This post was originally published at The Cost of Living Project

Nearly 30 percent of downtown is covered in parking spots. Here’s why that’s a problem—and what Atlanta can do about it.

97 Estoria just wanted to keep its patio. During the pandemic, the beloved Cabbagetown bar had expanded its outdoor options beyond the existing raised terrace and into the parking lot. The extra seating proved popular, and when in-person dining roared back, 97 Estoria decided to keep it. 

Per Atlanta city code, however, that wasn’t going to be so easy. In April 2022, the city cited the bar for failing to meet municipal minimum parking requirements. 97 Estoria still had more than a dozen spots available but, because the bigger patio had expanded the business’s square footage, it was now required to provide 46. “That would never have been possible to accomplish,” says Katherine Paist, the bar’s general manager. In a compact, BeltLine-adjacent neighborhood where land is at a premium, how could the restaurant have squeezed in so much extra parking?

97 Estoria managed to secure a variance—a zoning exception that allowed it to keep the patio without adding parking. But the dustup highlighted Atlanta’s decades-long obsession with car infrastructure, and the ways that auto-friendly policies inhibit the possibility of a denser, more pedestrian-friendly city. 

Here’s why Atlanta has so much parking—and what it’s costing us. 

How much parking does Atlanta have?

A whole lot—actually, many whole lots. One study, focusing just on Midtown and downtown, counted nearly 155,000 spots, almost all off-street. Downtown Atlanta, in particular, has a staggering number of spots to stash a car: The Parking Reform Network recently found that over 25 percent of the city center is blanketed in parking. In comparison, only 0.4 percent of Manhattan—the densest urban district in the country—is devoted to parking; the national average is 16 percent.

All that asphalt adds up. A single spot requires about 300 square feet of space, meaning that Midtown and downtown together boast 46 million square feet of parking: That’s over a thousand acres, about the size of three Epcot parks side by side. Much of it often sits empty: The same 2016 study found that pay-to-park lots in downtown Atlanta had an average occupancy of 59 percent. (Experts say 85 percent is ideal.) On evenings and weekdays, the vast stretches of vacant lots give you an idea of just how much of Atlanta’s urban core we’ve devoted to cars.

Why so much?

One significant culprit: parking minimums. These zoning policies, which require builders to include a minimum number of off-street parking spots with every new commercial and residential property, were introduced in Atlanta in 1954. Car use was on the rise, as was white flight, with middle-class white families flocking to the suburbs and driving back to city jobs in their cars. Eager to accommodate the new commuters, Atlanta built huge multilane highways and plentiful parking across the inner city. Dense, walkable urban neighborhoods—most of them predominantly Black—were ripped apart to make room. 

Parking minimums were established to ensure that the rapidly growing number of drivers had places to leave their cars while working and shopping. But the policies demanded far more parking than was necessary, explains Matthew Garbett, cofounder of the urbanism nonprofit ThreadATL. “They created numbers for the amount of parking they thought would be necessary for Black Friday—the Friday after Thanksgiving,” says Garbett. “You basically have to have enough parking for the absolute busiest day of the year.” 

Atlanta zoning requires residential developers to include between 0.5 and 2.2 parking spots per housing unit, depending on the type and size of the home. Commercial parking minimums are even more onerous, though they vary by type of business: Restaurants, for instance, must include one spot for every 100 square feet of floor. Large outdoor patios require even more parking—as 97 Estoria learned.

Are there parking minimums everywhere?

Some parts of the city are exempt. Over the last few decades, the city has removed most minimums in Midtown and near MARTA stations. Properties built before 1965 have also been excused. In February, the City Council also removed parking minimums near the Beltline—more on that below.

Interestingly, downtown has never had minimums: The parking sprawl there is due more to the high value of land. The bonanza over car infrastructure in the 60s created an explosion of parking lots at the same time that downtown was rezoned for towering buildings. That’s encouraged parking lot owners—whose property-tax bills are relatively small—to sit back and collect passive revenue through parking fees while they wait for a multimillion-dollar offer from a skyscraper developer. “It’s basically land-holding with minimal cost,” Garbett says. 

