In-Depth

Houston Is Growing, But Its Parking Spaces May Not Be

We look at how city planners may reduce the number of parking spaces for new developments.

Parking meters in downtown Houston on September 20, 2018.

By one estimate, Greater Houston will surpass 10 million people by 2040. That would mean an extra three million or so people would be added to the region. But so many additional cars may not call for extra parking spaces.

“Buildings aren’t built for today. If you’re doing your job right, you’re trying to think about, ‘How is this going to be a good investment over 25 to 50 years?’” said David Mincberg, chief executive officer of Flagship Properties Corporation, a company that invests in commercial real estate. He’s also chairman of Houston First, which operates the underground parking for the City of Houston, among other things like the George R. Brown Convention Center and Jones Hall.

Mincberg said parking needs are changing because how people get around is changing.

“As rail expands in Houston, Texas, as you have more people, and more people, and more people using Uber and Lyft, and perhaps autonomous driving vehicles in the near future; near future being a decade. A decade for a building is not very long,” said Mincberg. “And what’s the sweet spot of, ‘what should a developer investor do,’ and, ‘what should a municipality require?’”

 

How the city is responding to evolving developments

City officials are already considering how to manage Houston’s growing population.

“We have to figure out ways to get cars off the streets,” said Houston Mayor Pro-Tem Ellen Cohen. She is also the council member for District C, which includes updated parking systems for bustling areas like Washington Avenue and Montrose. “We have to be able to bring people into Houston by buses, light rail, integrated transportation. And how can we do that so that people aren’t driving cars with one person behind the wheel?”

Mayor Pro-Tem Ellen Cohen in her office on September 20, 2018.

Cohen said parking regulations have been changing, and the city has been testing out less of them in midtown.

“Instead of having regulations requiring restaurants, for example, to have ‘X’ number of spaces available, we’re piloting the idea -which is presently going on downtown- but in midtown where you don’t have to have ‘X’ number of parking spaces. You come to the restaurant, you can park on the adjoining streets. That type of thing. So that it just leaves it more open for people to park wherever they can.”

“A third of his residents in this new apartment didn’t have a car at all”

Market needs have led downtown Houston to be exempt from parking restrictions for years, said Andy Icken, Chief Development Officer for the City of Houston. He said changes in development have led to changes in parking needs in midtown, as well. 

“Someone has built a new multi-family project in midtown, which largely has people that rent apartments. And they’ve instituted a process of one-car-per-apartment unit, and they’ve actually agreed to buy it back from the individual,” said Icken. “So, what that owner told me is: he found about a third of his residents in this new apartment didn’t have a car at all. So, if he can afford it, and make that happen, and sell that parking space to others who’d have it, that would make good economic sense.”

Andy Icken, City of Houston Chief Development Officer, reviews paperwork in his office on October 1, 2018.

Not having a car may be a growing trend in Houston. Icken said many places in the city have evolved to mixed-use development, like The Galleria area.

“If we look at the total square footage in The Galleria area, which is over 35 million square feet, one third of it is commercial office space, one third is residential, and one third is, in fact, retail space,” said Icken. “That does require less cars if people want to go to in that area.”

Icken added they have more projects coming into the city that are looking to have mixed-use, because it’s convenient for people. He said they’re looking at more rules and regulations to help enhance walkable communities, like Rice Village. Another factor to consider, Icken said, is technology.

“Autonomous vehicles are going to play a role, longer term,” said Icken.

The Metropolitan Transit Authority of Harris County (METRO) has already put a prototype plan in place for its first driverless vehicle, at Texas Southern University. And Icken said the city supports that plan, and is thinking about others.

This is a shuttle that is currently being used at Las Vegas’ Innovation District. METRO says it’s potentially considering a similar one for the Texas Southern University campus.

“We actually believe that the bus rapid transit line, down the middle of Galleria, can be converted to an autonomous vehicle. We’re looking at some experimental work on an autonomous vehicle going from the convention center to the airports. All of these will take time. The technology needs to be improved, but it’s changing every day and I think it’s up to us to look at how we are going to accommodate that.”

In coming years, it could mean big changes in a city where, at the moment, so many people drive themselves.

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