Should The City Allow New Surface Parking On Rainey Street?

Should The City Allow New Surface Parking On Rainey Street?

It was the Downtown Austin Convention Center Overlay combined with a down market and CBD zoning that created a perfect environment for the bungalow-to-bar renovation boom on Rainey Street.  Now, to spur new infrastructure and a better mix of retail uses, allowing surface level parking in Rainey Street neighborhood is worthy of reexamination.

Some of my highly informed friends in downtown Austin, whose opinions I greatly respect, will disagree with me.  And, in general, I would discourage new downtown surface level parking in most circumstances.   Short of incentives to develop structured shared parking [underground!], we need to take a pragmatic look at how to deal with the Rainey Street neighborhood in the short-run.

The Convention Center Overlay in practice

The Convention Center Overlay prohibits new surface level parking lots throughout much of the eastern half of downtown Austin, including Rainey Street. The intent is to discourage under-utilization, and encourage structured parking with new high-rise development.  The overlay puts pressure on the owner to develop the property, rather than grow complacent from collecting parking income.  An example of this is readily apparent at the northeast corner of E 5th Street @ San Jacinto, where you see a tattered chain link fence rather than parking

The aesthete and new urbanist might say: “No. No way!”

This is my default position.  Right now, an owner of an empty lot is paying property taxes while getting no income. If the owner were allowed to make money from a blighted use – such as surface parking – then there is a diminished motivation to develop the lot, or to sell it to an assemblage.

Would allowing surface parking create an incentive to tear down a bungalow to create a parking lot?  No doubt about it, unless strict conditions apply such that only existing empty lots are eligible. Currently, a Rainey Street property owner needs only to hold out for bar operator to take out a 10 year lease and dress it up to the 9s.

The pragmatist and neighbor might say: “This could work”

CBD does not require all those new bars to provide parking, bring infrastructure, improve sidewalks, etc.  

Furthermore, it costs CBD bars just ~$100 to apply for an OMV permit.  That’s fine if you’re in an entertainment district.   But do it in a residential neighborhood where it affects quality of life and expect some respectful push back.  If the city doesn’t facilitate more parking, then Rainey Street will be relegated to bars.

If the City can setup a system where empty lots in/around Rainey are conditionally and for limited time be used for parking then perhaps we can entice a better mixture of retail uses.  Am I skeptical this will work?  Sure, but without many options facing us what are some other options at our disposal? Additionally surface parking could be set up as financing facility for needed Rainey Street sidewalk and infrastructure improvements.

It’s not a pretty nor perfect solution, but it’s a step in the direction of progress. This could work.

Waller Creek Worries

How does this decision affect the Waller Creek?  Rainey Street development potential represents a significant chunk of the Waller Creek TIF.  Allowing surface parking without attaching conditions could prove detrimental to repayment of the bond used to build the Waller Creek Tunnel.  If complacent lot owners sit around collecting surface level parking revenue they could continue to wait for the highest bidder that might never come.

Conversely, if the neighborhood is allowed to become dominated by bars [and without parking the neighborhood can do little to stop that trend] and nothing is done to improve traffic flow and sidewalks, then you begin to erode quality of life, and demand for residential uses in this part of downtown Austin. That’s not good news for development.

The Short Term Solution

The multiplicity of issues the Rainey Street neighborhood is facing warrants fresh consideration of surface parking. A palatable solution can be found with nuance and subtlety.  Allow conditional use of existing empty lots as surface parking with a limited life span.  Require a percentage of the net revenue to go back into the surrounding neighborhood to help pay for sidewalks and infrastructure.  Note: this would only apply to existing lots and would not incent razing structures in order to create new lots.

The Long Term Solution

While we are digging the Waller Creek Tunnel, the City might consider a new initiative to for underground parking.  Have you seen Houston’s Discovery Green?

TL;DR – Should The City Allow New Surface Parking On Rainey?  The answer is “yes, with conditions.”


p.s. The cool parking card at the top was designed by WryAndGinger at Etsy.
p.p.s. Just got a note that this whole issue might be moot.  Details to come.

