Parking
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Whether you’re a longtime resident or visiting the Bayou City for the first time, there’s no questioning Downtown is an exciting place to be right now. Twenty-six projects are under construction with another dozen in the planning stages. Our sports teams are killing it. Buffalo Bayou Park is nearing completion. And new bars and restaurants continue to open in the Historic District making it the buzzed about, go-to neighborhood.

But even with all the good stuff happening, we realize, for many, parking is still going to be your first and last impression of Downtown. It continues to be a hot button for visitors coming into Downtown, and the perception is that parking is confusing, expensive and inconvenient.   

And it’s our job to help people get around. So, we’ve created a new interactive parking map that will make finding parking Downtown easier and faster. We also believe that it will help put to rest some of the perceptions people have about Downtown parking. There actually is an abundance of parking. There’s also quite a bit of cheap parking (and we’ll tell you where!) and on-street parking is super-convenient. You just need to know the rules and restrictions(see parking tips). 

The online map includes public garages, surface lots and on-street parking. It tells you where parking is located, how much it costs, hours of operation, plus lots of great tips that will make you a parking expert. You can search by destination, so if you are going to Discovery Green you can zoom in and see what parking is available within a few blocks.  We’ve also included Greenlink, BCycle and METRORail stations in the map for those of you who are carless or want to park once and get around using another mode of transit.

 

Parking and Smart Growth.

How do you find the balance between parking and good development? With approximately half of our 150,000 Downtown workers driving into work, parking is crucial. Retail requires convenient parking spaces that can handle high turnover and Houston is still a car-centric city, so resident parking is a must as well. But, the need for parking changes throughout the day as people come to shop, employees head to work, and residents go out for the evening.

The good news is we are seeing a shift take place in Downtown.

The City of Houston is focusing on shared parking — a land use/development strategy that optimizes parking by allowing complementary uses to share spaces, rather than producing separate spaces for separate uses. Distinct but complementary parking patterns, such as office parking that is generally empty in the evenings and on weekends, can be used for retail or venue parking without increasing supply.  

We are also seeing major service improvements with METRO’s expansion of the rail lines and their New Bus Network, a necessity to those individuals who do not own a car or are forgoing use of a car. More and more, instead of driving to a game or a night out, Houstonians are taking Uber or The Wave. For Downtown workers, with or without a car, you can get around   during the week using Greenlink or BCycle. And best of all, Downtown is walkable. 

Steve Spillette recently wrote a thought-provoking essay for Houston Tomorrow about the city’s parking situation. It raises some great points. Although Downtown is a bit different because there are no regulatory requirements for development regarding parking, that hasn’t stopped private developers and property owners from adding parking, at great cost.  The question becomes, why do they think it’s so necessary, especially when there’s already a huge amount of parking Downtown?  And you have to start looking at why folks think you have to drive to get to Downtown or even drive from place to place within Downtown, as well as how the supply of parking is being managed.

 

Parking, Walkability and Quality of Life

By Steven R. Spillette

* This essay originally was written for the nonprofit urban planning think tank Houston Tomorrow.

It’s often said that in Houston, and Texas, we love our cars.  And I venture to say that as much as Houstonians are devoted to driving, they are obsessed about parking.  Perhaps some Houstonians think that having convenient free off-street parking at the front door of just about everywhere is something that makes our city great, and better than those older “walkable” cities, where parking is often a hassle, or expensive, or both.  In this perspective, when convenient free off-street parking next to your destination is missing – meaning you have to search for a parking spot on the street, or go to a garage blocks away, or actually pay for the privilege of storing your car temporarily while you go about your business – then something is, well, sub-optimal, and hurting quality of life.

I suppose if you strongly dislike walking, biking, taking transit, or using services such as taxis and rideshare, then such a reaction is logical.  I would venture to say that the perceived dominance of this perspective has been a major driver of land use regulation in Houston over the last few decades – specifically expressed by minimum onsite parking requirements – because people who are upset about what they consider parking injustice can get pretty noisy, and elected officials and bureaucrats generally pay attention to noisy.

