‘Closer and higher’: Durham becomes 9th largest city in US to end required parking

City of Durham

Durham ended parking mandates for new development and made it easier to build housing and businesses inside the city limits in a package of zoning reforms that narrowly passed the City Council late Monday night.

“Parking mandates are really ruinous to small businesses and small projects,” said Aaron Lubeck, a local designer-builder who helped write the reforms.

Advocates in favor of eliminating parking minimums say doing so will lower pollution, limit suburban sprawl, and free up land in the city center for housing and shops.

“Parking is not going away,” Lubeck emphasized. “Private businesses will still provide parking, whether it’s restaurants. coffee shops, nonprofits. coworking spaces, whatever and all that’s fine. It’s just parking mandates.”

The Bull City joins Raleigh and dozens of other communities in eliminating parking mandates. According to the Parking Reform Network, Durham is the ninth largest city in the U.S. to do so, joining the likes of Austin, Texas; San Francisco, California; and Minneapolis, Minnesota.

Lubeck said an average parking space requires about 400 square feet, which can ruin opportunities for shared gardens and courtyards in small neighborhoods, which has implications for stormwater runoff.

He referenced a 7,000-square-foot building outside downtown, where a restaurant about the size of Mateo’s could have gone, had it not required 70 parking spaces.

“Which is crazy,” Lubeck said. “I mean, literally, you’d have to knock down six or seven homes around your restaurant just to comply with the code.”

The vote, arriving at nearly midnight, followed over four hours of debate in the last meeting before newly elected officials take office next month. Here is how the council voted:

  • For: Leonardo Williams (mayor-elect); Javiera Caballero (re-elected this year); Mayor Pro Tem Mark-Anthony Middleton (in the middle of his term); and Jillian Johnson (leaving office after eight years).

  • Against: Mayor Elaine O’Neal (leaving office after two years); DeDreana Freeman (in the middle of her term); and Monique Holsey-Hyman (not re-elected).

Middleton said the zoning reforms will help the city reduce suburban sprawl by making it easier to place housing and small shops on land closer to the city center.

“We have to make the choice what our city’s going to look like,” Middleton said. “We’re going to get closer and higher. ... That’s what all the great metropolises around our country look like.”

The meeting was tense and chaotic at times, with speakers cynical that council members had already made up their minds and that the opposing camps were too far apart.

“I’m so glad I’m leaving y’all tonight,” O’Neal concluded.

What does SCAD change?

Raleigh-based developer Jim Anthony submitted a lengthy rewrite of the code called SCAD — short for Simplifying Codes for Affordable Development — in May 2022 on behalf of a team of people working in local real estate.

It had 60 pages of code amendments and was vehemently opposed by homeowners in the InterNeighborhood Council of Durham (INC).

Mimi Kessler, a member of INC, blasted the changes Monday night as “unrealistic and extreme.”

Here’s what’s in SCAD, which takes effect in the city limits Jan. 1:

  • Eliminates minimum parking requirements.

  • Establishes minimum residential densities of five to eight units per acre in commercial and office zones and eliminates maximum residential densities there.

  • Allows places of worship to build accessory dwelling units for anyone, not just their staff, and places some limits on their location and level of review.

  • Requires projects with over 100 units to have at least 5,000 square feet of civic or commercial space, to enact a “15-minute-city.”

  • Allows planned residential developments that incorporate commercial or office uses to build the components in any order.

More changes encourage infill, the process of developing vacant or under-used parcels in urban areas:

  • Eliminates site plan review when there are 10 or fewer townhomes and 20 or fewer ADUS.

  • Reduces the buffers required around some residential projects.

  • Permits a new housing type, the “detached rowhouse,” a hybrid between a townhome and single-family house.

  • Allows ADUs to be built closer to the road and increases the maximize size of an ADU from 800 square feet to 1,000 square feet on single-story units and 1,200 square feet on multiple stories.

  • Allows any lot with a structure built prior to 1950 be subdivided into small lots. Planning staff say this will help save old homes from demolition.

  • Changes many other limitations around yards, driveways, garages and lot size for infill development. There is special emphasis on the requirements restricting corner and flag-shaped lots.

What’s not in SCAD

The City Council only voted on the items planning staff recommended.

They rejected the rest but will consider additional changes over the next two years as the city’s Unified Development Ordinance is rewritten (a process already underway):

Here’s what was eliminated before the vote:

  • A new affordable housing incentive program, which would have exempted smaller projects from reviews if 25% of the units were affordable for 15 years.

  • Letting housing be built in industrial zoning, where it isn’t allowed today.

  • Allowing an ADU to be built first, before a primary structure.

  • Some other tweaks that the planning department was uncertain about.