About Jude Galligan

Jude Galligan, REALTOR, Principal of TOWERS Realty and publisher of Downtown Austin Blog (aka. "DAB"), spends his time matching remarkable people with remarkable properties in Austin’s urban core. A resident owner in downtown Austin, Jude has served on the Board of the Downtown Austin Alliance (DAA) and the City of Austin Downtown Commission. Contact Jude.


  1. As a resident of rainey street district. I have wonderful views of cars instead of the green park and lake. i see cars doing u turns where the streets are not wide enough. I see two way traffic on what should be one lane oneway streets. the bars are creating heavy heavy traffic and parking issues. the parking issues exists with the milagro and the legacy being built. i believe milagro and legacy are not providing enough parking for their residents and guest so they too are parking on the street. this is reminding me very much of san francisco. if anyone has ever visited san francisco, every empty spot is metered. and no buildings are ever built with enough parking. so if you were to drive 5 mins to a shop, you will spend 30 mins looking for parking. this is the way the city is heading. instead of seeing green park land, we will be seeing cars because the city is not requiring for buildings to be self contained with adaquate parking. how can you let bars open that dont even have to provide parking?? so you get 100 people to a bar on rainey. where do they park? multiply that times 5 bars, 500-1000 people with 500 cars and no parking. where do they park you think?? in the streets, in front of your house?, blocking your views?, watching drunk people walk around at all hours of the night? this is ridiculous. now there is 5 bars, i think there are likely 5 more bar applications now. so we are about the double the problem??? there needs to be a moritorium on bar applications for rainey street until parking can be solved. bar owners need to provide free parking for their guest and charge them.. not push their responsibility onto the neighborhood and destroy my quality of life. if you build surface parking, people are cheap, they will skip the paid lot and just park on the street. many people are willing to walk 1/2 a mile rather than pay. draw a circle of 1/2 mile around the bars you can see where all the cars will be going. yes.. in front of your house. destroying your quality of life and likely damaging your property values. so i believe surface parking is not a viable solutions unless you decide to provide more than convenient adequate parking for free. if you can not do that then the plan of surface parking does not work. the neighborhood will become a parking lot with cars lining up and down the streets.

    hope this clarifies some issues.

  2. I don’t know if the MACC (city-run) has any prohibitions in having people park in their lot at night (I live on Rainey so I never have to drive to get anywhere on the street). If they don’t, then maybe the city should charge people to park there on Friday and Saturday nights to fund the development of the infrastructure (lights, sidewalks, etc.) on Rainey, while restricting parking on the street and creating room for the development of the aforementioned improvements side. If the city restricts parking at the MACC at night, they need to loosen the reins there.

    I agree with Jude the existing empty lots should be used for parking to generate income for their owners (or lessees of the owners) while alleviating the parking problem on the street. Right now the empty lot at the south end of Rainey looks awful with brush and weeds growing on it, interspersed with mounds of dirt. Some people are parking there anyway for free, and it’s a joke in an advanced city like Austin that people are parking in empty areas that look straight out of a cowpoke town.

    By putting an asphalt lot on that space, and maybe other empty lots on the street, people will be more at ease to come down to Rainey, knowing that finding parking won’t be a hassle. We need to bring continuity to the experience of coming down to Rainey in order to attract people beyond those who come to the bars. This will help make businesses comfortable in setting up shop on Rainey knowing that there is parking nearby, similar to the extra lots over near Chuy’s on Barton Springs. Before those lots were opened, I always dreaded the parking hassle of going to Chuy’s. We need to assuage those same hesitancies for new restaurants and their patrons who would come to Rainey.

    Besides, I would much rather have nice parking lots than have a crappy looking piece of land sitting there for years until the real estate market picks up. The law of supply and demand will ensure that the owners of the land won’t keep it a parking lot forever if they can make more money by selling it or developing it for commercial or residential use.

    While we’re at it, there needs to be a pleasant walking experience created from the Convention Center to Rainey. I know tons of people during conventions walk to Iron Works BBQ. If they had a less intimidating right-of-way to walk just a couple of blocks more to Rainey Street, then perhaps more restaurants would be opened. Right now on that walk you pass by dilapidating and ugly buildings resembling those in Third World countries, and you have to walk in the middle of the street that’s all chewed up. Austinites might be comfortable with that kind of experience, but people from out-of-town need to feel like it’s safe and not “weird” if they are going to venture into an unknown area. Improving the walking experience from the Convention Center to Rainey (just a short distance) would be akin to what the city has done in other areas of downtown to improve the walking experience. Once it’s established, then it will be fairly easy for these establishments to market themselves to conventioneers. I can’t believe this hasn’t been done yet in a progressive city like Austin.

