In front of a crowded room at the West End Multi-Service Center last night, Marlene Gafrick -- director of the City of Houston's Planning & Development department -- reviewed a long list of proposed changes to the City's 47-chapter-long Off-Street Parking Ordinance.
The ordinance, which was first written in 1989, has seen piecemeal changes and updates over the years. As Houston grew from a city of 1.6 million people to more than 2.1 million in the two decades since the ordinance was written, it became more spread out yet also denser in its urban core. And between these two issues, the Planning & Development had become swamped with variance requests over the years.
"These variances -- or exceptions to the ordinance -- happen over and over again. So there's obviously a flaw in the way the ordinance is written," said Sonny Garza, co-chair of the Planning Commission. "Things have changed dramatically enough that we need to revisit them."
"This is the result of over a year's worth of work with the Planning Commission subcommittee," stated Gafrick to the crowd. "We went out to the community, held a series of meetings and tried to get community input. For the most part, the community saw the issues that we saw with the parking ordinance." Residents have gotten fed up with overflow from bars and restaurants into their neighborhoods, while business owners have gotten fed up with what can be a difficult and cumbersome ordinance to understand. The City hopes to help both sides with its proposed changes.
Currently, bars -- which are defined as having alcohol make up more than 75 percent of their sales -- are required to provide 10 off-street parking spaces per every 1,000 square feet of usable floor space. Restaurants are required to provide eight off-street parking spaces per every 1,000 square feet. Drive-thru restaurants, take-out joints and bakeries are also defined as restaurants under the current ordinance, meaning that they are tasked with the burden of providing as much parking as more densely occupied spaces.
The proposed ordinance would increase the number of parking spaces required for bars to 14 spaces per 1,000 square feet, and would also redefine what a "bar" is. Namely, the ordinance would follow TABC guidelines, which state that a business with more than 50 percent of alcohol sales is considered a bar.
This could mean that far more establishments would be considered bars under the new rules, and thereby required to provide much more parking. However, the ordinance would only apply to new establishments or existing bars that are adding on to or expanding their space.
On the other hand, restaurants would be reclassified into three categories:
- Restaurant: Would be required to provide 10 parking spaces per 1,000 square feet
- Dessert Shop/Bakery: Would be required to provide six parking spaces per 1,000 square feet
- Take-Out/Drive-Thru: Would be required to provide four parking spaces per 1,000 square feet
These changes wouldn't apply to structures within downtown's Central Business District, nor would it apply to existing restaurants, whose parking would be grandfathered into the new ordinance. They would, however, make it easier for small businesses like bakeries to find spaces to set up shop, spaces that couldn't have been used under the old ordinance due to a lack of off-street parking.
Another incentive to business owners is the proposed reduction of required parking spaces in historic districts or for businesses located in designated/protected landmark buildings. The new ordinance would allow for a 25 percent reduction in the amount of required off-street parking, meaning that a restaurant would only need to provide seven to eight parking spaces instead of 10. A bar's required parking in these historic districts would be reduced to 10 or 11.
"I think it's really business-friendly," said Garza. "We're thinking really Inner Loop right now; there are all these great old buildings you can't use because of a lack of parking. You want to open a restaurant or a spa, but it's out of the question."
Scott Repass, owner of Poison Girl, Antidote and Black Hole Coffee House, was also in attendance at the meeting, although not as pleased with the proposed changes.
"I guess my big problem with the changes is that they seem heavily skewed towards encouraging new construction over restoring existing spaces," he said. Repass, like many small business owners, was concerned that the proposed changes would favor chains and big-name restaurants and bars over the little guys.
And although the changes would make it easier on bakeries or drive-thrus, they would also make it tougher for new restaurants to open -- especially small restaurants that would prefer to open, like Zelko Bistro and Ziggy's, with the intent of being a neighborhood spot to which people would predominately walk rather than drive. Increasing the difficulty factor would be a requirement of a minimum five-year lease for restaurants or bars which need to lease additional land for parking.
"It also seems like raising the parking requirements for bars, restaurants, and hair salons while decreasing the requirement for regional shopping centers and drive-thru restaurants is pushing development in the wrong direction if we want our city to be more dense and walkable," said Repass.
"Would Anvil even have a chance of opening under the new rules?" he added.
As to Repass's points, regional shopping centers are defined as having 400,000 to 1,000,000 square feet of usable space, and are required to provide five spaces for every 1,000 square feet. The new ordinance would merely bring this type of shopping center in line with every other type -- from small strip shopping centers to super regional shopping centers -- and require them to provide four parking spaces instead of five.
In response to the issue of walkability -- one that the Mayor's office has indicated is a priority as the City redevelops certain urban cores -- Garza had a more uncertain response: "I'm not sure. We've really not had that conversation."
"However," he continued, "one of the things is that it didn't apply to this particular ordinance. We are looking at other ordinances that make the city more walkable. As we become more densified, we realize now that we have to be more pedestrian-friendly. And we really are taking certain sections into the pedestrian realm. The idea is that if you're in a transit corridor, it changes the rules completely."
He mentioned West Ave as a notable example of more pedestrian-friendly development, with buildings fronting the street instead of parking lots. However, Kirby and Westheimer is not exactly a walkable area in a "transit corridor" as it stands now; River Oaks residents are not walking over to Pondicheri from their estates, nor are they taking Metro to Tootsie's.
"I think the crux of this is that we really tried to make it simpler and more concise," Garza elaborated. "For example: I'm downtown, I'm right by the bus stop, I don't need all this parking. You make your case, you make it to the planning staff, you make your recommendation and it might be that you don't need that parking because of factors A, B and C."
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"It really is a common sense approach."
The proposed ordinance changes must still go before Councilwoman Sue Lovell's office and then before City Council before they would be enacted, which could be as early as next year.