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Mandatory parking spots for Austin bars could soon go away

Monday, April 24, 2023 by Krissi Micklethwait, KUT

As the owner of two popular honky-tonk bars – the White Horse in East Austin and Sagebrush in South Austin – Denis O’Donnell knows that safe rides are key to a flourishing nightlife. And he would love to see more efforts by the city to encourage nighttime commuters to leave their cars at home.

Last week, City Council made a move in that direction by approving a resolution that would eliminate the parking requirements for cocktail lounges. The resolution, brought forward by District 3 Council Member José Velásquez, aims to increase public safety while reducing construction burdens placed on bar owners.

“I think it’s great,” O’Donnell said. “Any city incentive that we can create to help people and encourage them to rideshare is just good for business and good for Austin.”

The resolution cited significant alcohol-related data, including a 71 percent increase in Travis County DUI-related deaths from 2011 to 2021 and 2,554 Austin DWI arrests in the last year alone.

“The hope is to really encourage people to use other ways of getting around while at bars, such as rideshare or public transit,” Council Member Natasha Harper-Madison said during the April 13 meeting.

Austin already offers a variety of incentives to encourage safe nighttime commutes.

Through the Responsible Ride Home Ticket Waiver Program, for example, the city reimburses drivers who get ticketed for leaving their car parked overnight in public parking spaces – as long as they can show a receipt for a bus trip, rideshare or taxi.

The Capital Metropolitan Transportation Authority runs the Night Owl buses, which offer five late-night routes throughout the city Monday through Saturday until 3 a.m. It also offers University of Texas and Austin Community College students free rides anytime with a valid student ID.

And, of course, there are a handful of ride-hailing apps to chose from, plus pedicabs and taxis.

In 2019, the Transportation Department launched Get There ATX, an online hub to help commuters more easily navigate Austin’s alternatives to driving.

And while the resolution passed last week doesn’t specifically lay out any way to bolster or add to those efforts, it does cite specific ways it will help bar owners.

According to the current Land Development Code, the number of mandatory parking spaces is calculated by the total square footage where alcohol can be served and consumed. That square footage includes decks, patios and porches. A 2,000-square-foot bar, for example, currently requires 20 parking spots.

This formula can create a headache for small-business owners looking to develop a property in a high-density area with limited space.

It also gets expensive.

The construction costs to create new parking spaces in Austin can run between $10,000 and $40,000 per space, according to the resolution. By amending the code, this cost reduction will significantly lower the barrier for small-business owners looking to open a new establishment.

Council’s vote is an incremental attempt to amend the nearly 40-year-old Land Development Code, which lays out what can be built where. And since an overhaul of the code was blocked by a judge in 2020, piecemeal amendments – like bar parking requirements – could be the city’s most effective way to create small changes to the outdated zoning laws.

According to Austin’s Transportation Demand Management study, land use policy is one of the most powerful tools a city can use to reduce overall miles traveled by car. It cites up to a 20 percent decrease.

Curtis Rogers, a member of the Urban Transportation Commission and Bicycle Advisory Council, points out that any action taken toward amending the city’s parking requirements is a move in the right direction.

“I appreciate that we started with bars because of the public safety aspect,” he said. “But, we don’t really have a shortage of bars in Austin. We do have a shortage of housing. So my hope is that this is our first step toward greater reform that we can apply to other use cases, including housing.”

Parking reform advocates, like Rogers, say that cities’ excess parking spaces and cumbersome parking mandates contribute to housing shortages and lack of affordability. Rogers says more than 30 American cities have eliminated parking requirements altogether and the effects are overwhelmingly positive.

Interim City Manager Jesús Garza is now directed to seek community feedback, then draft a parking ordinance for a Council vote on Oct. 19.

This story was produced as part of the Austin Monitor’s reporting partnership with KUT.

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