Minimum parking requirements are bad for cities. Once upon a time you’d risk getting run out of town for saying this in public, but we’ve seen an increasing awareness over the last decade of these and other invisible rules shaping how places like Austin grow, and the results aren’t always great — ask yourself, why does every new tower downtown have a big parking garage at the bottom? Why is it illegal to build a duplex?
But even as Austin flounders when it comes to big changes like a new land development code or abolishing parking mandates citywide, we can start with a few small victories, and it appears our City Council is about to take on a pretty big one — parking requirements at bars. A resolution amending city code to eliminate non-accessible parking requirements for cocktail lounge land uses is on the agenda for this Thursday’s council meeting, introduced by CM Velásquez and co-sponsored by a downright bipartisan coalition of CMs Vela, Kelly, and Mayor Kirk Watson.
The bad PR of the city requiring bar owners to provide a certain number of parking spaces, effectively subsidizing drunk driving, is glaringly obvious — but there’s also a hidden price at play. As noted in the draft resolution, when a new business like a bar is forced to include parking on what is often very expensive land, the added cost can range from $10,000 to a whopping $40,000 per space. With the city currently requiring 25 parking spaces for a bar as tiny as 2,500 square feet, that’s an expense fencing a lot of would-be small business owners out of the market in favor of larger companies with the capital to navigate these regulatory hurdles. If you like Austin’s smaller neighborhood bars and the character of local dives, this change to the code arguably incentivizes them.
Think of the beloved Workhorse Bar, located on the main drag in North Loop. As part of its unique location in the neighborhood’s independent business investment zone, the bar shares parking with other nearby retail, with space for only a few cars located directly out front — and the place is reliably packed with regulars every night just the same, many arriving on foot from nearly residences or using other forms of transportation. Workhorse would be impossible to build under the base requirements of our current code, and this week’s resolution might change that.
It’s a small tweak that could subtly become one of the most broadly transformative land use changes Austin’s seen in years — but due to the wide-ranging effect of removing these parking minimums, we can already imagine the opposition. Neighborhoods will likely worry that without parking at bars, more drivers will park their cars on residential streets instead. There’s also the valid point that this code change privileges cocktail lounge uses over other businesses — something we could address by removing parking mandates citywide, for the record.
But the upside to incentivizing small neighborhood bars across the city is that it provides a place for people in a given neighborhood to drink and socialize within walking distance of their homes, removing cars from the equation entirely — that ought to be a policy goal in a state where nearly 30 percent of traffic fatalities involve impairment from alcohol, and this seems like a good place to start. Do you have any idea how great it feels to walk to a bar and leave your keys at home? We’re excited to see that experience hopefully opened to more Austinites later this week.