A Texas Town Makes Progress in Removing Parking Minimums

Strong Towns member Justin Golbabai is the Planning Administrator for the City of College Station, Texas, and just last year, he led his town toward a victory in reducing parking minimum laws — inspired in part by Strong Towns.

As we’ve discussed at length here at Strong Towns, parking minimum requirements are prevalent in cities and towns across the country, but they often have little purpose or value. Instead, they hinder the potential of our communities by creating barriers for new local business start-ups, and filling our cities with unproductive, empty parking spaces that don’t add value to our places. 

The good news is that a wave of towns across the nation are waking up to the problems with parking minimums and eliminating or decreasing them. This map above — crowdsourced by our readers and members — illustrates communities that have either eliminated (green dots) or decreased (blue dots) their parking minimums, or are in the process of considering parking minimum changes (orange dots). (Add your town to the map or update your entry here.)

College Station’s Planning and Zoning Commission requested that Justin and his Planning staff explore updating the City’s off-street parking requirements and provide options for flexibility, so Justin put together a presentation for the Commission. Anyone looking to change parking minimums in their town can learn from his example.

The Texas A&M football stadium (center) with an illustration of how much parking would be required surrounding the stadium if it had to follow current regulations. That parking would take up acres of land presently occupied by hundreds of homes and businesses.

The Texas A&M football stadium (center) with an illustration of how much parking would be required surrounding the stadium if it had to follow current regulations. That parking would take up acres of land presently occupied by hundreds of homes and businesses.

In his presentation to the Commission last year, he started out by sharing the history of parking minimums and their current status in College Station. He talked about the problematic impact that minimums have in the town and, as an example, created this dramatic illustration of what the local university, Texas A&M’s, historic football stadium would look like if it had to follow current parking minimum laws.

Next up in his presentation, Justin discussed the growing trend of cities decreasing their parking minimums and presented research from parking expert, Donald Shoup. He also shared Strong Towns’ arguments about how parking decreases the tax values of local properties and how traditional, historic streets without surface parking lots offer more tax value per acre.

Then Justin presented a proposal for more flexible parking requirements in College Station. He reports the Planning and Zoning Commission liked this idea, but they were concerned that a decrease in minimums for commercial areas might lead shoppers to park up the surrounding residential neighborhoods. The final outcome was something everyone could get behind.

In August of last year, the City Council of College Station passed an ordinance that made several serious changes to off-street parking requirements including:

  • An option for commercial and multifamily residential properties to use demand-based parking instead of following the existing minimums;
  • An increase in the distance that shared parking is permitted to be from a property (i.e. where previously a business could only share parking with another site if that parking lot was less than 250 feet away from their building, that distance was increased to 350 feet);
  • Parking reductions targeted at small businesses and properties; and
  • A reduction in parking requirements for multifamily residential properties. 

While these changes are, by no means, the complete elimination of park requirements, in an auto-oriented city like College Station, these steps are still significant. They help inch the community toward being a place filled with more productive businesses and fewer asphalt lots.

Three key lessons came out of this experience:

  1. Use visuals to make your point. That illustration of the football stadium surrounded by an oppressive sea of parking speaks volumes. So do illustrations of tax productivity. Strong Towns member and contributor, Nate Hood, also highlighted the value of visuals in a previous article about squashing the "there's no parking" argument. A simple image (which could easily be created in a program like Google Drawings) showing just how much of your city is occupied by parking should bring the message home.
  2. Listen earnestly to peoples’ concerns. This is particularly necessary when you're talking to the people who hold the power. If you come in trying to lecture your way to a win or talking down to people without actively listening and responding to their concerns, you won't get very far. Strong Towns board member and former city councilor and lobbyist, John Reuter, shared his 9 steps to change an elected official's mind earlier this year and listening was a big part of that. The good news is that parking concerns are almost always unfounded. Anticipate these arguments ahead of a presentation or meeting and prepare your rebuttals in a friendly but firm way. 
  3. Take things one step at a time. If you live in an auto-oriented community, you're probably not going to be able to make a big change — like fully getting rid of parking minimums — overnight. But by chipping away at the existing framework and demonstrating that looser parking requirements are enabling more development and business opportunities, you can push your city toward a better future.

(All images courtesy of Justin Golbabai)