A number of amendments to Austin’s creaky ol’ Land Development Code passed by City Council at its meeting yesterday could pave the way for more housing along the pending Project Connect rail line, and that’s obviously great news. The resolution does a lot of things at once, including unlocking 120 feet or more of mixed-use development within a half-mile of transit stations as part of the city’s Equitable Transit-Oriented Development (ETOD) policy plan and creating an alternative to the VMU2 density bonus program after the original was derailed by a lawsuit. But there’s one small piece of this package that really has us hooting and hollering. Blink and you’ll miss it, but this agenda item includes tweaks to downtown parking regulations, which could finally bury the most frustrating design aspect of downtown’s latest crop of tower projects — the nearly ubiquitous parking podium.
You see, most new towers downtown sit on top of a parking garage section that rises anywhere from a few floors to a whopping 15 floors or more, and unless the designers of the building take serious pains to hide it, that podium tends to look way worse than the actual tower part of the tower. You can solve this problem by putting the parking garage underground, but that costs a whole lot more, so many projects don’t do it — and they don’t have to, since above-ground structured parking doesn’t count against the bonus floor area provided to a tower project that participates in the Downtown Density Bonus Program for extra height.
This regulatory situation has incentivized countless towers with honkin’ big parking podiums, or “plinths,” over the last decade, and it does a lot of harm to downtown’s pedestrian-level environment by putting a bunch of garage levels closer to the streetscape instead of a more active use. But this package of amendments could finally change that! See for yourself:
The City Council initiates amendments to City Code Title 25 (Land Development) to modify downtown parking regulations so that the regulations meet parking needs more efficiently and help achieve the goals of reducing the overall number of new parking spaces built within downtown Austin to meet parking needs more efficiently and creating a more walkable, pedestrian-oriented built environment with fewer large above-ground parking structures. These modifications could include:
1. modifying downtown parking requirements so that a portion of above-ground structured parking is included as part of the development’s Floor Area Ratio (FAR) calculation;
2. reducing the maximum motor vehicle parking allowed for a development downtown from the existing maximums in City Code Chapter 25-6, Article 7, Division 5; and
3. requiring developers to decouple parking as part of the gatekeeper requirements for the Downtown Density Bonus Program.
Just like the changes to citywide parking requirements last year, these three small changes could have a big impact on buildings downtown. First, the idea of counting at least some of a tower’s above-ground parking against its FAR calculation could do a lot to incentivize more underground parking, a no-brainer we’ve been harping on for at least three years now. The idea of a reduced parking maximum for downtown development also seems promising, although those limits will need to be aligned with market needs to ensure the city doesn’t inadvertently discourage development since many parking-free buildings struggle to secure financing.
Finally, the idea of requiring decoupled parking in the Downtown Density Bonus Program is a nice surprise — this means residential units and parking spaces are rented or sold separately instead of packaged together, which lowers housing costs for people who choose not to pay for a parking space. Many downtown buildings already allow this or even create submarkets for people to sell access to parking spaces they don’t use, so it’s pretty reasonable to make it part of the DDBP and ensure it’s available in more future projects. Hey, isn’t that some good parking stuff? We’ll look forward to seeing how these code changes are ultimately drafted — but the direction of these amendments certainly gives us hope. After all, it’s just one weird trick.