Driving Us Crazy: Parking Leads to Headaches in Dallas' Biggest Dining Neighborhoods
Amy Wallace Cowan, co-owner of Bishop Arts-based Oddfellows, stands in a line of valet cars near her restaurants on West 7th Street.
It's 7:30 p.m. on a Thursday night, and Bishop Arts District is bustling. The smell of smoke and meat floats from Lockhart Smokehouse into the street as 20-somethings sip old fashioneds at Parker Barrows and families stroll from shop to shop. You can feel the energy of the neighborhood as people wander from one block to the next, shopping bags in hand, taking selfies in front of colorful murals and stepping over rose petals sprinkled in front of Dirt Flowers' front door.
The hustle and bustle on the sidewalks make what's happening in the street all the more obvious. At the corner of Bishop and 7th streets, in front of Hattie's restaurant, seven cars sit parked on 7th, engines running, as a valets working for Platinum Parking wander casually between cars. On Bishop, a line of cars has formed, turn signals blinking, drivers tapping their steering wheels impatiently while they wait to turn onto 7th to valet their cars. After only five minutes, traffic on Bishop has backed up a full block to Davis, and now hardly anyone can move at all. Cars on Davis can't get through the intersection at Bishop, and the scene feels harried and stressful. Drivers look confused and frustrated. Honking soon follows, and pedestrians stop strolling to watch the unfolding bedlam in the street. It's only Thursday night — not even a busy evening by Bishop Arts standards — and things are getting messy.
In fact, things in this corner of North Oak Cliff have been messy for years, neighbors and business owners say, and they're not convinced that recently proposed changes to neighborhood parking will fix the problem.
"We've had this parking situation since my daughter was born," says Amy Wallace Cowan, a co-owner of Oddfellows on 7th Street, just down the block from the congested Bishop intersection. Cowan says she's tired of waiting for developers to be the ones who fix the problem. "She's in fourth grade now. That's a lot of time to live with empty promises and blight."
Like other corners of Dallas that have become de facto entertainment districts filled with bars, restaurants, stores and the customers who love them, Bishop Arts is growing, but its infrastructure is not.
"Within the past two months it went from slow change to batshit crazy," says Katherine Clapner, owner of Dude, Sweet Chocolate, which has locations in Bishop Arts, Lower Greenville, Plano and Fort Worth.
Clapner's chocolate shop, she says, is not the kind of place that people will use valet to visit.
"They're not gonna pay ... valet to buy chocolate," she says. Her Fort Worth shop has lost several regular customers since the neighborhood installed a valet stand in front of her store, she says, and she's worried she may start losing customers in Bishop Arts, too.
A recent traffic study conducted by Walker Parking Consultants found that on an average Friday — from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. — most vehicles parked on-street were only parked for an hour or less. The study, presented to the Oak Cliff Gateway Tax Increment Financing District at a Sept. 26 meeting, also determined that the valet stand in front of Hattie's creates a traffic hazard.
Cowan held an informal study of her own in August, when she created a survey about the parking and valet situation in Bishop Arts. Nearly 700 people responded to the question, "What is your level of support of valet in Bishop Arts District?" More than 50 percent said valet should only be allowed to use private lots. More than a third of respondents said all valet in the neighborhood should be removed. Cowan and Clapner both say they never meant to become so vocal about valet — they know some customers use it, they say — but the situation has become too tenuous to ignore.
"The problem in Bishop Arts, certainly valet is the majority of it, but there are some other parking issues," says Scott Griggs, the Dallas City Council member representing District 3, which includes West Dallas and Oak Cliff.
Griggs has been working with Dallas parking services unit to create a proposal to make parking changes in the district, which would include creating some short-term parking spaces and implementing zone valet — also known as communal valet — that would be used for the entire district. The proposal, they hope, will end the congestion caused by people waiting to valet.
But neighbors and businesses aren't just angry about the traffic backup caused by the valet stand. They're angry because they see private valet companies blocking off what would otherwise be free, public right-of-way parking.
"How is the city taking away public parking spaces for private valet?" Clapner asks.
She's not the only Dallasite asking that question.
A valet stand in Bishop Arts on a busy Thursday night.
In any social media conversation about Dallas parking, the vitriol inevitably turns in one particular direction, as these comments did in a recent thread on Facebook.
"Valet is a for-profit business and they are using public spaces for profit."
