Austin City Council members will decide Thursday whether to stop requiring developers to build parking.
With some exceptions, city rules require most residential and commercial developers to build a minimum amount of parking spots. The number depends on several factors, including bedroom count, units or square footage of what’s being built.
Council Member Zo Qadri, who was elected in December, argues getting rid of parking requirements will lower the cost of building and encourage residents to ditch their cars when traveling around the city.
“Parking mandates in general just promote a lot of car dependency,” said Qadri, who represents downtown, the UT Austin campus and surrounding neighborhoods.
According to Census data, about two-thirds of the city’s residents drive alone to work. Qadri noted that a plan the city adopted last year aims to have half of Austin’s population walk, bike or take the bus to work by 2039.
“If we want half of all trips to be in something other than a car then we can’t, as a city, mandate that every home or business have at least one parking space for each resident or customer,” he said.
Thursday’s resolution comes amid a sea change on parking mandates: Raleigh, N.C.; Portland, Ore.; and San Jose, Calif., have all done away with parking requirements in the past decade. Just last month, Austin City Council members voted to nix the requirements for bars.
Several other council members — including Vanessa Fuentes and Leslie Pool — support the citywide change. If the measure passes Thursday, it would likely take until the end of the year to get new rules in place.
How much parking does Austin mandate?
Currently, the City of Austin requires about two parking spots per house, but that number can differ greatly depending on what type of home is being built.
Consider a three-bedroom single-family house. A builder would have to provide two off-street parking spots, a requirement likely satisfied with a driveway.
With bigger developments, the amount of parking is tied to the number of bedrooms. For example, the builder of a one-bedroom apartment has to provide 1.5 parking spots; a complex with 100 one-bedroom apartments would need to have 150 parking spots.
The cost of building parking depends on the type of parking. An underground garage, for example, costs significantly more than a driveway. According to a survey of developers in Austin, one surface parking space costs up to $6,000 while one parking spot in an underground garage can surpass $100,000.
Supporters of doing away with parking minimums don’t just point out the cost; they also suggest if the city makes it harder to park, people may opt to use public transit or ride a bike to get where they’re going.
“Once parking has a price or once parking becomes inconvenient, then people will start considering options,” Curtis Rogers, a member of Austin’s Urban Transportation Commission, said.
Rogers said parking requirements can also be a hindrance to local businesses. He cited the case of Cenote, a cafe in East Austin.
In an email, co-owner Mary Jenkins said that when she tried to open the restaurant a decade ago the city said the business needed roughly 20 parking spots — an amount it did not have. She said the restaurant attempted to lease parking from the public library across the street, but the city said no. Eventually, the owners were able to get an exemption to the rule.
But, Jenkins said, making sure the cafe was not in violation of the city’s parking rules delayed its opening.
“All in all it took us 2 years from the date of purchase to the day we opened and most of that was due to parking woes,” she wrote in the email.
Austin is still a car-centric city
People who support getting rid of parking minimums, like Rogers, emphasize that developers can still build parking — and they likely will.
In 2013, council members got rid of parking requirements downtown. (Builders still have to provide parking as required by the American with Disabilities Act.) But developers have still built parking.
“I own a car. I drive places,” Rogers said. “We still will need parking.”
About a decade ago, the affordable housing developer Foundation Communities built a 150-unit apartment complex in East Austin to help house low-income families, including those who had been living on the streets.
Per the city’s rules, the nonprofit would have had to provide close to 300 parking spots. But because the homes were being built near several public transit options, including Capital Metro’s Red Line, the city allowed the nonprofit to build about half that number.
Regardless, Foundation Communities went ahead and built a bit more — about 175 parking spots.
“Well, it’s not enough,” Foundation Communities Director Walter Moreau told KUT. “A lot of families, even if they’re lower income, they still need a car to get their kids back and forth to the doctor, to the H-E-B, to just get around town.”
Moreau said he supports lowering parking minimums — but not getting rid of them entirely.
“A lot of developers will be smart and think about the market,” he said. “Some will not. There’s going to be some dumb mistakes made where people didn’t really anticipate that they would need parking.”