Changes adopted to the Miami zoning code five years ago are bearing fruit. As reported by the Miami Herald, a 2015 amendment to the code exempted certain lots under 10,000 square feet from the city’s multifamily and commercial-parking requirements, which otherwise force developers to provide more parking than people might actually need. As of early 2020, developers are catching on, with a small apartment renaissance brewing in East Little Havana.
The Miami reforms show what’s possible when cities get out of the way of housing markets. East Little Havana was, until recently, a neighborhood of vacant lots, modest bungalows, and garden apartments, in many cases elevated above a ground-floor parking lot. But with Miami housing costs surging and the region’s central business district only a few miles east, land costs within the neighborhood have been steadily rising.
When city leaders overhauled Miami’s zoning code in 2009, an effort that culminated in the new code known as Miami 21, planners envisioned an East Little Havana of eight- to 12-story mixed-use buildings. Yet a contradictory set of standards in the code made this type of development prohibitively difficult to implement. Under the old standard of 1.5 parking spaces per unit, developers had to set aside 488 square feet of parking per apartment, increasing the amount of space required for a typical two-bedroom unit from 900 feet to 1,388 square feet.
Where would all this extra parking go? In a neighborhood characterized by modest 7,500-square foot lots, the cheapest option—a large surface lot, tucked behind the building—was physically infeasible. That left small developers with two options: build one of Miami’s infamous parking podiums (cellars are unwise in the flood-prone city), or purchase, demolish, and pave neighboring properties. Either would have undermined the walkability that planners envisioned for East Little Havana. The added off-street parking would also raise housing costs. According to one estimate, a surface parking space can drive up the cost of housing by as much as $10,000; when built in a parking garage, the space can add to housing costs by as much as $50,000. These additional costs would make the proposed developments prohibitively expensive.
Under the revised ordinance, developers will enjoy flexibility to set the amount of parking based on what they believe is necessary to lease out or sell the space. With much of the affected area well-served by buses and comfortably within walking and bicycling distance from key business districts like Brickell, dedicated off-street parking has proved to be less needed than politicians and planners had previously assumed.
Miami’s lesson: when it comes to complicated issues like requiring off-street parking, the market is often in a better position than planners to find out what must be built. The old code required that every apartment, regardless of the preferences of potential renters or site feasibility, get allotted 1.5 parking spaces. Under the new code, developers could accommodate changing lifestyles and offer parking-free apartments and condos at lower costs. So far, it seems to be working.
Miami is part of a broader trend of cities reevaluating off-street parking requirements. Just last year, Houston designated a “market-based parking area,” scrapping minimum-parking requirements in East Downtown and Midtown, two rapidly developing neighborhoods. Other cities, like Hartford and Buffalo, have scrapped minimum-parking requirements altogether.
In New York City, as in Miami, many small, residential projects are already exempt from parking requirements. Yet despite the Big Apple’s reputation for car-free living, current zoning often requires off-street parking in residential developments outside of Manhattan, driving up the cost of housing for renters and condo owners, who may not even own cars. New York would do well to follow Miami in easing up on these requirements.
That’s not to say that Miami doesn’t have a long way to go. The 2015 reforms still leave much of the city subject to onerous parking requirements, and apartments remain banned in large swaths of Miami. Assuming another five-year lead time between policy change and new development, now is the time for Miami—and other housing-strapped cities—to push for reform.