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Austin becomes one of the largest cities in the country to get rid of parking requirements

State Parking Garage B, empty on Memorial Day, in downtown Austin during the COVID-19  pandemic.
Gabriel C. Pérez
/
KUT
Austin has required builders to include parking in their developments since at least the 1950s.

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In an attempt to ease the cost of development and to encourage people to drive less, Austin City Council members scrapped decades-old mandates that developers build parking alongside homes, offices and shops on Thursday.

“If we truly want to achieve our progressive goals of making Austin a less car-dependent city, we cannot be forcing developers to be providing car storage in every new project that goes up in our city limits,” Council Member Zo Qadri, who represents Central Austin, said before the vote.

Since at least the 1950s, Austin has required residential and commercial builders to include parking in their developments. How much depends on what is being built. For example, the city required, in most cases, that every one-bedroom apartment be allotted 1.5 parking spots. Someone building a three-bedroom home was required to build at least two parking spots.

Over the past decade, the city has begun chipping away at these requirements. In 2013, council members nixed parking requirements for new development downtown, and earlier this year, they voted to remove parking requirements for bars.

City rules still require builders to provide parking spots for disabled people, per the Americans with Disabilities Act. In addition, special zoning districts within the city would still be under the city’s former parking minimum rules, including neighborhoods like Hyde Park.

With Thursday’s vote, Austin follows the lead of dozens of other cities across the country that have recently done away with parking mandates, including Portland, Ore., and Richmond, Va. According to Parking Reform Network, an organization pushing for these changes across the country, Austin may be the biggest city in the country to scrap parking minimums.

While the move targets parking, supporters have pointed to the housing impacts at the center of this decision. Advocates say throwing out parking requirements will allow developers to build more housing, potentially easing the city’s affordability woes.

“The evidence from our peer cities is clear: when you get rid of parking mandates, housing production goes up,” said Adam Greenfield, a bicycle advocate with Safe Streets Austin. “Imagine one family being able to live in Austin because of this change who couldn’t afford to live here otherwise.”

In addition to making room for more housing, doing away with parking eliminates the cost of having to build spaces. Researchers with the U.S. Government Accountability Office found that building a parking garage alongside apartment buildings in California and Arizona added an average cost of $56,000 per apartment.

In Austin, city departments say one parking spot can cost a developer anywhere from $5,000 to $60,000, depending on whether they’re building a surface parking lot or a concrete garage. Staff estimate these costs to a developer building apartments can add up to $200 a month to a tenant’s eventual rent.

But of course, the move to throw out parking requirements is also one designed to get people to drive less. According to Census data, about 60% of Austin workers drive alone to work. The hope is that if parking is harder, people will opt to take public transit, bike or walk to where they’re going.

This may be pie-in-the-sky in a city that has been built around cars for more than half a century. Despite no longer being required to, developers say they will likely still build parking.

“There’s not a project that’s not going to move forward with no parking,” Ron Thrower, who consults on building in Austin with his firm Thrower Design, told KUT.

The vote Thursday was 8 to 2, with Council Members Alison Alter and Mackenzie Kelly voting against. The West Austin representatives both said while they support reducing parking requirements, they were not ready to do away with them outright.

“This universal elimination of requirements is a step beyond what I consider to be prudent,” Alter said. “I’m concerned that there will be unintended consequences and scenarios that will create real problems … particularly in areas that have older narrow streets.”

Audrey McGlinchy is KUT's housing reporter. She focuses on affordable housing solutions, renters’ rights and the battles over zoning. Got a tip? Email her at audrey@kut.org. Follow her on Twitter @AKMcGlinchy.
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