For two years, the city of Dallas has been researching what would happen if it stopped requiring businesses to provide so much parking — a seemingly radical idea in this car-centric town.
Before we examine how this move might change Dallas, here’s what it won’t do: it won’t make parking disappear. It won’t flood single-family neighborhoods with empty cars overnight. It also won’t immediately solve the problem of garages sitting empty. And where buildings have been torn down already and replaced with parking lots, the concrete and asphalt will remain.
The city calls those buildings “disappeared,” by the way. Back in May, the Zoning Ordinance Advisory Committee—known as ZOAC, an important volunteer body that researches the impact of changing the city’s development code—received a routine briefing from city staff that featured a satellite image of Lower Greenville. About a dozen plots were highlighted in yellow. The image included the caption “disappeared buildings that are currently parking lots.”
It is a tangible example of what parking minimums do to a city. When a city’s development code requires every project—big or small, office or residential, retail or church or bar or bowling alley—to provide a certain amount of space for a certain amount of cars, it changes the landscape. In a denser neighborhood like Lower Greenville, a developer working on one building has had to acquire its neighbor to tear it down in order to fulfill the city’s parking requirements. (And various building uses require various amounts of parking, so the the parking can wind up limiting the pool of tenants. One developer I spoke to for this story said he had to tell a to-go food operation that it could not place two tables with chairs inside because it would require more parking.)
“What is now surface parking lots used to have old structures on them,” says Jon Hetzel, the president of the Deep Ellum Foundation and a partner with Madison Partners, which owns and leases buildings in popular neighborhoods like Deep Ellum, Lower Greenville, and Oak Lawn. “Those are old structures that our company and others bought and tore down because of code parking requirements. Because we had to.”
The current deep dive into the city’s parking code began in 2019, when a husband and wife couple found a dream building they wanted to redevelop, only to have their dreams crushed by parking requirements. The building, which was a little over 5,000 square feet, was on Beckley Avenue in North Oak Cliff, not far from Bishop Arts.
As detailed by the Dallas Morning News, Timm Matthews and his wife wanted to turn the building into a boutique hotel and a restaurant. To get the city’s OK, the couple was asked to produce more than 8,000 square feet of parking—which, if a single parking space is about 350 square feet, meant 24 spots. The city requires a parking space for every hotel room and for ever 100 square feet of a restaurant. According to the News report, the project fell about 16 spaces short. Matthews told the plan commission that it would cost between $2 million and $3 million to meet the city’s standard.
Mayor Pro Tem Chad West, the councilman who represents the district, and his then plan commissioner, Enrique MacGregor, soon triggered a review of the city’s parking minimums. One major problem stuck out: the city still relied upon a parking formula that was introduced in 1965, codified into a development code known as 51A.
On a recent Zoom chat, some local architects talked about how silly this is. They had a guest online, Dr. Donald Shoup, the urban planning professor at UCLA widely thought to be the first to study and quantify the effect of parking requirements in cities. He started his chat with the Dallas branch of the American Institute of Architects by pillorying the city’s more ridiculous parking requirements.
Clubs are required to provide one parking space for every 25 square feet of dance floor. A bingo parlor must have a parking space for every 50 square feet. A sewage pumping station requires a parking space for every million gallons of sewage the station can pump; it does not clarify whose job it is to track such a thing.
“Of parking codes, I have to say the ones in Dallas are the most bizarre I have ever seen,” Shoup said. “Most of them date from 1967, and it seems as though no one has ever looked at them since.”
The parking requirements aren’t just funny. Some of them fuel inequality and create a less livable city. Requiring parking spaces drives up prices. It makes it difficult for developers to build housing that isn’t prohibitively expensive for many lower- and middle-income Dallasites, even if the development code allows for more residential density wherever they’re trying to build. Meeting the parking requirements often means passing the costs down the line, all the way to the renter.
