Dallas Parking Standards
My 5-year-old has aerospace-themed pajamas that politely read “give me my space.” And he means it. We mean it. Dallasites mean it. As residents of an auto-centric city, “give me my space” could be the mantra of free and abundant parking.
As architects and designers, we shape space. We define it, organize it, give it character. However, we know that a building is not an island unto itself. The Elder Saarinen once said, “Always design a thing by considering it in its next larger context.”
Dallas is one of many cities around the country considering and making changes to its parking code. In May, the City of Austin eliminated required parking minimums citywide. According to national nonprofit Strong Towns, 114 North American cities had removed required parking minimums in at least one neighborhood, and 59 added provisions or were considering amendments.
The Zoning Ordinance Advisory Committee (ZOAC) is an advisory body to the City of Dallas’ City Plan Commission (CPC). The group, of which I’ve been a citizen member since 2018, is making recommendations for changes to our city’s 1950s-era parking ordinance, recommendations that include eliminating required parking minimums.
However, the proposed policy change has been relegated to city staff purgatory for nearly three years. I’m told by staff that the matter will re-emerge “soon.” In the coming paragraphs, we will look at the approach that led to cities’ current regulations, the imbalances these regulations create in Dallas, explore project examples, and finally address parking reform citywide.
Urban planning is a social science. In science, we bring one of several approaches to a problem. In the final chapter of The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Jane Jacobs presents the “The Kind of Problem Architecture Is” theory. More broadly, she asks: What kind of problem is a city? Drawing on a 1958 essay by Dr. Warren Weaver of the Rockefeller Foundation, Jacobs outlines three types of problems and the appropriate scientific approach to each: problems of simplicity (algebraic), problems of disorganized complexity (probability and statistics), and organized complexity (biology, interaction between parts).
Jacobs argues that the way we think about problems dictates the way we should approach them. The post-industrial age has led to numerous society-shaping inventions using the first two (mathematical) approaches: telephone, radio, internet, and the automobile, things under the domain of humankind. But in crafting city policy, we have mistakenly applied a mathematical approach to a biological “problem” – the actual domain of humankind. We have done this by coupling land use with parking regulations, and we have done this with land use policy itself.
Dallas’ parking regulations, like those of most cities, are tied to land use. For example, in Dallas, 2,000 square feet of restaurant space requires 20 parking spaces. If providing four living units (mixed size), it’s eight parking spaces, etc. (Read: A city is not a mathematical problem).
British architect Leon Krier likens a thriving city to a pizza, wherein each neighborhood, like every slice, contains a full microcosm of the whole city. What we’ve built in America, and most of Dallas, are dough slices, sauce slices, cheese slices, pepperoni slices, etc.
Think about this applied to parking policy: Is Far North Dallas the same as Lowest Greenville? Is Mountain Creek the same as Park Lane or the Bishop Arts District? Where has this mathematical approach led to imbalance within the biological organism of our city?
It is a defining time for Dallas. In 2017, the city passed its first comprehensive housing policy, with a goal of 20,000 additional housing units. In 2020, a Climate Action Plan (CECAP) was enacted toward addressing environmental challenges such as the urban heat island, air and water quality and supply, and regional water and drainage. In 2021, Connect Dallas outlined the city’s first strategic mobility plan. Today, amending our 1950s parking code has big implications for each of these goals.
During over three years of deliberation, I keep coming back to two words: flexibility and resiliency.
Planned Development districts are one attempt to have neighborhood-scale approaches. As of 2020, there were 1,024 Planned Development Districts in Dallas. According to chief planner Sarah May, building inspectors spend 80% of their time on parking-related questions and review. An imbalance of time, I would say! Done en masse, PDs are overly complicated and require too much review.
Economists define imbalances in two terms: externalities and opportunity costs.
An externality is “a side effect or consequence of an activity (such as building required parking) that affects other parties without this being reflected in the cost of the goods or services involved.” Example: abundant and “free” parking. Economics 101: There is no such thing as a free lunch. Donald Shoup, author of The High Cost of Free Parking (2005) found that the average cost to build a parking space was between $24,000 to $34,000. Parking is always subsidized, first by the owner/developer, then by the tenant. This is hidden in our rents, our taxes, our commutes. What other environmental or housing costs are hidden in required but surplus parking spaces?
