The news back in May that Austin’s City Council voted to eliminate citywide parking mandates made waves across the nation, cited by a number of publications as evidence that these outdated requirements for parking — which drive up the cost of housing and harm walkable urban design — were finally falling out of fashion. This is broadly true, but speaking as some of the city’s more notable pedants we’re forced to remind you that Austin technically hasn’t removed these mandates yet. The resolution simply instructed city planning staff to draft a code amendment eliminating existing minimum off-street parking requirements, which will return to Council for a final vote by the end of the year. That draft amendment received a recommendation from the city’s Planning Commission last night, and is scheduled for a final Council vote at its upcoming meeting on November 2 — that’s when we really start popping bottles.
Austin Planning Commission votes 9-0-1 to eliminate parking mandates 🌎🕊️ https://t.co/73E1sEN1fv
— Greg Anderson (@WalkableAustin) October 11, 2023
We’re highlighting this distinction because it turns out drafting the text of this amendment was a significantly more complex process than backspacing a couple of lines about parking. You can blame that on Austin’s famously antique land development code, which dates back to the 1980s — over the years, the city’s bolted on a number of additions and exceptions to its Huey Lewis-era planning policy, since every time someone suggests starting over with a fresh code a radicalized cell of homeowner sleeper agents metaphorically chains themselves to the door of city hall.
Making sure the removal of parking requirements applied to every special zoning district from the last 40-odd years was the unenviable responsibility of Austin Transportation and Public Works Department planner Dan Hennessey, who worked as the case manager for the amendment. (Hennessey’s official statement on the process was simply the word “bonkers.”) If you’d like to dig into the 86-page backup document outlining the specific changes to city code, be our guest, but we’re gonna try to lay out the major details and challenges of the draft amendment here instead.
The first objection to removing parking mandates you’ll encounter is its effect on accessible parking spaces. To overcome this challenge, city staff met with the local disability rights group ADAPT to revise the code in a manner that maintained and even strengthened existing accessible parking requirements for new development. The draft code amendment now dictates that no project is permitted to provide fewer accessible spaces than the city’s previous parking requirements, with additional rules for larger developments that could be mandated to provide hundreds of standard parking spaces under the old requirements of city code:
The revised code language regarding accessible spaces dictates that no development applications would be able to provide fewer accessible spaces than are currently required, and developments formerly required to provide fewer than 525 total spaces per Code would be required to provide zero to two more accessible spaces. Larger developments, those formerly required to provide more than 525 spaces, could be required to be provide more than two additional accessible spaces, though the change would represent less than one percent of total parking spaces provided.
Next up is the challenge of removing parking minimums from the laundry list of special zoning districts and other exceptions to the typical code we mentioned earlier. Although removing the parking requirements from the city’s base code was fairly simple, exceptions like the parking requirements previously approved by the city as part of a Planned Unit Development agreement with a private developer are a bit more challenging, and can’t be superseded by this new amendment without also modifying each PUD agreement individually:
…there are specifically negotiated parking requirements as part of Planned Unit Development (PUD) agreements. Many of these agreements likely decreased the off-street parking space requirements that were in place at the time the agreements were signed, but there are also likely PUD agreements that increased off-street parking space requirements for certain uses or provided a specific amount of parking spaces for adjacent uses (e.g., parkland). As PUD agreements have been specifically negotiated and are legal agreements, the proposed code changes would not supersede parking requirements included in PUD agreements.
If a PUD agreement includes parking requirements, staff will continue to enforce those requirements, unless city council or the director approves an amendment to the agreement. If 7 of 86 C20-2023-010 8 parking requirements were an “element of superiority” (i.e., a key condition of approval for the PUD), the applicant will have to apply for a “substantial amendment” pursuant to Section 3.1.2 of Chapter 25-2 (Zoning). Only City Council can approve these types of amendments.
The most interesting exceptions to the abolition of parking minimums are in the areas of the central city covered by Neighborhood Conservation Combining Districts, or NCCDs. These special zoning overlays, intended to protect certain neighborhoods from development, override the city’s typical land development code — meaning any neighborhood that chose to include parking minimums in the language of its NCCD will retain them despite these changes to the city’s base code.
The bottom line is that for the time being, Hyde Park, North Hyde Park, North University, and Fairview Park will continue to require various amounts of off-street parking. However, the report on the draft parking amendment states that the director of the Transportation and Public Works Department will be enabled by the amendment to waive any parking requirements of the NCCDs, and city staff expect to pursue additional amendments to these ordinances down the road to make them consistent with the rest of the city’s updated regulations — meaning there may not be any neighborhood fights ahead. Isn’t that a nice change of pace?
Given the limited scope of these requirements and the potential complexity in making these changes, staff is not proposing that they be repealed with this code amendment. However, staff will be revisiting each of these ordinances to make minimum parking requirements consistent with the rest of the City per the LDC and the Council resolution. Additionally, per authority given to the Director, staff has flexibility to waive parking requirements or reduce them as necessary, even as low as zero parking spaces. For clarity, staff will pursue amendments to the NCCD ordinances.
Even with these various challenges and exceptions, the fact that broadly removing parking requirements across the city faces no significant opposition is an incredible shift in local planning policy — it’s a change we considered a long shot only a bit more than a year ago. Austin still has miles to go on housing, but this upcoming amendment is a stronger foundation than we ever expected. We’ll see you on November 2.