Opinion

Notes on Parking Ordinance Changes in Houston

The City of Houston Planning Committee is considering changes to our parking ordinances. Some notable changes include increasing the parking ratio for restaurants (from 8 to 10 spaces per 1000 square feet) and bars (from 10 to 14 spaces per 1000). These rules come on top of an already increasingly “suburbanized” parking and building rules. In general, not good. I’ll try to make it to the hearings on these changes, and below are some of my talking notes

I speak for myself, but some credentials:
– Inside-the-Loop resident for many years
– office in Rice Village
– board of directors of a non-profit shop in Rice Village
– married to a Montrose-area cafe owner

In summary, what I want to present here is “one size does not fit all”. Houston is a very diverse city, don’t define a cookie-cutter ordinance to meet a very varied problem – instead, more local dialogue and collaboration required.

– As you know, most of Rice Village is non-compliant with our current parking ordinance, much less the increases proposed here. Yet, the Village is an endearing, and enduring, part of Houston. Yes, folks complain about parking, but in all my years there, I’ve never had to walk more than 3 blocks. The length of a typical Walmart parking lot is 2 blocks – count the interior of the store itself and a regular patron is walking 4 blocks or more. Completely acceptable in the big box store, completely acceptable in the Village. What if the Village had been forced to comply with current suburban-style parking ordinances? Would it be charming and viable today? Likely not, it would have gone the way of Gulfgate, Meyerland or Town & Country Malls – abandoned only to be redeveloped many years later.

– My wife’s shop has a popular dance on Saturday evenings. At such times, parking overflows beyond her small lot, customers take up street parking a half-block away. A neighbor or two complains “you are taking away all our parking.” One evening, I decided to do a parking count on one street – while we were open, 10 of our patrons. Late night, after we’re closed – still 10 (but different) cars parked on the street. Who were these cars?! Local residents and visitors, of course. The cafe has no more impact on the street than the neighborhood itself. Truth is, all of their bungalows and duplexes and quadplexes are not compliant with current ordinance either. Do we complain? No, it’s part of urban living. For every neighbor that complains of us taking up street parking, there’s 4 other neighbors that thank us for providing a place they can walk too, a charming place, without a huge impersonal parking lot in front.

– street parking is a great, flexible solution that is a major characteristic of busy, thriving cities throughout the US. Keep it going. Don’t allow residential driveway cut ins that reduce the capacity for street parking. An ironic impact of the 2-spaces per single family residence rule is that in areas where town homes become popular, you’ll find a whole block of town homes in a row, eating up all street parking. What was once single-driveway bungalows is now a surfeit of double-wide two-car garages, bye bye curb space (and curb appeal, for that matter!) Residential visitors are left without a space to park, much less supporting neighborhood businesses.

– we should explore mini “parking management areas” [the Parking Ordinance defines the possibility of creating such areas, but with gross floor area of 3.5 million square feet. At present, downtown, the Medical Center, and Greenway Plaza qualify]. Perhaps the city, through its super neighborhood network, should research this more and make proposals suitable to all within an area. Who could benefit by a mini-parking management area? Well, Rice Village, for one, Montrose generally, Washington Blvd., and in the future, Navigation/2nd Ward, Dowling/Lyons, etc. Work on a combination of shared parking/mass transit to resolve parking and access broadly for all businesses.

– parking garages at transit hubs or transit cross points, at major urban inflection points. I emphasis transit points because they resolve 2 problems: parking for transit riders to the Central Business District by day, parking for the local area by evening. Yes, I’m proposing city- or Metro-owned parking garages, like many other cities.

– let’s look at alternatives for the Washington Corridor: perhaps best handled, instead of individual lots for each biz, a “dumbbell” arrangement with parking garages on either end of the corridor, served by private jitney routes in-between.

– tiered parking requirements; restaurant or bar establishments less than 2500 sq. ft. require less of a parking ratio [thanks to Bobby Heugel for this suggestion].

– special parking requirements for “night clubs”. Yes, hard to define, but let’s take a crack at it. Night clubs put a lot more demand on parking spaces than your neighborhood bar [again attributing Bobby Heugel]

– bicycle racks. Yes, I think I’ve heard this solution before, so I’m just repeating a good idea – allow 1 parking space per 1000 sq. ft. be dedicated to bikes. Maybe a super neighborhood can arrange donations of bike racks to businesses. You think bikes aren’t used in this city? Well, I can regularly count 2-3 bikes every time I visit my wife’s cafe. That’s 3 cars off our streets, with all the benefits that entails.

That’s all I have for now. Let’s not suburban cookie cutter this, but work out collaborative solutions that fits each area of our fine city.