Houston May Eliminate Some Mandatory Parking

Two new areas near downtown are proposed for parking reforms. Map: Houston Planning Commission
Two new areas near downtown are proposed for parking reforms. Map: Houston Planning Commission

Houston is poised to take a big step toward becoming a walkable city.

The city Planning Commission is considering a proposal that would exempt two neighborhoods adjacent to downtown from off-street parking requirements.

Midtown and East Downtown (EaDo) have been proposed as extensions of the downtown area that would allow new developments to be built without requiring a large amount of off-street parking, or any off-street parking at all. The two neighborhoods currently have about 10,000 residents, with strong transit access and plenty of room to grow.

But right now Houston’s current code requires 1.66 parking spaces for each two-bedroom apartment. Despite its reputation as a zoning-free city, Houston’s parking requirements are fairly high by national standards. The city also has, for example, a high requirement that restaurants provide 10 spaces per 1,000 square feet. Such rules make the city not just less sustainable, but also less fun.

A city that requires that 10 paved parking spots exist every time there’s 100 square feet of people dining somewhere will never be an interesting city,” one commenter posted on the local real estate site Swamplot. “If you need that much flat pavement everywhere that people like to hang out and cluster, you’re going to concrete and asphalt yourself away from ever having an interesting district.”

Jay Crossley, director of the Austin-based nonprofit advocacy group Farm and City, is pleased with the proposed reforms but wishes it went further, including other central neighborhoods or the whole city. But, he says, this is a good start because if Houston is going to become less sprawling, they will need to see huge population growth in these two transit-accessible, center neighborhoods, he says.

“The potential for transit-oriented development is Houston is those two places,” he told Streetsblog. “Both areas have the light rail lines and a crazy amount of bus service.”

A good amount of multi-family housing has been built in recent years in the two areas, but it’s been a weird mix of walkable and suburban, thanks to the parking requirements, Crossley says. For example, the construction of mixed-use grocery-residential mid-rise building was announced last year. Meanwhile, a 26-story mixed-use residential tower planned for Midtown will have almost 500 parking spots for 347 units.

The City Council will have to approve the changes, which will likely happen before year end, according to Swamplot. Key officials in both neighborhoods say they support the change.

Midtown and EaDO already function a lot like downtown areas. EaDo is home to the city’s “Old Chinatown,” and is served by both Metrorail’s Green and Purple lines. Meanwhile, Midtown is a big nightlife destination that has been growing rapidly. Metrorail runs right down Main Street in Midtown.

Not only could the new rules make room for more people to live in one of the city’s most walkable, transit accessible areas, it could also slow gentrification, which could be especially helpful in EaDO, which has a large low-income and homeless population, says Crossley.

The parking reforms come from the Walkable Places Committee, a new group focused on urbanism in Houston organized by Mayor Sylvester Turner, who is pushing a number of exciting reforms.

The move comes around the same time that many Houston institutions are realizing the danger of the city. The Houston Chronicle published a spectacular new report this week that documented how the city’s car culture kills an average of 640 a year in the metro region. (By comparison, the city of Seattle had just 20 traffic deaths last year.)

The Chronicle pointed out the myriad reasons for the high death toll: lack of speeding enforcement, sprawl and long commutes, and missing sidewalks and bike infrastructure. But a big part of the reason is simply that Houstonians have to drive so far and so often because much of the development has been centered around sprawling highways like the Grand Parkway.

  • thielges

    Wow, hope this change moves through without getting watered down to a 1:1 minimum. The result would be the removal of parking minimums in these zones. Some Houstonians will freak out on the idea of residential without parking (assuming a developer would build such a project), but hopefully others will point out that the remaining 99% of the city has plenty of parking and there’s no obligation to live in a no-parking building. Even in historically dense San Francisco local residents oppose zero parking projects as if they will ruin life as we know it. Go figure! They’re really just concerned that competition for free street parking will become more intense.

    This could lead the way to start filling in some of downtown Houston’s parking craters, resulting in a more livable showcase of a downtown.

  • Joe R.

    I’ve never understand how governments could require parking in the first place, and why developers didn’t fight these requirements. Yes, it’s good cities like Houston are looking at reducing parking requirements. It’s just incomprehensible how these requirements made it through the legislative process in the first place. Why not require builders to put space outside so each resident can store two couches? A parking requirement is fundamentally the same thing. The builder has to provide storage space above and beyond that contained inside a building’s living areas for private property. It’s a huge unfunded mandate which drives up the cost of housing, subsidizes car ownership, while forcing those without cars to pay for those with cars. It’s effectively a very regressive tax, given that the poor are those subsidizing the cars of their neighbors.

    I wonder if parking requirements would fail a constitutionality test?

  • embarcadero

    Surely the idea is that it reduces the pressure on on-street parking. In a place like Houston just about everyone drives and, if they can’t park at their homes then folks are going to park on the street. At least in theory you don’t need so much on-street parking if everyone can park off-street. It’s like that in LA when I often go days without having to park on the street.

    And if anything Houston is even more car-centric than LA. The widest freeway in the US is not in LA (20 lanes) but in Houston (24 lanes).

    Besides, even without a mandate most developers are going to include on-site parking because that is what buyers and renters demand and will pay extra for.

  • Joe R.

    The problem with mandating parking is that it increases housing costs for those who either can’t afford cars, or just don’t want one. The theory might be that it reduces on-street parking but cities can do that even without parking mandates by simply banning on-street parking. That also has the positive effect of discouraging car ownership. If you either can’t find parking, or have to pays hundreds per month for it, that acts as a serious incentive to not own a car.