However, I wonder if people who endorse this perspective realize the prices paid for all the vast supply of parking that is deemed to be needed to be just about everywhere.  While I could highlight many ways that the omnipresence of parking as a land use can negatively impact us, such as excessive and polluted storm runoff and urban heat islands, I want to focus on two main impacts:  the reduced appeal and effectiveness of walking and the terrific financial burden our obsession with parking places on both the private and public sector.

The negative impacts on walking as a means of mobility and access are pretty obvious.  Massive on-site parking supply pushes destinations apart, meaning fewer destinations are available within a reasonable walking distance, diminishing the practicality of getting around on foot.  Off-street parking facilities are also generally unpleasant to walk next to or through, reducing the qualitative experience of being a pedestrian as well.  With such conditions, even folks who might not be predisposed against walking will be more likely to drive to and between their destinations (thus creating more traffic and pollution).  In short, excessive on-site parking and walkable environments are not terribly compatible.  Of course, the traffic congestion and health impacts are becoming more widely known as consequences of a lack of walkability. Not to mention the burden placed on those who walk because, for whatever reason, they’re unable to drive.  Finally, from a more purely qualitative perspective, there are those who actually like walking in cities and who are denied that experience.

The negative impact of the financial burden of excessive and poorly located parking may be even more pernicious, however.  It would be silly to declare parking unnecessary at the present time, especially for most commercial uses in Houston; our relatively lower densities and sparse public transit network (hopefully being improved now) mean that outside of the Central Business District parking is necessary for a sufficient number of employees, customers, and visitors to access destinations.  But onsite parking, mandated by Houston city code (outside the CBD) and perceived as necessary regardless of code by most developers, comes at great cost – it takes extra money to build parking, not to mention to acquire and use the underlying land for that purpose.  What ends up happening is that enormous resources are spent purely for vehicle storage, rather than using that capital and land for actual economic activity.

Where does the Houston economy actually take place?  Usually in buildings, not in parking lots or garages – yet how much underutilized financial resources are locked into parking? How much more expensive, or financially tenuous, is a development project than it would have been if more land could be used productively? How might our built environment improve if more could be spent on creating quality buildings and more affordable housing rather than creating more parking?

There are serious ramifications for the city's fiscal health in this regard. I researched the assessed values of various types of recently built properties in the Washington Avenue corridor. An unwalkable parking-oriented retail big-box strip center development, dominated by surface parking, produces significantly lower taxable property value than a multifamily apartment development with a parking garage built underneath the living units. The retail property also produces less assessed value per acre than nearby single family town homes, even if a 20 percent homestead exemption is assumed on all units.

One might point out that while retail lags on property tax generation, it also produces sales tax for the City.  This is true, but my calculations indicate that Sawyer Heights would need to contain 300,000 square feet of retail space generating $500 annually per square foot in taxable sales to even approach the fiscal productivity of the apartments.  For the vast majority of one-story retail centers in Houston, such sales productivity will be well above what they are capable of. 

I can tell you from my other experiences in consulting work that these examples of assessed value generation are quite typical.  Parking, however seemingly necessary, hurts walkability, and hurts municipal fiscal productivity.

So where does this leave Houston?  The city has enormous fiscal challenges.  While certainly managing the expenditure side of the budget is critical regardless of how much revenue is coming in, allowing or encouraging low fiscal value development forced by both the mandatory and perceived need for excessive on-site parking is not a situation that should continue.  Solutions will likely include some mix of relaxation or elimination of onsite parking requirements, community shared parking facilities, improved public transit, and eventually autonomous (self-driving) vehicles that do not have to be parked right at the destination.  And as or more importantly, Houston needs improvements in both in the design of developments and in the public rights of way to facilitate safe, comfortable walking.  Houston’s current densification trend provides a great opportunity to try out these options.

We often think of walkability’s potential to improve our health, our natural environment, and our city image.  But just as importantly, it can help save our collective checkbook.

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