Fayetteville eliminates minimum parking requirements

The parking lot at 2035 N. College Ave. sits nearly three-fourths empty on Aug. 10.

Photo: Todd Gill, Fayetteville Flyer

Fayetteville aldermen just made a huge change to the way the city handles commercial parking.

City Council members on Tuesday approved a proposal to completely eliminate minimum parking requirements for nonresidential properties. The change means new businesses in commercial areas will no longer be required to provide a set number of parking spaces for their customers.

It’s a radical shift from the belief that cities are responsible for making sure drivers have plenty of places to park while shopping and dining. Fayetteville now joins a growing number of cities across the country in adopting a new philosophy that allows businesses to consider their parking needs based on market demand, rather than city code requirements.

The old rules

The old rules were based mostly on square footage. A restaurant was required to include one parking space for every 100 square feet, and retail shop owners had to provide one space for every 250 square feet.

Planning Commissioners last month criticized the laws for not considering the location of the business and for seemingly being set to satisfy peak demand instead of normal, everyday traffic.

The old laws, planners said, made it difficult to start small businesses and discouraged people from walking or riding bikes. They also resulted in a vast amount of empty parking lots that remain unused after large businesses closed or moved (Fiesta Square, the old Razorback cinema on College Avenue).

“Right now we have about three parking spaces in the city for every car,” said Alderman Matthew Petty at Tuesday’s council meeting. “Whether somebody is parked there or not that land is being used,” he said,” adding that there are “higher and better uses” for the property.

Petty said the minimum standards’ calculations in Fayetteville seem to be arbitrary, without taking into account where the business is located or what the actual use is that occurs inside the building.

Advice from the city attorney

Before the final vote, city staff offered an amended version of the ordinance in response to City Attorney Kit Williams’ recent cautioning of aldermen about the potential dangers of completely eliminating minimum parking standards.

During the Sept. 15 City Council meeting Williams said if aldermen remove minimum parking requirements, people that visit businesses located near homes could be forced to park in the neighborhoods. He said if a future City Council sides with angry neighbors and reinstates minimum parking standards, the city could be forced to pay for any parking lots that the business needs.

Citing the Arkansas Private Property Protection Act of 2015, Williams said if a city passes a law that decreases the market value of a piece of property by more than 20 percent (by forcing a business to use some of their land for a parking lot) the city must compensate the owner for that loss. He suggested some kind of middle ground to allow the city to test the theory that reducing minimum parking requirements is a good idea.

Staff’s amended version would have allowed city planners to reduce minimum parking requirements for new businesses on a case-by-case basis. Staff said the amended proposal achieved the original intent to relieve applicants of the requirement to provide parking when it is not needed, but also maintained the council’s ability to revisit those requirements should the ordinance not fulfill its original goals.

Not enough support for the amendment

Petty was the first to say he couldn’t support the amendment. He said developers need certainty in designing new projects and that’s part of what the original proposal accomplished. He said he understood William’s concerns, but said he does not agree that completely removing parking standards is too great a risk to take.

Alderwoman Sarah Marsh agreed and said the amendment would have put too much responsibility on planning staff, and could’ve opened the city up to allegations of favoritism.

Aldermen Justin Tennant and John La Tour agreed with both Petty and Marsh.

Alderman Mark Kinion said he wasn’t completely comfortable with the total removal of minimum parking standards, and said the amendment would have offered a mechanism for the council to not take such a major leap that it might regret in the future.

Alderman Alan Long agreed with Kinion, and said parking in neighborhoods is already an issue in some areas around town. He said small businesses that are built in and around neighborhoods could add to the problem if there are no minimum parking requirements. He said the original proposal could always be brought back later if the amended version proved that minimum parking requirements are indeed unnecessary.

Alderwoman Adella Gray agreed with Kinion and Long.

During public comment, local architect Rob Sharp said the old system hinders the creation of vibrant areas around town. He said while places like Evelyn Hills Shopping Center may be convenient for motorists by providing a large amount of parking, it’s areas like the downtown square that people are most proud of, even though parking can be difficult and sometimes costs money.

The amendment failed with only Long, Gray and Kinion voting in favor.

Kinion said while he was worried about the potential longterm effects, he does support the idea of reducing minimum parking requirements so he would be voting in favor of the ordinance.

The original proposal passed 5-2 with Long and Gray voting against. Alderman Martin Schoppmeyer was not present during Tuesday’s meeting.