A Very Positive Development

As Austin Contrarian documents, Council Members Riley and Spelman, and Mayor Pro Tem* Cole, have introduced a very positive item on the agenda for Thursday’s City Council session.  The item would allow buildings to 1) waive “minimum site area” rules and 2) waive minimum parking requirements when they build apartments less than 500 square feet on either Core Transit Corridors or in Transit-Oriented Development zones.

Quick glossary (and readers, correct me if I’m wrong):

  • The minimum site area is essentially a cap on the number of units an apartment complex can have per acre.
  • Minimum parking requirements are rules requiring a certain number of parking spaces per apartment.  The exact requirement varies based on the number of bedrooms in the apartment.
  • Core Transit Corridors are essentially big streets like Lamar or Burnet. You can identify them by the presence of large apartment complexes.
  • Transit-Oriented Development zones are special zoning areas near transit stations that allow developments with less parking (to take advantage of their proximity to transit) in exchange for some special design requirements.

The reason this is such a big deal is that, as Austin Contrarian says in the link above, minimum site areas and minimum parking requirements are some of the biggest impediments to providing homes in Austin. If developers weren’t required to build parking for every lot, they could create targeted developments to people who don’t own cars.  Even if currently there are few people who would be willing to go without a car, the developers can still make money by reducing the price because they won’t have to pay for the extra land for parking.  The reduced price for a nice, centrally located apartment might lure some people to give up their cars.

On its own, this change will not bring a construction boom or affordability to Austin.  As I discussed, only allowing density on select streets greatly limits opportunities for building.  The same logic that makes it useful to get rid of minimum parking requirements on the Core Transit Corridors themselves should apply to areas near the CTCs as well.  After all, most people who don’t have a car can walk a block to the transit corridors as they can get a unit on the exact street itself.  Even if those streets weren’t upzoned to multi-family, eliminating parking requirements would allow many more people to build Accessory Dwelling Unit–also known as granny flats, garage apartments–small “extra” units on a Single Family lot. Indeed, the same logic that says that minimum parking requirements aren’t needed near transit should apply everywhere.  Few people may want to live far from transit without a car, but if somebody wants to, more power to them.

Similarly, the same logic that says that a unit less than 500 square feet could benefit from reductions in parking minimums could just as easily apply to units greater than 500 square feet. 500 square feet is plenty for many single people, but reducing parking requirements for larger units might allow more families currently priced out of the core to ditch a car (perhaps one of two cars or perhaps both if their circumstances were right) and move to a more central location.

Still, this really is a fantastic development, both because of the direct effect it would have and because of the way it focuses on some of the real issues: onerous minimum site area and parking requirements getting in the way of building transit-friendly, centrally-located housing. I urge you to write City Council and express your support for Item 40, your thanks to Riley, Spelman, and Cole for sponsoring it, and a request that Leffingwell, Morrison, Martinez, and Tovo support it as well.

One last explanatory note: the Item itself is not an ordinance. It is merely a request that staff write an ordinance and bring it to Council.  This is actually the second stage in the process; the first was a resolution sponsored by Council Member Spelman asking staff to study the issue of microapartments.  Even if this item passes Council on Thursday, there will still be a long way to go before it becomes law.

* For those not in the know, “Mayor Pro Tem” is essentially “vice mayor.”  Both the mayor and the Mayor Pro Tem are councilmembers with equal vote weighting as any other councilmember.  City Council etiquette dictates that you always refer to and address the Mayor and Mayor Pro Tem as such, though, and not merely as “Council Member.”

5 thoughts on “A Very Positive Development

  1. Interesting that this passed 7-0. After ANC negative review, I expected a very different vote tally. Although their representative didn’t quite say they were totally against it, as I recall. I’m sure the more contentious part will come when the ordinance is actually drafted.

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