As an office based in Atlanta, we’ve often daydreamed about what we could build, if only we weren’t so preoccupied with parking requirements. Recently, work in New Orleans gave us the opportunity, to reflect on the nature of parking in Atlanta. The New Orleans Jazz Market is the conversion of an historic 11,000 SF urban market into a purpose-built Jazz performance hall. Originally built in 1849 as a market, the building went through a major renovation at the turn of the last century. It was eventually sold to private owners after World War II, who proceeded to overhaul the facades in a gauche 1960s style. In 2013, when we were brought on to convert the building. It stood as an empty, beaten down, blighted building, most recently serving as a retail store. The newly renovated building now serves as a cultural anchor for the neighborhood.
The Jazz Market serves as a great backdrop to highlight the paradigm of parking vs. placemaking. The zoning ordinance in New Orleans is different from the zoning ordinance in Atlanta in a key aspect. When you have an existing building in New Orleans, you are automatically grandfathered in for the amount of parking that the existing use requires. This rule is unaffected by the number of existing parking spaces. If you choose to renovate, and you change the use of the building, you are only required to provide additional parking equal to the net requirement between the old use and the new. For example: an existing building with 5 off-street parking spaces changes to a new use that would require 60 off-street parking spaces. The old use required 50 parking spaces, but you are grandfathered in with the 5 spaces you are already providing. The only new parking you are required to provide is 10 new spaces, equal to the net change between the new use and the old. In Atlanta, a similar case would require you to provide 55 new parking spaces. You might have to tear down half-the building or park on an adjacent site.
In the case of the Jazz Market, the existing retail use would have required 43 parking spaces, but we were able to document zero parking spaces as the grandfathered condition. The new performance hall use measures parking requirements based only on the square footage of the seating area. We carefully calibrated our seating area to necessitate exactly 43 parking spaces. Based on New Orleans zoning, we only had to provide the net difference in parking, plus our grandfathered number of spaces. This allowed us to provide zero parking spaces. The historic building fills the entire site.
Atlanta zoning requirements would have meant tearing down half the building or purchasing extra land to tear down another building, and building a new surface parking lot of approximately 70,000SF. Just imagine the negative effect a parking lot of that size would have on the fabric of an historic neighborhood. Meanwhile, in Atlanta, the project would be hit with delays as we went through a lengthy variance process to permit off-site parking. The Jazz Market had a tight budget, and a tight timeline. The added costs and delays would have summarily killed the project.
You may wonder how we can fill a 350 seat music venue without providing any off-street parking. The orchestra has partnered with the New Orleans Redevelopment Authority to provide valet parking for limited patrons across the street at their office building. There was no governmental, legal, zoning requirement forcing the orchestra to do this, instead they chose to share parking with a neighbor because it made economic sense. In addition to the limited valet parking, New Orleans has a long running cultural acceptance and expectation of using on street parking. Conversely the community lacks an expectation of off-street parking to be provided at every destination. The city lines both sides of nearly every street in town with on street parking. The amount of parking capacity generated by on-street parking is astounding.
Our Atlanta-based business has been successful, because we have learned to live with the hard-fast rule that: you can only build what you can park. Density in this city is determined by the number of parking spaces you can fit on a parcel. This logic is proven by a couple of exceptions, the SPI districts of Downtown and Midtown. We specialize in solving out redevelopment, building, site, and parking dilemmas to save old buildings. People always ask why so many buildings get torn down in Atlanta. Parking is a significant factor. Often, it is impossible to adequately park old buildings in a zoning compliant fashion. If the site can’t fit enough parking, then the building may be fully or partially demolished to comply. Even if the site has room for structured parking, the density of older one and two-story buildings usually can’t support the financial burden of a building a structured lot, so the building may still be demolished.
Most zoning ordinances are well intended, but often, they have poor outcomes for making great places. Off-street parking comes at a significant cost to both the owner of the property, and the community at large. We have to recognize these parking costs are a major roadblock, particularly for historic communities with existing building stock that has limited capacity to provide parking. Truly, these neighborhoods have less need to provide parking in the first place. While there may always be some demand for parking, right-sizing the parking capacity in both on-street and off-street locations is critical to making and maintaining happy, healthy, and walkable communities.