So it’s pretty easy to find a parking spot in Atlanta. What are the downsides?

For one, it drives up housing costs. Parking garages can cost developers up to $50,000 per spot, which gets passed on to tenants in the form of higher rents: A 2016 study found parking minimums increase rents across the country by an average of 17 percent. Plus, the more land is used for parking, the less is available to build housing, which reduces the supply of available homes and thereby helps to drive up prices. 

Parking minimums also constrict small businesses. “A Kroger is more than happy to build as many parking spots as they want,” says Garbett. “But we’re talking about this impacting someone in the Pittsburgh neighborhood who wants to open, say, a cafe.” The zoning follows the business, not the building—so if a hardware store with eight parking spots closes, you can’t open a restaurant without adding more. To accommodate parking requirements, business owners will sometimes purchase the next-door building just to tear it down for parking, transforming a once-dense street into what urbanists often call a “bad smile.” 

The list goes on. Dark-colored asphalt surfaces absorb the sun’s heat, creating urban heat islands that raise the temperature of the surrounding area: One study, comparing temperatures at noon on a summer day, found that a parking lot was 59 degrees hotter than a grassy field nearby. Other studies have found that the urban heat island effect—which will only worsen as the globe warms—is especially pronounced in communities of color, and particularly Black neighborhoods, where summer temps run hotter, on average, than in white neighborhoods. 

Parking also costs the city literal money in lost revenue, because parking is so cheap and abundant. “Don’t get me wrong, I take advantage of free parking when I take my family to Atlanta United games at Mercedes-Benz Stadium,” says Atlanta City Councilman Jason Dozier, who’s been a vocal advocate for parking reform. “But there’s no reason why parking should be free on the weekends or holidays. That’s when the streets are the busiest!” In downtown and Midtown, where private lot ownership is the highest, low taxes and fees encourage both cheap rates and an excessive number of parking lots.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, abundant parking means abundant drivers: Study after study has found that, when parking is cheap and easy to find, more people climb in their cars, even for short trips. That may be convenient for suburban drivers running errands at Costco and Home Depot, but inside the urban core, it means streets that were once lined with storefronts—a good smile, you might say—are now riddled with vacant swaths of concrete and high-traffic multilane roads. All that infrastructure makes it more dangerous and difficult for pedestrians, cyclists, and transit riders to navigate the city. 

What’s the city doing about all this parking?

In February, Dozier led a successful bid to remove parking minimums around the BeltLine, along with a ban on new gas stations and drive-throughs in the area. “If developers aren’t being forced to build that giant parking deck, they can build the coffee shop instead,” Dozier says. Removing parking minimums, he notes, doesn’t restrict parking—it lets developers make market-based decisions on how much to include: “The city should step out of that equation.” 

That said, parking maximums are another way to reduce excess parking. Downtown and Midtown both have some caps on how much parking developers can include in their projects, as well as in areas near MARTA stations. Atlanta City Council lowered these caps further in 2022, though existing lots are grandfathered in—one reason downtown is still one-quarter parking.

Advocates for a less car-dependent Atlanta have other ideas, too: higher taxes and fees on parking lots, for example, or reducing the number of free parking days. The city could unbundle residential parking, so renters only lease a parking spot if they need one. This lowers the cost of rent and incentivizes transit options beyond cars in more walkable neighborhoods. We could also ban new surface parking lots, consolidating parking options in underground lots of multistory decks. And investing in alternatives to cars, from building safe bike lanes to adding more public transit options, will reduce demand for parking across the city. 

Atlantans, accustomed to plentiful parking, often express anxiety about having less of it. Dozier says he reminds them that the city will never get rid of parking entirely: Even without minimums, developers will still build spots for cars. “But my goal as a councilperson is to get people thinking about how we design our communities to be a more intentional place,” he says. 

Over in Cabbagetown, 97 Estoria’s expanded outdoor patio is as popular as ever. “It’s a great mix of tourists, neighbors, regulars, and BeltLiners,” Paist says. “I’m not even biased—we have one of the best patios in Atlanta.” •

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