"The valet folks should not have all the close, free parking spots."
"Since the spots the valet is taking are free public spots to begin with, what happens if we just move the cones and park there anyway?"
Dallas has a bigger problem than a lack of parking spots — there's a lack of understanding about how the city's parking regulations work, and that leads to a lot of taxpayer rage.
Pamè La Ashford, program manager with the Dallas Police Department's parking services and enforcement unit, chooses her words carefully when explaining Dallas' valet ordinance, which "has been in place for decades," she says.
"The way that the valet ordinance is written is that if a business — it's not the valet company — a business has to hire a valet company for the valet operation, and if they don't have off-street locations available to accept and retrieve the cars, they can utilize public right-of-way," Ashford says. "If the public right-of-way is going to be used, there is an application. Then the business — not the valet company — is allowed to block off spots."
What's a public right-of-way space? It's those prime on-street parking spaces right in front of a business, the ones people get all riled up about when valet cones block them off.
In essence, if a restaurant does not have adequate off-street parking — which is often the case in Dallas — a business can apply to the city to use public right-of-way spots as valet maneuvering. If approved, those businesses then pay for the right to use the public right-of-way for valet pick-up and drop-off. If the business is outside of the central business district (downtown), the first two spaces are $350 and any additional space after that is $1,000, Ashford says, noting that if that business is in the central business district, the first six spaces are $250 and every space after is $1,000.
"They're not paying for valet parking space," Ashford says. "They're paying to reserve the use of the public right-of-way so they get a space for maneuvering pick-up, drop-off."
Valeted cars must be moved to an off-street lot, and valet companies that use the public right-of-way only have five minutes to keep vehicles in the maneuvering zone, after which cars either need to be moved to off-street parking or handed over to the vehicle's owner.
But, as evidenced by the situation in Bishop Arts, it doesn't always work that way.
On Dec. 22, 2015, after issuing two prior notices of violation to Anthony Alvarez, the owner of Hattie's, parking services issued a criminal citation to Alvarez after the department witnessed cars left in the maneuvering zone for longer than five minutes — "a result of not having enough leads and runners to manage the flow of service," Ashford says. Less than a month later, on Jan. 16, parking services issued another notice of violation to the valet company "for consuming more of the public right-of-way than allowed, as a result of accepting vehicles left in the flow of traffic by patrons not willing to wait in their vehicle until they reached the maneuvering zone," Ashford says.
Since the last notice of violation in January, Alvarez has "made strides to make sure his current on-street valet activity has been in compliance," Ashford says. Even still, on one evening last weekend, six cars were left idling in the street after drivers handed their keys over to the valet service.
Under the proposal to alter Bishop Arts parking, the valet stand at Hattie's will be moved onto Bishop Street itself, where multiple parking spots in front of retail stores will be turned into valet maneuvering zones. Some currently available parking spots nearby will become half-hour, two- and four-hour parking zones, two new bike racks will be installed at each end of the district and new motorcycle parking spaces will be added. The new valet stands — which will include a third maneuvering location at Madison and 7th — will be communal valet, meaning the service is available to anyone visiting the neighborhood, regardless of which business they plan to patronize. The latest draft of the plan was released last week. Ashford says she'll file work orders to begin implementing the new parking plan as soon as Griggs signs off on it. Griggs says he needs more input from the neighborhood. He posted the new plan on Facebook last week, and some business owners don't seem convinced it will help.
Clapner and other business owners aren't happy to see more valet maneuvering zones, and they doubt moving them onto an even busier street will help the problem.
"When in doubt, make the same mistake two more times," Clapner says.
Katherine Clapner, owner of Dude, Sweet Chocolate, finds that the lack of non-valet public parking is hurting her business.
It's 6:30 p.m. on a Friday night, and Clapner is driving around in circles near Dude, Sweet Chocolate's Lower Greenville Avenue location. Frustrated, she posts on Facebook. "Just spent 30 minutes trying to find a spot in front of my own store," she laments.
Parking has long been an issue on Lower Greenville, where bars, restaurants and retail stores crowd into a few city blocks. In order to keep cars off residential streets nearby, for several blocks around the popular parts of Lower Greenville, parking in front of homes and apartments is resident-only. There is little parking in the public right-of-way, and small parking lots behind buildings are shared by multiple businesses. Behind Clapner's shop is a lot with 16 spaces that, according to posted signs, are shared by Blind Butcher, Village Baking Co., Greenville Avenue Pizza Co., Clapner's store, Greg Blomberg Photography, the Girls' Room and Freexpirit. When spaces do free up in that lot, they don't stay free for long.