  3. Andrew Ashmore says

    Well, let me start by saying that it doesn’t take high rise residential to feed retail. On paper you may like the sway in the density numbers when high-rises are present, but when you look at truly classic examples of successful retail projects, you will find that ingress, egress, careful crafting of tenant mix, and affordable rents are what truly fuel thriving retail projects. Take Victory Dallas for instance. It’s surrounded by the American Airlines center, the W hotel, & 5 + high-rise residential towers and it’s one of the largest retail bungles to-date. Now on the otherhand, take a center like highland park village. It has exceptional tenants, fantastic, centralized locations, and vitually zero high-rise residential for miles.

    The key to Rainey St. in my opinion is to first and foremost focus on the human element.
    The true inhabitants of the district are the ones suffering by these decisions. We need to lift all obstacles slowing their exodus and preverbial “ship coming in”, carefully craft the tenant mix with boutique operators, retail, bar, hotel, & art gallery alike. Provide reasonable exceptions to parking requirements, implement pedestrian rights of way, pull this overlay garbage and utilize the obvious short term soloutions to the parking. Then, The city needs to build a parking deck both above and below ground in the MACC parking lot. Charge 7$ and call it a day. I’m sure business owners both current and future wouldn’t mind paying the piper a few points to push this through.

    Excuse any typos, thumbs now cramped.

  4. Jean Gateau says

    What about the plethora of parking that is available 345+ days out of the year at the MACC?

    The Rainey St. district is a few blocks long, there is a FREE parking lot at the MACC (well other than the $10.9M cost of the lot and buildings) sitting on prime real-estate, and we’re having a discussion about adding more parking to the area?

    Please help. What am I missing here?

    • Josua Clark says

      I tried to park one day at the macc but it has a sign that says your car will be towed, i guess that makes it a ” no free parking” lot!

  5. There won’t be any daytime uses until the whole street is high-rises – it’s wishful thinking to believe businesses are ready to swoop in and move into these houses given the low number of people currently living within walking distance.

    • Mike, I agree that more high rises will add to the retail demand. Right now there are 850 high 1/2/3 bedroom high rise doors anchored by Rainey Street. You’ve easily got 1500 high rise residents (not including the single family homes, or the offices on East Ave) creating one of the most dense residential downtown Austin neighborhoods. Rainey is also a popular corridor for conventioneers to get to the hike and bike trails. It just takes one retail success, a reason to go there Saturday and Sunday that doesn’t include bars, for day time use to catch on.

      • It’s going to take a lot more units than that to see anything, based on what we’ve already observed for years at 2nd street.

      • There’s ground floor retail space at the Milago that is not currently being used for retail. If residents of the street want retail…the Milago is invited to take the lead in that effort.

  6. Texas and Austin specifically has problems with DWIs and drunk drivers. I could see your case for surface lots, even granted your extreme reluctance, if you were advocating for those Rainey places EXCEPT FOR the bars. People who drink really shouldn’t be given more incentive to drive.
    Try bikes. Try cabs. Try busses. Try advocating for more late night routes. Try what some restaurants like Baby A’s have done and hire shuttles from existing lots to their business. We don’t need more people driving cars home from bars.

    • Good points, egoiste. No doubt, the goal is to facilitate more daytime retail and pedestrian friendly uses. Right now you have to walk in the street.

      • I’d rather the citizens spend money on sidewalks where none exist than to spend more money on a glorified sidewalk over Town Lake. I am with you on that goal.

  7. I’m not all that familiar with downtown Austin (did spend a few nights on 6th St:) ) but having seen the parking lot issue in other cities, I would be very fearful of “temporary” lots because they almost always become permanent. That said I like the idea of expanding the Waller Creek Tunnel project, or some sort of TIF funded shared parking structure that could be utilized by many parcels.

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