Opportunity costs are the loss of potential gain from other alternatives when one alternative is chosen. What kind of city are we missing out on by having required parking minimums? A few examples include a more robust and comprehensive transit system as well as adaptive reuse opportunities. At a 2021 ZOAC meeting, Jack Wierzenski, director of economic development at DART, estimated that about 10,000 parking spaces went unused every day across 65 light-rail stations. That is the equivalent of 76 acres of unproductive, impervious land. If developed at a moderate 60 units per acre of transit-oriented housing, that change would satisfy 25% of the 20,000 housing units in the city’s housing policy goal.
Dallas’ parking requirements also add to the area’s ecological imbalance. In 2017, the Texas Tree Foundation’s Urban Heat Island Mitigation Study found that 35% of Dallas’ 383 square miles has an impervious surface. That is 134 square miles, or around 86,000 acres of roads, parking and buildings. According to the foundation, urban areas are up to 15 degrees warmer than in rural areas, where trees and open space are more prevalent.
What about the implication to spatial and social imbalances? We know as architects and designers that good spaces have defined edges at a human scale. According to Shoup, the average area of off-street parking per car is about 900 square feet, greater than the area of housing per human, which is about 800 square feet. According to AAA, the average cost to maintain a vehicle in 2022 was over $10,000 per year. In Dallas, our per capita income is $34,016. A full 25% of income to participate in our society.
I talked with Nathaniel Barrett, a small real estate developer in Dallas. He suggests a three-step framework to parking policy:
- Eliminate off-street requirements.
- Charge for on-street parking.
- Use proceeds from on-street parking for the neighborhood.
Eliminating parking requirements citywide gets the most discussion from activists and politicians and would be the most expedient. Nos. 2 and 3 involve Parking Benefit Districts (PBDs), a framework to generate revenue and then return it to the district to finance neighborhood improvements. PBDs have been implemented in Austin, Houston, and Pasadena, California, among others.
Additionally, we can do a better job of incentivizing and leveraging shared parking agreements and discounting for mixed uses, especially those with different business hours, such as an office building next door to a restaurant or nightclub.
We also have to be willing to look at the issue by parcel, neighborhood and city levels.
On a parcel level, parking minimums create feasibility challenges in particular for small projects (two highlighted below). The parking problem in popular walkable neighborhoods like Lowest Greenville and Bishop Arts really highlights an imbalance in the supply and demand for neighborhoods with a useful walk. As a center-city to an expanding region, the feasibility of rehab and building on infill lots play an important role in filling the gaps for housing and opportunity in our city.
The first parcel example challenged by required parking is the 2-bedroom 4 plex on a single infill lot (assume MF-2 zoning). The Congress for the New Urbanism refers to this as Missing Middle Housing.
The sketch on the left are the current regulations, many of which treat a four-unit building the same as a 300-unit complex (any residential building bigger than two units is considered multifamily in the City of Dallas). One parking space per bedroom (eight required), 20-foot drive aisle and 10-foot side yard setbacks. Cars fill the ground floor and street facade. The limitations are significant, and the results ugly and ill-fitting in our neighborhoods.
In the second sketch, we see some moderate reforms. One parking space (or less) per unit, 10-foot drive aisle and treating smaller buildings differently. This was the way our ancestors built. Ending minimums would lower cost and regulatory barriers for small infill housing, and permit a social design not encouraged by this building form.
The second example is an adaptive use of a 1,200-square-foot commercial building (assume CR zoning). Built in the 1940s, this building is on the edge of a growing city-center neighborhood.
While the zoning allows restaurant and retail use by right, the space constraints imposed by parking regulations and the lack of curb management don’t allow it. The generosity of the zoning is cut in half. The best this building could be is for an office, warehouse or auto use. Retail would require six parking spaces, a restaurant would require 12. There are easily hundreds of examples like this in our city. Instead, the parcels remain vacant or underutilized.
As design professionals, we value creative license and the freedom to design context-sensitive solutions. Minimum parking requirements restrain the opportunity for architects to design for that balance.
There is a principle in Catholic thought known as subsidiarity: That matters ought to be handled by the smallest, lowest or least centralized competent authority. It is time we come to view our city as a biology of neighborhoods and craft a parking policy in accordance with this. With this approach, the real costs of mobility — social, economic and environmental — could be put back into balance in Dallas.
Ryan Behring is managing partner at Re:Studio Architecture and a commercial real estate agent based in Oak Cliff.