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.