Miami’s parking blues


The average American uses 900 square feet for parking each day. The average apartment is 982 square feet. That means North Americans use almost as much room for cars as for homes. Miami’s gluttonous parking habit, and the way the city’s zoning code deals with this problem, discourages small-scale development that could greatly improve its many neighborhoods.

Miami21, the city’s zoning code, regulates development with sequential intensities assigned to zones. Simply put: The less intense the zone, the smaller the development allowed — Zone 3 allows only single family houses, while Zone 6 is assigned to areas such as Downtown and Brickell. Miami21 allocates all the ingredients for development: density, open space, building size, street frontage and green space sequentially depending on its zone. But it does not do this with parking.

Parking requirements are determined by building uses, not by a zone’s density/intensity. That means that generally, a five-bedroom home in Morningside (Zone 3) has the same parking requirements (1.5 spaces) as a studio apartment in Brickell (Zone 6). However, the Morningside mansion can typically accommodate six cars in driveways and garages, while the Brickell studio may use only one or none.

While Miami21 encourages urban infill redevelopment, we currently see few small-scale buildings that long defined the city. Few neighborhood-scaled mid- and low-rise projects are being developed, largely because of their parking demands. Intense super-block developments dominate the real-estate market because they can exploit their super size to cover their parking structures’ building costs.

Miami’s code rewards these behemoths by applying a use-based sharing ratio that exponentially reduces required parking as the building gets larger.

Additionally, a required driveway consumes about 25 percent of a small parcel’s frontage. On a superblock, it may be less than 1 percent. This difference alone can kill a small-scale project. Small property owners will often wait to be bought out by developers assembling land for mega developments, as it is rarely feasible to develop small buildings because of their parking requirements.

The result is dozens of neighborhoods blighted with vacant lots and dilapidated small buildings. There is no incentive for small-scale development, which arguably weathers real estate’s cyclical booms and busts better than mega developments that crash to a halt when the economy slows.

Cities are living, breathing organisms made up of distinctly unique neighborhoods. They cannot survive on a diet of superblocks.

To promote the healthy evolution of diverse places, the Miami21 code requires constant attention. Surgical amendments to the code address local conditions and enable growth addressing land use, open space, accessibility and infrastructure conscious of its context.

Wynwood, for example, a warehouse district undergoing significant change, has required district-specific code modifications to facilitate its transformation into an arts hub. Every district and neighborhood requires different calibration to remain unique. The code needs to be adjusted to address the different nuances and shifting market trends of each area. Zoning must be an enabler, not a hindrance to the evolution of a city.

Miami21 establishes a strong framework code for the city of Miami to guide growth. But its parking requirements must be revisited to build human-scaled developments on thousands of vacant lots that should be brought to life with housing, jobs, services and activity.

Miami’s parking blues can be fixed by applying several methods at the city’s disposal, including better public transportation and especially the expansion of the fee-in-lieu program that allows developers to pay into a parking fund.

That system, already used in parts of the city, builds garages that serve multiple developments — in lieu of the burden of creating onsite parking. Miami needs to revisit, with precision, ways to encourage development opportunities for these small urban parcels.

The first major fix should be to base parking requirements and sharing ratio reductions by both land use and its increasing density and intensity (from the suburban Zone 3 up to the Brickell skyscraper Zone 6) allowed in the Miami21 code.

Juan Mullerat, an urban designer with two decades of international experience, is principal at PlusUrbia Design in Coconut Grove.