking minimums citywide while simultaneously expanding the city’s Parking Benefit District structure to fund neighborhood sidewalks.
Besides the issue of sidewalks, Council Member Alison Alter said staff’s proposal fails to distinguish between narrow streets and major corridors, conflating areas with very different issues. While eliminating parking minimums may not have a huge impact on larger roadways, she said, the impact on narrow streets is much more noticeable as parking is pushed further onto the streets, reducing both mobility and safety.
However, Flannigan said that scenario of crowded streets is a mobility negotiation, not a mobility issue. “Mobility,” he said, “is a much bigger system at question.”
The Land Development Code team will be visiting Council at a special work session on Wednesday, Sept. 11, and at a normal work session on Tuesday, Sept. 17.
Photo courtesy of the city of Austin.
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