For small businesses to survive outdoors, parking laws must change

Nearly every zoning code across the country requires property owners to devote some of their land to parking

Small businesses can’t catch a break. While restrictions are easing across America, many states and localities are requiring that shop and restaurant owners move the bulk of their operations outdoors, sending businesses scrambling to utilize every square foot of available space for patio seating and outdoor displays.

Under this new arrangement, small businesses are up against rain, wind, heat ... and outdated zoning restrictions, particularly related to parking.


Nearly every zoning code across the country requires property owners to devote some of their land to parking. Why these arbitrary requirements emerged in the first place is a mystery, but parking theorist Donald Shoup has hypothesized that cities probably just repeated the mistakes of others.

Today, these requirements are so embedded in local law that even during a pandemic, land set aside for parking can't be used for any other purpose. That puts businesses that need more square footage for outdoor seating or tables of products in a quandary. They can't re-open safely without violating the zoning code. And they can't satisfy the zoning code without putting patrons and employees at risk.

The solution is to temporarily suspend all minimum parking requirements. Loosely organized calls for governors from Washington State to Massachusetts to suspend parking requirements during COVID-19 have surfaced on social media. So far, only one state – Connecticut – has suspended these requirements statewide, through a gubernatorial order issued earlier this week.

It’s not clear if other states will follow Connecticut’s lead. That’s a shame, considering the destructive power of minimum parking requirements, even in normal times. First, they drive up real estate prices and rents. When a housing developer is forced to build a parking structure, it costs about $60,000 per space — and those costs are passed on to buyers and tenants.


Similarly, minimum parking requirements degrade street life. There's no such thing as a pleasant stroll through a parking lot. In city after city, charming historic buildings have been demolished to satisfy parking mandates. Some of our most severely depressed post-industrial cities have the largest expanses of surface parking lots. As I've written before, new post-COVID changes have a chance to make our city life more vibrant.

Perhaps worst of all, minimum parking requirements actually create traffic. Studies have shown that there is a causal connection between the amount of parking a city provides and the percentage of people who get around by car. If you make it easy for people to drive (and park), they will — and increase asthma-causing pollution along the way.

Even in cities well-served by public transit, including New York, zoning requires parking nearly everywhere. For example, Boston says you need up to two parking spaces for each apartment and up to 1 and a half spaces for every 1,000 square feet of retail space.


Sprawling, car-centric Houston has created the worst of all worlds. It refuses to adopt a zoning code, yet it mandates parking for new construction. Among other absurd requirements, the city requires 6 and a half parking spaces per 1,000 square feet of waiting area at a transportation terminal.

If the average parking space is 180 square feet, the garage would be about 20 percent larger than the terminal itself. Talk about discouraging mass transportation.

Houston may never change. But some cities are already starting to.

In Hartford, where I chair the planning and zoning commission, we eliminated minimum parking requirements for all uses several years ago. The transformations we expect to see from this change will take years to unfold, but already we have had hundreds of apartments and some commercial space built without any parking.

In most of Hartford, stand-alone surface parking lots are also banned. Where they are allowed, they are subject to full public hearings – the same treatment given to sewage treatment utilities.

As small businesses expand outdoor operations for the long haul, reinventing parking lots and even street parking will show people what space currently dedicated to cars can become. And our cities – which are now at times eerily quiet – will become the lively, vibrant places they always should have been.

Sara Bronin is law professor specializing in land use law and the chair of the planning and zoning commission for the city of Hartford, Connecticut.