With parking at such a premium in the neighborhood, many restaurants had set up valet directly in front of their businesses. This, when coupled with extensive construction on Greenville, was causing a traffic catastrophe. To help, in March the city removed some valet maneuvering zones and converted the district to communal valet, with two valet stands at opposite ends of the district. Now, anyone who visits this part of Lower Greenville — even without a specific business in mind — can valet their car for free.
Ashford says some businesses were angry to lose the valet stands set up directly in front of their stores, even though the stands were moved only a few blocks away.
"I have a lot of businesses that are not happy with that," she says.
Brooks Anderson, co-owner of Rapscallion in Lower Greenville and Boulevardier in Bishop Arts, is perfectly happy with the new arrangement, which places one of the communal valet stands directly in front of his restaurant. Anderson has a different outlook on Greenville's parking situation than many of the district's visitors.
"There's no issues whatsoever," he says. "The only issues that we’ve really had were recently when Greenville went from a two-way street to a one-way street in the last phase of construction, and that moved our valet."
When construction briefly moved the valet stand in front of Rapscallion, Anderson said sales dropped by half on weekdays. "Business just petered out," he says.
Now that it's back, Anderson says parking's a breeze. In fact, he never has a problem parking regardless of where he goes in Dallas, he says. He just uses valet.
"If there’s a valet stand in front of where I’m going, I actually like it," he says. "It’s just easier to pay the three or five bucks."
There are some clear upsides to valet. When a valet company has control of a lot, they're able to park far more cars – sometimes double or even triple the number of cars that would fit in the lot if customers self-parked. Valet is helpful for the elderly and disabled, who often benefit from being dropped off directly in front of a business.
On Friday night, 15 minutes spent driving around the neighborhood in search of a parking spot turned up nothing. Finally, I pulled up to the maneuvering zone in front of Rapscallion and handed over my keys to a valet attendant for the first time. I expected him to hand me a ticket to use when retrieving my car; instead, he asked for my phone number and texted me my ticket number. After wandering Greenville for an hour, I texted the valet about 5 minutes before I was ready to leave. The company texted me when my car was ready, I slipped the driver a $3 tip and was on my way. Admittedly, it was incredibly convenient – which can be another upside to valet. The next night, I used free valet behind The Porch in Knox-Henderson to similar results. The only inconvenience I experienced on either night? When the valet in front of Rapscallion changed the radio station in my car. Hardly comparable to spending a chunk of the night searching for parking.
And of course, there's also the Dallas factor. This is a city where valet is as ingrained in local culture as the Reunion Tower is ingrained into the city skyline. People who spend money in this city are used to having valet, and those people have no plans to spend 15 minutes driving around, looking for a parking spot.
"If there isn’t valet on Lower Greenville, we’ll just go out of business," Anderson says. "Without valet, Lower Greenville will turn back into what it was, which was a shithole."
Traffic in Lower Greenville on a weekend night.
The real root of parking problems in Dallas entertainment districts is actually a good thing: success. As DFW grows, more people are looking to visit uniquely local neighborhoods where they can consume local goods and spend time in a walkable area with its own identity.
In Bishop Arts, Cowan says 70 to 75 percent of Oddfellows' customers are first-timers.
"Which means they’re not coming from our neighborhood — they’re coming from tourism or other parts of DFW," Cowan says. "They’re looking for that authentic experience — and I hope we don’t lose that."
Any solutions to Bishop Arts' parking problem will be temporary, as massive mixed-use developments are in the works, live-work-play complexes that will permanently change the look and feel of the neighborhood. Business owners and city leaders hope developers will take on the task of building more parking infrastructure. Developer Exxir Capital received a $5 million tax break on a $42 million development with the understanding that the company will build a two-story underground parking garage and make improvements to streets and sidewalks.
In the meantime, winter is coming — and with it, the bustling Christmas season, when many small Dallas businesses make a substantial amount of money. Clapner and other small, retail-centric businesses are particularly concerned that neighborhood parking troubles may not be solved by the holiday shopping season.
"I'll survive here," Clapner said of Bishop Arts. But as for Lower Greenville? "It'll annihilate me there."
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