Authored by Tracy Lautenschlager
Empty storefronts and unused commercial buildings … Do you ever wonder as you drive by why some enterprising business owner doesn’t take advantage of these spaces, these little gems, that must be available at great prices? Or, if you are in the greenfield development business, can you recall how many times the neighbors opposing your development have cried out that your shopping center was just not needed when so many vacant storefronts were available? Why do those spaces sit empty? One big reason is parking.
Older developed sites are often “legally nonconforming” with regard to parking. “Legally nonconforming” is a zoning term that applies to sites that met code at the time of construction but no longer conform to the current code because the code has been amended. Legal nonconformity can occur because of changed regulations that, for example, reduce maximum height or increase setbacks, but it most often occurs because required parking ratios are increased. A site with a small vacant commercial building could be a great little reuse project, a classic example of urban redevelopment, clearing up a neighborhood blight, or it could sit idle because of one single issue: parking. Many city parking codes require compliance with current parking ratios for a new use or even re-establishment of the prior use after the site has been vacant for 6 months or a year. As you can imagine, the existing parcel can not accommodate both the square footage of the existing building and the parking to serve that building at current parking rates.
What’s a redeveloper to do? Construction of structured parking is prohibitively expensive and often objectionable to the neighbors So, in most cities, the only option is to seek a parking variance or reduction, a process that can cost a lot of time and money. Worse, it often triggers a public hearing process and all of the associated risk.
Is there a solution? The City of Fort Lauderdale has adopted amendments to its parking code to declare legally nonconforming parking to be “legal” in certain areas of the city in need of redevelopment. How does this help? A redeveloper would need to increase parking only if the project was adding square footage, and then, only the additional parking at the current rate required by the new square footage. It might help; if nothing else, it might position a small redevelopment project to be more attractive to cautious lenders and investors. Fort Lauderdale has also studied reducing its parking requirements for restaurants and certain other uses. The regulations are convoluted, not exactly a red-carpet for small business redevelopment, but they do show some attempt to remove regulatory barriers to redevelopment, new small business start-ups and job creation. Kudos to Fort Lauderdale for trying to be “open for business!”