According to the Portland-based think tank City Observatory, a surface-level parking spot—one!—costs between $5,000 and $10,000 once you account for the land value. Garage parking jumps that to between $25,000 and $50,000. Those costs add up fast.
Multifamily developments must provide a parking space for every bedroom, regardless of whether the occupant of that bedroom can even drive. A duplex must provide two spaces for each unit. Even retirement housing requires a parking space for every unit.
It’s not just housing. Oddly, bars must provide parking: one space for every 100 square feet. Companies pay more for office space, because developers must allow for one space for every 333 square feet.
During one of the ZOAC meetings, city staff estimated that 75 percent of the time it takes to approve a permit is spent calculating parking ratios. Developers might have ambitious plans to bring a mix of uses to a project that are scrapped because of how much it would cost to include the parking spaces required by the development code.
And that development code, by the way, doesn’t account for behavioral changes like ride sharing or improved public transit. Developers can request a zoning change from the City Council, however, which has created a patchwork of over 1,000 planned development districts across Dallas that allow for different things. But most use the existing parking code as a foundation, tweaking only the edges that would affect whatever project they’re trying to build. (There are also carveouts for some neighborhoods, like downtown, which does not require parking but has plenty of it, and Deep Ellum, where businesses located inside older buildings are free from providing parking up to a certain square footage. The Cedars has a similar carveout.)
“I’ve done lots and lots of projects, and wherever you start, the first thought is, ‘How are you gonna park this thing?’” says Wade Johns, the chief operating officer for the multifamily real estate development firm Alamo Manhattan, which has developed large apartment buildings in Uptown and Oak Cliff, among other neighborhoods. “It’s just absurd to me that we’re tied to parking realities from 1985 in 2021.”
This affects smaller developers, too. Nathaniel Barrett—who has followed and documented the parking debate as closely as anyone in town as he advocates for the elimination of mandatory minimums—said earlier this year that he was converting a “very, very large duplex” into five apartments. The backyard had enough space to house even more units.
“I can fit twice as many on there if I didn’t have to provide parking,” he said. “It’s really well-served by transit, there are multiple bus lines and it’s centrally located. But I have to provide one (parking spot) per bedroom.”
Proponents of parking reform would like to see a shift toward allowing the market to dictate how many spots must be provided, not the city’s code. The thinking goes that a project will be punished by the market if it provides too little parking; big-box stores probably won’t be pulling back on the amount of spaces they provide regardless of what happens with the city’s development code.
As an unnamed Deep Ellum developer responded to ZOAC last year, quoted in a briefing document: “A Mexican Food restaurant at Forest and Preston Road would park differently than a Mexican Food restaurant in Deep Ellum with the same number of tables and the same square footage. To write a code that would apply to both of those applications is impossible. Each needs its own parking needs to be addressed.”
Many say that the market would do this on its own. And there are plenty of ways to work the margins of the code: exempt parking minimums from near public transit, replace parking spots with space for bikes, massage the code so some of the specific uses don’t require so much parking.
But Shoup goes further. He established a path forward in his 2005 book The High Cost of Free Parking. His work focused on three recommendations: remove all off-street parking requirements, charge just enough for on-street parking so there will always be a spot or two available on each block, then use the revenue from on-street parking to pay for infrastructure improvements and other services in those very areas. The last one is a way to draw public support for these tactics; if you’re pulling in revenue from those cars parked on your block, you’re seeing improvements where you live.
Meantime, developers aren’t standing pat. They’re studying how much parking is actually necessary and then using the data when asking the city for permission to provide less. “We have had more projects killed in the evaluation stage by parking than any other factor, including access to capital and rent requirements,” says Ramsey March, the managing director and partner at Stream Realty. “There is enough data now to support that we’ve got a massive chunk, particularly of urban Dallas, that is massively over-parked.”
