When Houston’s off-street parking rules got a wholesale rewrite two years ago, they were lauded as making city codes much more flexible, allowing tailored solutions for neighborhoods wanting to alter the new requirements or ditch them completely.
The City Council will take up the first of these “special parking areas” on Wednesday, aiming to allow the Menil Collection to complete an ambitious expansion plan without paving over green space to add parking lots that museum leaders and city officials say may not be needed.
Typically the museum would be forced to add three parking spaces for every 1,000 square feet of new gallery, bookstore or classroom space, all of which are envisioned in its long-term expansion plan.
Under the alternative parking idea, however, the Menil would need to add only 1.8 spaces per 1,000 square feet, a 40 percent reduction, and would be able to satisfy new facilities’ parking requirements with spaces up to 1,000 feet away, about four times the typical required distance.
This latter alteration recognizes the reality that the 30-acre campus is one destination at which visitors walk between buildings, said Menil deputy director Sheryl Kolasinski, rather than enforcing the parking rules for each structure in a vacuum.
The plan also takes into account that the museum will add much on-street parking when it extends two local streets as part of its expansion plan.
The altered rules would apply in the area bordered by West Alabama and Richmond on the north and south, by Mandell on the west and by Yupon or Graustark to the east.
“The ultimate goal is to keep as much of the campus green as possible, while at the same time not having any adverse impact on parking in the neighborhood,” Kolasinski said. “I have been going around and talking to various civic organizations; their No. 1 concern is parking, and we’re very mindful of that, too. We don’t want people to come here and not be able to park, or our staff not be able to park, or residents, tenants, or anybody else.”
As is required when proposing any special parking area, the Menil gathered information on traffic counts and related data, and found existing on-street parking typically is not at capacity; the museum parking lot on West Alabama is rarely full, Kolasinski said.
“The rush to provide more paved parking doesn’t even make sense. We’re not exceeding what the neighborhood can carry right now,” she said. “The special parking area really just recognizes that for a two-year period.”
The special parking area would be examined every two years to see if changes are needed, such as if the proposal is causing spillover into nearby residential neighborhoods. New multi-family housing discussed as part of the Menil’s plans would not qualify for any exception to parking rules, city officials said.
Fred Sedgwick, of nearby Lancaster Place Civic Association, said any early concerns most of his neighbors had were addressed in meetings with Menil representatives.
“They aren’t putting in as much (parking) as the typical museum would have to put in, but I think what we worked out with the folks at the Menil was really a pretty good deal for all of us,” he said. “Who knows whether we’ll be overloaded with parking or not in the future, because there may be more restaurants that move in, but for now everything looks pretty good. I think the city having a flexible attitude toward it is good.”
Councilwoman Ellen Cohen, who represents the area, praised the proposal and the ordinance change that allowed it.
“It addresses concerns with regards to the unique parking requirements of different areas, and I think what I particularly like about it is this is a first one, so this is an opportunity to see, how does it work?” she said. “We’re going to review it again in two years, which I think is very reasonable.”
Jennifer Ostlind of the city Planning and Development Department said that the Menil’s proposal is an easy first test for special parking areas. The museum owns 80 percent of the land in the area, providing fewer opportunities for divergent opinions, and has a detailed plan of what facilities will be added.
“If we want to be urban, we need to get comfortable with less parking lots and maybe people parking on our street,” Ostlind said. “We’re in a transition period with parking, and this is a good tool to let us think about it on a bigger scale. It’s hard when you just think about it as one restaurant.”
Looking at Montrose
The Montrose Management District’s efforts to form a similar parking zone have proved dicier, she said, with a less obvious boundary and more homes involved. Ostlind said these difficulties do not mean the idea should not be pursued.
One proposal in Montrose is to leave the number of required spaces the same but waive the distance requirement, allowing one or more parking garages to satisfy all parking requirements.
“It’s got a lot of potential. We need to have tools that can allow further development in some older areas of town that don’t require paving over everything or mowing down whole blocks to build parking garages,” Ostlind said. “This was good because this was one entity, owns a lot of land, they’ve got control over it. The next step is to do something that’s a little harder.”