City of Houston May Change Parking Requirements for Restaurants, Bars and More

Categories: News

Photo by Dre Dark
In front of a crowded room at the West End Multi-Service Center last night, Marlene Gafrick -- director of the City of Houston's Planning & Development department -- reviewed a long list of proposed changes to the City's 47-chapter-long Off-Street Parking Ordinance.

The ordinance, which was first written in 1989, has seen piecemeal changes and updates over the years. As Houston grew from a city of 1.6 million people to more than 2.1 million in the two decades since the ordinance was written, it became more spread out yet also denser in its urban core. And between these two issues, the Planning & Development had become swamped with variance requests over the years.

"These variances -- or exceptions to the ordinance -- happen over and over again. So there's obviously a flaw in the way the ordinance is written," said Sonny Garza, co-chair of the Planning Commission. "Things have changed dramatically enough that we need to revisit them."

"This is the result of over a year's worth of work with the Planning Commission subcommittee," stated Gafrick to the crowd. "We went out to the community, held a series of meetings and tried to get community input. For the most part, the community saw the issues that we saw with the parking ordinance." Residents have gotten fed up with overflow from bars and restaurants into their neighborhoods, while business owners have gotten fed up with what can be a difficult and cumbersome ordinance to understand. The City hopes to help both sides with its proposed changes.

Currently, bars -- which are defined as having alcohol make up more than 75 percent of their sales -- are required to provide 10 off-street parking spaces per every 1,000 square feet of usable floor space. Restaurants are required to provide eight off-street parking spaces per every 1,000 square feet. Drive-thru restaurants, take-out joints and bakeries are also defined as restaurants under the current ordinance, meaning that they are tasked with the burden of providing as much parking as more densely occupied spaces.

Photo by nd-nʎ
The proposed ordinance would increase the number of parking spaces required for bars to 14 spaces per 1,000 square feet, and would also redefine what a "bar" is. Namely, the ordinance would follow TABC guidelines, which state that a business with more than 50 percent of alcohol sales is considered a bar.

This could mean that far more establishments would be considered bars under the new rules, and thereby required to provide much more parking. However, the ordinance would only apply to new establishments or existing bars that are adding on to or expanding their space.

On the other hand, restaurants would be reclassified into three categories:

  • Restaurant: Would be required to provide 10 parking spaces per 1,000 square feet
  • Dessert Shop/Bakery: Would be required to provide six parking spaces per 1,000 square feet
  • Take-Out/Drive-Thru: Would be required to provide four parking spaces per 1,000 square feet

These changes wouldn't apply to structures within downtown's Central Business District, nor would it apply to existing restaurants, whose parking would be grandfathered into the new ordinance. They would, however, make it easier for small businesses like bakeries to find spaces to set up shop, spaces that couldn't have been used under the old ordinance due to a lack of off-street parking.

Another incentive to business owners is the proposed reduction of required parking spaces in historic districts or for businesses located in designated/protected landmark buildings. The new ordinance would allow for a 25 percent reduction in the amount of required off-street parking, meaning that a restaurant would only need to provide seven to eight parking spaces instead of 10. A bar's required parking in these historic districts would be reduced to 10 or 11.

"I think it's really business-friendly," said Garza. "We're thinking really Inner Loop right now; there are all these great old buildings you can't use because of a lack of parking. You want to open a restaurant or a spa, but it's out of the question."

Photo by Editor B
Would Anvil, with its notoriously small parking lot, have been able to open under the proposed off-street parking ordinance?
Scott Repass, owner of Poison Girl, Antidote and Black Hole Coffee House, was also in attendance at the meeting, although not as pleased with the proposed changes.

"I guess my big problem with the changes is that they seem heavily skewed towards encouraging new construction over restoring existing spaces," he said. Repass, like many small business owners, was concerned that the proposed changes would favor chains and big-name restaurants and bars over the little guys.

And although the changes would make it easier on bakeries or drive-thrus, they would also make it tougher for new restaurants to open -- especially small restaurants that would prefer to open, like Zelko Bistro and Ziggy's, with the intent of being a neighborhood spot to which people would predominately walk rather than drive. Increasing the difficulty factor would be a requirement of a minimum five-year lease for restaurants or bars which need to lease additional land for parking.

"It also seems like raising the parking requirements for bars, restaurants, and hair salons while decreasing the requirement for regional shopping centers and drive-thru restaurants is pushing development in the wrong direction if we want our city to be more dense and walkable," said Repass.

