Metropolis

How Miami Decided Parking Is More Important Than Housing

A view of Miami from above.
Want less gridlock? Don’t add more parking. Photo by felixmizioznikov./iStock/Getty Images Plus.

“Bizarre.” “Baffling.” “Shameful.” “Garbage.” Those were some of the words members of Miami’s planning board recently used to describe a new law that has reinstated the city’s parking requirements.

Strong language for an amendment to the zoning code? Yes—unless you realize how hard a reform-minded group of architects, planners and developers have tried to encourage walkable urban development in the city. In 2015, Miami decided to exempt developers of small buildings from onerous parking mandates. Townhouses and small apartment buildings cropped up on vacant lots across the city. A separate provision allows parking-free development downtown, and builders there have found buyers are happy to invest in buildings without parking as well. The vision that was coming in to focus, one planner told me, was “less Houston, more Paris.”

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Local lawmakers have picked the Houston route. In March, the city commission voted to end Miami’s experiment in old-school urban development, and they did so in peculiar fashion: There was no study, no official rationale, and no sponsor who wanted to take credit. After the planning board’s 9-2 advisory vote to maintain the status quo, commissioners disregarded their advice in favor of the mystery bill. “No one at City Hall will own up to it,” the Miami Herald wrote in February.

Nevertheless, the five-member city commission voted 4-1 to require that buildings include parking again. “There’s no room to park in the streets,” said Commissioner Joe Carollo. “What we can’t have is this free-for-all we’re having right now.”

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The decision will likely mark the end of Miami’s boomlet of “missing middle” housing—the small buildings on small lots by small developers that have begun to densify and enliven the city’s core neighborhoods—and provide a cheaper alternative to most new construction. “The vast majority of these small-scale projects will stop,” said Andrew Frey, the developer who lobbied for the original ordinance in 2015.

Back then, Frey was trying to figure out why development in Miami seemed divided between either residential towers or suburban sprawl. “I was thinking about neighborhoods I liked, and wondering why we didn’t have more of those neighborhoods. [Boston’s] Back Bay. Little Havana. [New York City’s] Greenwich Village. Requiring parking seemed to be the big obstacle.”

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Miami Mayor Francis Suarez, then a city commissioner, pushed for a parking exemption for buildings under 10,000 square feet. Frey’s firm Tecela built a row of four townhouses, with 16 units and zero parking spaces. Other builders got involved—slowly. “It wasn’t like there were a bunch of small developers waiting around,” he noted.

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By this February, however, when the ordinance appeared in the city’s crosshairs, an ecosystem of architects, lawyers, contractors, and developers had begun to adopt the low-cost style of development made possible by relaxed parking rules. One after another they came to testify before the city’s planning board. “I feel like we’re developing around parking and not developing around housing,” said Natalie Duran, who has built 10 small projects under the parking exemption. “Parking is a luxury, and housing isn’t.”

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The architect Ivo Fernandez, Jr. said he was designing a project with 17 units on a 5,000 square foot lot. “If you remove the code, that lot will only accommodate six units with parking,” he said. “I can tell you that none of our tenants or clients are asking for more parking,” said the contractor Andrew Lenehan. “They’re asking for more efficient buildings close to the urban core where they work, dine, and go to school.”

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It had taken Frey four years to turn his conversations with the Miami planning department into code reform. When the mystery law came up for a reading this spring, the city commission took just 10 minutes to vote to undo that policy. Each new Miami apartment will once again be required to come with 1.5 parking stalls, rounded up, whether residents want them or not. The cost of building those spaces, spread across fewer units, will wind up raising rents—if the law doesn’t kill off projects altogether. As in many U.S. cities, housing prices have risen rapidly, and the county declared a “housing emergency” in April.

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“We’ve got to protect our neighborhoods, our single-family houses,” Commissioner Manolo Reyes told me, of the city’s parking problem. “You don’t need a study. Go look around!” Reyes’ view is that the developers are crying wolf. “Developers are going to keep developing,” he said. For now, he maintained, parking was a necessity in Miami, and the only way to permit parking-free development would be for the county to develop a comprehensive mass transit system—an idea he supports. “I’m very much for the environment, but I’m pragmatic.”

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To understand how surreal the city’s about-face feels to Miami’s architects, contractors, planners, and developers, it helps to understand the context. Miami has been transformed in the past two decades by a burst of construction that has produced a whole new skyline. The terminus station of the country’s first new private passenger rail service in a century opened downtown in 2018, with 17 trains a day heading north to Palm Beach and Fort Lauderdale.

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In 2010, Miami became the first large U.S. city to adopt a form-based zoning code—essentially, replacing zoning’s old concern with separation of uses with a focus on regulating aesthetics and improving urban design. The idea was to streamline approvals for builders who planned urban, pedestrian-friendly projects. Parking rules were relaxed near transit. In November, a commission of experts charged with reviewing the code submitted a 160-page report. Among its recommendations to City Hall: require less parking.

That suggestion should have been welcome news to Miamians worried about traffic and parking, argued Juan Mullerat, a planner who served on the task force. “If you increase parking, you reduce the ability to density, which means that small-scale developers can’t do infill, which means no incentives to build around train stations in the urban core, which means development now will be in the outskirts, which means people will drive more and there will be more cars.”

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That idea is backed up by a litany of research on parking at residential buildings, which turns out to be the No. 1 predictor of its residents’ car ownership and use—more important than access to transit, income, density, or any other attribute. The more parking you provide at home, the more people will drive, and the more parking you’ll need everywhere else.

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Needless to say, all that driving is also the nation’s No. 1 contributor of greenhouse gas emissions, which are melting the polar ice caps, elevating sea levels that will soon threaten Miami’s very existence.

“Miami is certainly bucking the trend on this issue,” said Tony Jordan of the Parking Reform Network, which tracks the scores of jurisdictions that have abandoned parking requirements. “The Miami City Commission doesn’t know how much car parking a new building will need.”

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Could Miami have decided to require thousands more parking spaces simply on the basis of two commissioners complaining about people parking in front of their houses? Or because Commissioner Joe Carollo is in an ongoing feud with a missing-middle developer in Little Havana named Bill Fuller?

Either one of those explanations would be firmly in line with the city’s political culture, several people I spoke to suggested. (Neither Carollo’s office nor Fuller’s responded to a request for comment.)

But there’s one more reason Miami’s City Commission might want to make zoning more complicated: Under the new system, any builder seeking to construct less parking must come before the city commission and plead their case. That gives the city commission new power, and creates an incentive for developers to make the right donations to grease the wheels of zoning exemptions.

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In Miami, like in many cities, donations from real estate developers are a core element of political fundraising. Bigger developers who want exemptions may find it’s worthwhile to come and kiss the ring; parking is expensive, after all.

But for the smaller players whose projects filled in vacant lots in the city’s core neighborhoods, the risk of waiting a year just to have an idea turned down may simply be too great. “We can’t enter into contracts without knowing what can actually go there,” said one developer, who asked not to be quoted about the ordinance because he feared retribution from the City Commission. “We’ll have to change our focus on where we look to develop.”

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