No parking … no problem?
The notion may strike car-dependent Miamians as downright unnatural, but its time may have arrived: On Thursday, Miami’s planning board will consider a proposal to allow small new commercial and residential buildings in designated transit corridors to go up without parking.
Its key supporters, including Miami Commissioner Francis Suarez, say the measure could foster needed development of modestly scaled, modestly priced commercial and multi-family residential buildings in neighborhoods like East Little Havana, where most lots are too small to feasibly accommodate required parking — and where as a consequence many parcels sit vacant.
With the exemption, they say, small-property owners who are now unable to build could put up eight- or 12-unit apartment houses or shops catering to residents, gradually filling in holes in the urban fabric and helping revitalize some neighborhoods in easy walking distance of transit stops with high-frequency service.
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Though not explicitly pitched as a way to conserve older neighborhoods, the measure offers an alternative to Miami’s predominant big-development model, which is propelled in part by the need to meet what critics say are the city’s overscaled and outdated minimum parking requirements. Miami developers typically must amass multiple lots to accommodate costly required parking, which also increases building scales and housing prices — a trend that is transforming West Brickell from a mix of modest, affordable apartments to a high-priced, high-rise zone.
Instead, the parking exemption would allow development that fits into Miami’s historic neighborhoods without pricing out or physically forcing out existing owners or residents, while providing them an avenue to greater prosperity, supporters say.
“It would mean investment without displacement,” said Andrew Frey, a lawyer and developer who has long advocated construction of mid-scale townhouses and apartment houses. “It will help small property owners invest in their neighborhoods and not have to sell out.”
Backers like Frey and Suarez say the measure would encourage the kind of mid-scaled walkable urbanism that characterizes great city neighborhoods around the world, and that young people increasingly seek out.
The chief beneficiaries would be Little Havana and the neighborhoods flanking Biscayne Boulevard between the Omni and Interstate 195, though the exemption would also extend to medium-density areas in and around downtown Miami and Brickell. Those are areas where many people already walk or take transit, supporters note. The exemption does not apply within 500 feet of single-family or duplex neighborhoods, which rules out broad swaths of the city.
No outright opposition to the measure has surfaced, though when it was first floated last year, two city commissioners expressed concern there would not be sufficient street parking to accommodate residents with cars.
The proposed amendment to the city zoning code, drawn up by Frey and backed by a coalition of activists, small developers and building groups, would exempt new apartment houses and commercial buildings under 10,000 square feet from the minimum parking requirement if they sit in medium-density areas within defined high-frequency transit corridors, or within a half-mile radius from a Metrorail or Metromover station. The transit corridors must have bus or trolley-bus service at intervals of no more than 10 minutes during weekdays, a definition that applies primarily along Flagler and Southwest Eighth streets and Biscayne Boulevard.
Under current rules, developers must provide 1.5 parking spaces per apartment. That means, Frey noted, that someone looking to build an eight-unit apartment building on a typical Little Havana lot of 5,000 square feet would need 12 spaces and a driveway, exceeding the available surface space.
City planners added a further feature. New buildings of any size close to Metro stations already can reduce required parking by 30 percent. Under the new amendments, those developers of buildings larger than 10,000 square feet could reduce required parking by up to 50 percent by paying into a new city transit fund — a novel model similar to a new zoning plan for up-and-coming Wynwood that the city commission approved last week on first reading with little debate.
Forgoing parking entirely is not a new idea in Miami. Developers of residential towers downtown can already do so, and a handful have taken advantage of that exemption. Historic buildings erected before the automobile age that are expanded also don’t have to provide parking. Miami Beach and Coral Gables, meanwhile, exempt small buildings in defined commercial districts.
But the proposed new parking exemption would extend the idea broadly into neighborhoods for the first time. Some cities across the country are instituting similar exemptions to reduce auto dependency, control housing costs, foster transit use and stimulate pedestrian-friendly development.
The proposal comes up nine months after the Miami Commission unanimously instructed city planners to bring it up to the planning board for vetting within a month. Two commissioners, Willy Gort and Frank Carollo, expressed reservations, but there was little outright opposition to the measure at the time. The exemption will require final approval by the commission.
Frey said he plans to contest one planning-department tweak: The measure considered by the commission applied the exemption to both new and existing buildings, but the version going to the planning board restricts it to new construction.
That’s unwise, Frey contends. Owners of the 1920s apartment buildings that dot Little Havana, for instance, might want to undo the conversion of front yards into parking to increase the appeal of their property, but would be prevented from doing so, Frey said.
“I just think it’s bad urbanism and it’s unfair,” he said.