"Would Anvil even have a chance of opening under the new rules?" he added.

Sponsor Content

My Voice Nation Help
Valet in la
Valet in la

The parking problem is more near the restaurants,and specially on Sundays and holidays.The restaurants are trying to modified their parking places.

La valet
La valet

Its has been quite necessary to change the plans of parking for redcurrants,cinema hall and shopping malls.Because there has been a lot of traffic.

John Cedillo
John Cedillo

What does the ordinance say about valet parking? I've seen a few places that use their lot and even the handicap spaces as parking for their valet service and make everyone else park on the street.


Thoughtful cities are considering doing away with minimum requirements altogether.  If you don't need parking why require it? ... and if you need it and don't provide it your business may fail.  Don't enforce the car culture.  


Along with minimum setbacks, minimum parking requirements are one of the reason why Houston is as un-walkable as it is.  This is arguably a step in the right direction, but the best thing would be to get rid of the requirements altogether.

The externalities of an establishment not having enough parking aren't all that severe.  If there are no spots in the lot, customers will have to find a LEGAL spot on the street.  I don't have a lot of sympathy for people complaining about people parking legally in front of their house.  If the homes lack sufficient off-street parking, CoH is pretty generous about making streets resident-permit only.

The biggest cost of not providing sufficient parking falls on the establishment itself, in the form of lost business.  If there aren't enough spots, customers will either start car-pooling, walking, taking taxis or going somewhere else.  Having the same parking requirements for a bar in Midtown as you would for someplace outside the Beltway is absurd.

Minimum parking requirements actually end up subsidizing drivers at the expense of other modes of transport, and parking ends up under-priced as a result.  (And do we really want to subsidize people who drive to BARS?)  

Who's more likely to know the optimal number of parking spaces a business needs: the owner, or our city council?

Ken D.
Ken D.

Those places where people go to get drunk, yeah, we need to make sure they have more spaces so that people can drive to and from them!


So, if I'm reading this correctly, the city wants to penalize restaurants that want to open in the older neighborhoods and refurbished buildings.  Typical logic by the City of Houston.

Katharine Shilcutt
Katharine Shilcutt

I agree with you on all points. And I was surprised to hear how often the phrase "one size doesn't fit all" was thrown out in the meeting by the planning commissioners themselves. I think they're finally recognizing that -- like you said -- "Having the same parking requirements for a bar in Midtown as you would for someplace outside the Beltway is absurd." And I'm hoping that they'll actually stick to this manta when finalizing the ordinance and granting variances...

Katharine Shilcutt
Katharine Shilcutt

No, it's the opposite. The City wants to encourage that type of development by offering incentives: If you opened a restaurant in a historic building, for example, you'd only have to provide 75% of the parking that another restaurant would.

Example: If you tore down a historic building to create a 2,000-square-foot restaurant, you'd have to provide 20 parking spaces. But if you renovated the building and opened a restaurant, you'd only have to provide 15 parking spaces.


But that's still not helpful for a proposed restaurant in the Heights or Montrose, because space is so tight.  Think about it: If you can't get a parking spot at Anvil, you're pretty much SOL; you can't park in the neighborhood.  Therefore, they lose a customer.  It may not affect Anvil so much, but it would affect a new restaurant or bar that's trying to get a customer base.  And would Feast be able to open under the proposed regulation?  They have just a few spots there.  Does the City of Houston allow for shared resources?  Could several restaurants in a cluster share a lot and say that they're offering the required amount of parking, or is that verboten?

Also, what does the City of Houston consider a "renovation"?  I see a major loophole; a restaurant could renovate a storefront in a strip mall and potentially take advantage of the 75% parking requirement.  In a gentrifying neighborhood with a bombed-out former washateria that wouldn't be a bad thing, but it would be absurd in the Galleria.

Katharine Shilcutt
Katharine Shilcutt

To answer both questions: I didn't have space to fit it in, but the City does actively encourage sharing of lots. In fact, the new ordinance will increase businesses' ability to share lots with one another, which can be good or bad depending on how you look at it.

And for a building to be considered a renovation-type property, it has to be a historically protected or designated landmark, or be within a historic district. The criteria for designation is pretty strict, however, and I don't ever see a strip mall falling within the City's definition of "historic." You can read more in Division 3 of the ordinance itself:

Now Trending

From the Vault