    The free market is the only thing which should dictate car ownership. That includes free market prices on car storage. Cities shouldn’t be giving away curbside parking for free, or mandating that developers include parking on premises. If people really want parking bad enough, they will be willing to pay enough so developers can make money providing it.

    My point here is encouraging car ownership in cities is just about the last thing you want to do. When everyone drives everywhere, the space requirements for roads and parking mean that cities are no longer cities. Houston and Dallas to me look like office parks connected by freeways, not real cities where people can actually walk for miles and see lots of interesting things the entire way.

  • embarcadero

    All good points, but in the end isn’t it a matter for the local voters? If they want all homes to have 1 or 2 parking spaces, or roads wide enough to allow on-street parking, then it’s their choice.

    And in cities like Houston, Dallas, Phoenix etc. probably 90% or more of voters are drivers. In New York, San Francisco and Boston, maybe that is less than 50%.

  • Joe R.

    No, it shouldn’t be up to the voters because that’s the tyranny of the majority. Suppose 51% want parking and 49% don’t? That means that 49% who doesn’t own cars is paying for the 51% who does. The only way a mandate should happen is if developers are also mandated to pass the full cost of building and maintaining the parking spots on to the end users. That would probably mean charging them upwards of a few hundred per month, perhaps even $1,000 a month in the costlier parts of the city. Unfortunately, my guess is if this happened those parking spots would sit largely unused because car owners typically expect free or very low cost car storage. The owners would lose money, and eventually have the mandate repealed. So really, any way you look at it parking mandates are a bad idea.

    Along the same lines we successfully repealed the individual mandate for health insurance. The bottom line is the government shouldn’t force people to pay for something it thinks they should have, whether that something is parking or health insurance. In truth, the case for mandating health insurance was actually a lot stronger from a cost/benefit perspective than one mandating parking, and yet it was still repealed. I really think if parking mandates made it through the courts they would be found unconstitutional. The only reason parking mandates haven’t been challenged in court is because, as you say, a majority in lots of places want below market rate parking.

  • embarcadero

    I see what you are saying, although I’m not sure that our notion of democracy can be glibly dismissed as the “tyranny of the majority”. People are entitled to decide what kind of city they want.

  • Joe R.

    Yes, they can decide what kind of city they want, but not that others should pay for storage of their property. That’s really my beef here. If parking was really free to build in terms of cost, then I would say go ahead and put in all the off-street parking you want. That’s obviously not the case. To drive my point home, suppose there was a mandate that developers had to include x amount of square feet of non-car storage? Now that’s something I might personally use, but I still don’t think my neighbors who don’t need the space should pay part of the costs.

    Maybe a reasonable compromise would be that residents can use the parking spots for either a car, or a storage container if they don’t own a car. At least here everyone benefits.

  • embarcadero

    I used to own a place in NYC with a parking space but I had no car. I rented it out for $300 a month. So it was still of value to me.

  • Joe R.

    That’s fine if you can sublet the spot. I was even thinking of doing something similar with the driveway in my mom’s house. She can no longer drive. My brother has her car now. If someone was willing to pay even $200 a month to rent the spot I’d gladly lease it. However, with the excess of free curbside parking I doubt I could get anything by renting it. At least since its our property I could eventually repurpose the driveway for something more useful to me. There’s no mandate that I keep it a driveway.

  • embarcadero

    No mandate maybe but you also have to consider that one day you will want to sell it. What will prospective buyers value more? A driveway or an ornamental garden and carrying their groceries a couple of blocks?

  • Joe R.

    Well, unless the neighborhood changes drastically for the worse, I plan to stay here until the carry me out. However, hypothetically, what has been happening here is when old houses are bought they’re typically razed and replaced with one or two 2 or 3 family homes. So chances are good any buyer would knock the house down and build whatever was in demand at the time. Whatever I do before that will be moot. Lots of people here have converted their garages to living space. That to me is the free market in action. They evidently want space for other people more than space for cars.

  • kevd

    mostly single family homes by you, right?
    presumably all the people who want parking have parking in their driveways. I don’t know where you are other than eastern queens and I wouldn’t know the density there anyway.
    around me, you’d definitely get 200/month.

  • Joe R.

    I’m right off Jewel Avenue on 166th Street. In case you’re familiar with the location, one landmark is PS 200 is located on 164th Street.

    It is mostly single family homes past 164th Street but before that you have a fair number of apartment buildings and townhouses. Unfortunately, most already include parking, which is why my spot is practically worthless from a rental standpoint.

  • Bernard Finucane

    The majority doesn’t even vote in most American city elections. The classic example is Ferguson, MO, a black majority city ruled and policed by white people who live outside town. Much of the government income comes from predatory policing, and much of the spending is for toys like a new fire station. So it is a lot like feudalism.
    The solution would seem to be voting the bums out, but nobody can be bothered.

  • embarcadero

    You get the government you deserve

  • @Bernard Finucane – It’s not a “nobody can be bothered” thing, there is the wee little matter of voter suppression. Armed right-winger overtly intimidated get-out-the-vote activists in Ferguson and of course the police looked the other way.

  • Vooch

    A bizarre apartment building built in the late 1950s without parking ?

    https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=Baj-1pWNfJw&list=PLzNM_rzDSme6P4gvpkVIVGEo1ta2TFMeS&t=0s&index=3

  • Kenny Easwaran

    How important do you think this is to the filling in of the parking craters? As I recall, the worst craters are in the area that already has zero parking minimum.

  • Courtney

    Plus most of them are drivers due to policies enacted on them. Most Americans are used to driver culture because it’s all they know. We’re way past the point of it being wise/sensible to continue this path. At this point I don’t care what people want. If we keep going down this path our quality of life will suffer due to climate change.

  • embarcadero

    Not caring what the voters want is the path to fascism.

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