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Why Can’t You Find a Parking Spot on Henderson?

Don't blame the business when you're forced to valet (and wait for your car's return). Blame the city of Dallas.
By Patrick Kennedy |
illustration by Jonathan Carlson

The other night outside J. Black’s Feel Good Lounge, the Henderson Avenue hot spot, a crowd of 30 or so people languished in the heat, praying that theirs would be the next car brought around by the valet. As the wait stretched on to 20 minutes, one woman pulled out a cellphone camera and began filming her visibly distressed cohorts, some of whom surely could recall the Ferrari joyride scene from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.

As Knox-Henderson’s success spills southward toward lowest Greenville, the parking situation has grown unpleasant in this part of town. It’s tempting to blame the valet or the businesses and exclaim, “I’m never coming back here again.” But the underlying problem with parking here is actually written deep into the DNA of the city, its zoning code.

A city’s zoning code—which says where tall buildings belong, where single-family dwellings belong, how wide sidewalks should be—governs how the city grows (or doesn’t). In Dallas, the lengthy and byzantine code is at odds with reality, with how people interact with each other and with their environs. The parking subsection of the code is especially bad. It’s so restrictive and antiquated that developers generally schedule two years into every project just to craft customized parking standards in the form of a Planned Development District (PDD). The city is now nearing 1,000 of these districts.

The burgeoning lower Henderson area is a perfect case study. In a stable neighborhood, investment has responded to demand for density and business activity. Retail and entertainment have sprung up along the street. It is the kind of place where one might walk the dog to sit on a patio and enjoy a glass of wine and the setting sun.

These sorts of businesses are designed to serve the surrounding neighborhoods, residents within a mile or two. They are a necessity for what the city of Portland has begun calling the “20-minute neighborhood,” where all your daily needs can be met within a 20-minute walk. But the sort of development happening along Henderson is in such high demand that it has outgrown the neighborhood and become, in effect, a regional destination, drawing people from all over North Texas.

Many of the new, successful businesses on Henderson—and in other parts of town that have grown up in a similar organic fashion—do not have the minimum number of parking spaces as arbitrarily required by the city code. Parking is expensive to build and often destroys the character that made a place attractive to start with. The natural response has been to park in the neighborhoods, in front of people’s houses. In the fascinating little third-world Amsterdam that is the Bishop Arts neighborhood of Oak Cliff, the solution has been ad hoc bicycle parking. It is cheap, effective, energy efficient, and funky, a reflection of the community.

But it’s not just the city’s code that needs to change. We have to change. With all the cheap land formerly available in this prairie, we’ve been conditioned to expect free parking—which, of course, isn’t really free. The cost gets passed along in the price of goods or services we buy. Parking lots also carry external costs, including a lack of safety (real or perceived), the loss of neighborhood character, the interruption of synergies within urban fabric, and lower values on surrounding property. The eminent city planner Victor Gruen once estimated that for every car there are at least four parking spaces. So parking also costs us by underutilizing resources.

Recently the city of Dallas began the process of reexamining its parking code, with an eye toward possibly overhauling it. Here’s what needs to change:

First, the parking code needs to be flexible. A neighborhood bicycle shop doesn’t need the same number of parking spaces per square foot as a grocery store at a busy intersection. Parking requirements should be based more on location and transportation options than on use or function of the business. The code should establish a “regional destination” classification for areas like lower Henderson that would provide the backbone for future public transit planning. A new parking authority might be created to build and operate context-sensitive garages shared by multiple businesses.

Then comes our change in attitude. We have to accommodate density where it is demanded. To fight it is to fight investment and the improvement of our neighborhoods. Designers must make new density compatible with the lower-density residential neighborhoods nearby to ensure a symbiotic relationship. And, finally, we have to understand that at a popular destination, parking can’t be cheap and ubiquitous. Only then will we have a quilted mosaic of unique, authentic neighborhoods across Dallas—exactly what makes a livable and lovable city.

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