“Of parking codes, I have to say the ones in Dallas are the most bizarre I have ever seen.”Dr. Donald Shoup
Stream studied how much parking was being used at eight mixed-use properties throughout Uptown. March says the analysis found that there were about 30 percent too many parking spaces during the hours with peak demand. (Which, prior to the pandemic, was between 10 a.m. and 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. and 3 p.m. on weekdays.) It used this analysis to inform a zoning request for the 50-year-old Quadrangle complex in the center of Uptown, which it purchased in 2019.
“We basically saved 167 spaces out of our total, which is a floor of parking in our below-grade garage. That’s $6.7 million,” he says. “It is an enormous cost that both the data and the market are telling us is unnecessary.”
Valet companies report similar findings. The company that managed parking for restaurants and bars along Henderson Avenue east of Central Expressway to Willis Avenue reported a drop of more than 12,000 parked cars in January 2009 compared to January 2020, which it credits to an increase in ride sharing. (It fell from 16,687 in 2009 to 4,239 in 2020.)
Some single-family neighborhoods may cry foul. Lower Greenville—and the M Streets, in particular—has long been protective of its street parking. Many of its blocks use resident-only parking permits during peak hours, one of the city’s parking regulatory carve-outs. The plan commissioner for this district, Melissa Kingston, has maintained that the city’s decision to use parking to regulate restaurants and bars is “a good example of why elimination of parking minimums is not a good idea for all parts of the city.”
Councilman Paul Ridley, whose district includes Lower Greenville, echoed his plan commissioner’s belief. In an interview with The Advocate, Ridley said eliminating parking minimums would lead to “a proliferation of bars because zoning doesn’t limit the number of bars.” (The state of Texas issues licenses for bars, not the city. But requiring parking does wind up pricing out some bars and restaurants.)
Shoup’s advice is that parking requirements are “a terrible way to try and discourage” uses that the neighborhood doesn’t want. “The city should regulate those items directly,” he says.
And, indeed, trying to govern a dynamic city on a static parking code has damaged neighborhoods.
In 2001, the city of Dallas did something it had never done before: it cut parking requirements in Bishop Arts in half. It allowed the neighborhood to include street parking in its ratios. Bishop Arts has largely avoided the sort of teardowns of old buildings that have been seen in neighborhoods like Lower Greenville, where surface lots now accent retail and restaurants and bars housed in old buildings that may have well been replaced for pavement.
A study conducted by the urban redevelopment company GoodSpace and the nonprofit Better Block used the results of Bishop Arts to inform recommendations for parking around the nearby Tyler/Polk neighborhood on Davis Street. What it found: “The parking study shows that there is no corresponding danger of abutting residential neighborhoods being overrun by commercial traffic.” It recommended relaxing parking requirements in Tyler/Polk, which is now home to a bar, retail shops, and restaurants, as well as an events venue.
“Minimum parking requirements are the genetic code of sprawl and all its negative effects,” says urban planner and DART Board member Patrick Kennedy. “A city designed for sprawl is a city designed only for the wealthy to thrive. … No great city has ever been built around minimum parking requirements. It is impossible to pick out one ratio of parking per land use and apply it to the entire city.”
City staff is navigating all of this. Andreea Udrea, the city’s interim assistant director for the Planning and Urban Design Department, said that staff “paused” in August after nearly two years of research. There had been turnover at the top of a few city departments that would eventually provide an opinion.
“We are taking a break to reflect, to test, and to write our staff recommendation,” she said earlier this month.
That will likely come in 2022. Staff is considering applying a buffer for businesses within 330 feet of single-family housing, which would require those businesses to provide some sort of off-street parking while exempting others. City staff has collected testimony from dozens of stakeholders to inform its recommendation: neighborhood associations, developers, hotel and restaurant associations, and plenty more. According to a spokeswoman, the city plans to spend the first few months of 2022 “working through the testing phase.”
It will then present its findings to ZOAC and then the City Plan Commission, which will discuss and vet before voting on it and sending it to the City Council for final approval.
Until then, just think about what a market-rate apartment will cost as developers spend more on land just to park a car that might not even exist.