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A Quarter of Downtown Dallas Is Parking Lots. Could That Change?

As Dallas examines its land use plan, it's time to talk about parking lots.
By |
Karla Bernal

About a quarter of land in Dallas’ city center is used for parking, a percentage roughly shared by the Texas cities of Fort Worth, Houston, and San Antonio. Concrete covers 42 percent of Arlington’s core, while just 17 percent of Austin’s city center is used for parking. The capitol city features the lowest parking percentage of anywhere in the state, according to a map from the Parking Reform Network.

The PRN analyzed parking lots in the densest, most central, and most valuable real estate in 50 cities then compared how a city’s land use measures up to other cities of similar sizes. (In Dallas, the organization stuck to the downtown core.) It then assigned each city a score. The lower the score, the less land a city has devoted to parking compared to the average for a city its size.

Translated: 24 percent might sound good, but Dallas scored a 75, putting it in the upper echelons of municipalities with a ton of parking space in high-demand areas. Arlington, where more than 40 percent of its most dense real estate is devoted to resting vehicles, scored 100. Austin, where less than 20 percent of its city center land is parking, scored a 43.

In its post accompanying the latest set of maps, the Parking Reform Network floats the idea of what would happen if those surface lots were used for something other than parking, such as housing.

“It’s clear that if we want to have walkable cities, we need cities that are less parkable,” the PRN said. “Suppose all parking in all 50 city centers analyzed was converted to residential, at a density of 40,000 people per square mile. In that case, we could provide enough housing for a quarter of a million people.”

Locally, a lot would have to fall into place for that to ever be viable, and not just politically. The city would need to place more of an emphasis on increasing Dallas Area Rapid Transit ridership and other multimodal forms of transportation that could shuttle workers downtown without needing a car.

The nonprofit notes that Dallas is considering changing its parking requirements, which could lead to removing minimums in some areas. (Houston recently made similar changes.) Other cities have gone further. Buffalo, New York became the first American city to eliminate off-street minimums altogether. Fayetteville, Arkansas eliminated minimums while enacting ordinances that set parking maximums. There, developers have to make a case for a large parking lot. San Diego got rid of minimums for developments near mass transit and near dense residential areas.

Parking Reform Network

Dallas is currently updating its Forward Dallas land use plan. Many of the city’s surface parking lots once held buildings. In some neighborhoods, like Lower Greenville, a landlord who wants to rent to a restaurant tenant has had to acquire its neighbor and tear it down to meet the city’s parking ratios.

Parking codes require different minimums depending on the kind of business. New multi-family development is required to provide parking for every bedroom, even if the development is close to transit options. Duplexes are required to have two per unit. Even retirement homes, where many residents don’t drive, are required to have a parking space for each unit.

A club might be required to have one parking space for every 25 feet of dance floor. A sewage pumping station might demand a parking space for every million gallons of sewage the station can pump. Most of the codes date back to the late 60s, and have resulted in a patchwork of custom zoning to accommodate development without having to build so much parking.

In 2021, we explored the city’s approach to parking, especially when it came to parking minimums.

“What is now surface parking lots used to have old structures on them,” said 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.”

Those minimums also drive up the cost of doing business, whether it be building new multifamily housing or starting a new business. Some estimates indicate that a single parking space can cost between $5,000 and $10,000 on surface lots, and from $25,000 to $50,000 if it’s in a garage. Those costs are passed on to the renter or the customer.

The North Central Texas Council of Governments is currently conducting a study to determine whether the region is building too much parking. The information it collects from property managers and owners in the agency’s 12-county region will be used to create a parking database to help its member cities determine if they are over-parked.

Removing those minimums is not a panacea for decades of lackadaisical urban planning. But a thoughtful approach to whether the region (and the city) actually needs additional parking is a conversation worth having.

Especially as other cities shift their ordinances and policies to meet a future that does not exactly resemble the past.


Bethany Erickson

Bethany Erickson

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Bethany Erickson is the senior digital editor for D Magazine. She's written about real estate, education policy, the stock market, and crime throughout her career, and sometimes all at the same time. She hates lima beans and 5 a.m. and takes SAT practice tests for fun.

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