When it comes to building new developments in the Bay Area, especially in San Francisco, the battle over limiting the construction of new parking spaces is pitched. Parking reform advocacy organizations like Livable City, which maintains a listserv populated by car-free and livable-city advocates keeping a keen watch on planning commission parking exemptions, have long encouraged city leaders to tighten the parking-to-unit ratios in dense neighborhoods flush with transit and bicycling options.
Why, these advocates ask, would any city seeking to be a model of sustainability require developments to have one parking space per unit, as is the case across San Francisco outside of the downtown core and certain neighborhood plan zones (the mandatory parking ratio can be higher in other Bay Area cities)? San Francisco is the city it is because it was built densely, with
minimal parking, and areas like the Mission or North Beach would be
impossible with 1:1 ratios.
And who should they hang for granting variances permitting higher than 2:1 ratios, as happened last week when a two-unit home at 2626 Larkin Street in Russian Hill received permission from the San Francisco Planning Commission to build five parking spaces, one with a parking stacker for additional cars?
When these questions are asked of city planners and developers, like they were during the struggle to limit parking at 299 Valencia Street, advocates and political leaders are led to believe that it is impossible to finance new developments, particularly condos and non-rental properties, without the maximum parking ratio possible. Less parking, goes the developer refrain, banks will refuse to loan and the units will be impossible to re-sell.
Not all developers buy that argument, however, and some have buildings that disprove it.
"If you are doing a project next to BART or many buses, you really don’t need to have a lot of cars," said Oz Erickson, Chairman of the Emerald Fund, Inc, a developer who has built more than 2,000 units in San Francisco. Emerald’s newest development, a rental building at 333 Harrison Street in Rincon Hill, will be built with a .5:1 parking-to-unit ratio, even though the developer could appeal for a variance to build more parking.
"It really works in those situations when the cost of excavation for an additional floor is really high and you’re doing a rental project that has really good public transportation," said Erickson. He explained that excavation and construction costs for a single parking space in his new development could run as high as $60,000, whereas the return on the space will only be $200 per month. Further, the additional construction time required to excavate for parking pushes costs even higher, which, according to Erickson, is a liability in a lending climate as constricted as the current one.
Erickson didn’t always build with voluntarily lower parking ratios and he said that the 333 Harrison development wouldn’t be as easy to finance if it were condos. "Banks like to see 1:1," he said, though they have gone below that ratio on centrally located areas like Kearny Street and they have done it for condominium projects without maximal parking. Erickson confirmed what has been reported in other cities, namely that national banks unfamiliar with a city’s particular development market can be reluctant to go below the familiar parking ratios.
Above all else, Erickson argued, a city should provide as much flexibility in developments as possible. "You really should be in a position where zoning laws do not require you to put in parking," he said.
Across the Bay in Berkeley and Oakland, Patrick Kennedy has been building residential units with scant parking for decades. Kennedy’s Panoramic Interests is responsible for much of Berkeley’s current skyline, including the Gaia Building and the Fine Arts Building, and his mission is to build infill development near transit with as little parking as necessary.
One glance at his website and you understand the developer is unlike many others, with quotes from Lewis Mumford ("Cities exist not for the passage of cars, but for the care and culture of human beings) and Jane Jacobs ("Possibilities to add convenience, intensity and cheer in cities… are limitless") alongside before-and-after photos of his buildings. For Kennedy, building more parking is a choice that reflects a developer’s priorities.
"If you want to go after the densest configuration of housing, you have to not plan around the car," said Kennedy. "Spaces for cars cost a lot more to build than spaces for people because they chew up so much space."
Kennedy admits that he hasn’t built condos since 1996 and that much of his units are taken by students and young professionals in the UC Berkeley orbit, a decidedly less car-dependent demographic who are seeking a city experience. He is, however, currently developing a building in San Francisco two blocks from a BART station, where he intends to limit parking significantly. The building will have 23 units and parking for only two cars, both of which will be car-share vehicles.
"If the car is considered a mere afterthought, we can get [more] units in. Building a parking space costs at least $50,000 per car, including opportunity costs for what else might have gone in the space," said Kennedy, adding that if they were to build the building with conventional parking ratios, he could probably only squeeze 6 units into the same space.
Kennedy argued that parking requirements can be a significant barrier to home-ownership for first-time buyers. "If you’re going to get the entry-level, it’s smart to keep prices down. If you had the choice of a small condo that had a parking space for $450,000 or a condo for $250,000 without a car space, which [would you choose]?"
"Owning a car is expensive in a city," he added. "You can manage in San Francisco without a car if you’re in a neighborhood with a lot of transit."
Both Erickson and Kennedy stressed the importance of providing choice to customers, not excluding parking completely, but recognizing that more and more people who choose to live in cities might not want the parking space.
Kennedy explained that he lived car-free for four years in Cambridge when he was a student, which he extolled with the fervor one might expect from a bicycle advocate. "The best way to force [people] out of a car is to not provide them a place to park," said Kennedy, before asking whether Superior Court Judge Peter Busch had lifted the bicycle injunction in San Francisco.
Referring to cyclists and others who don’t own cars: "I think it’s important to provide them with an opportunity to live a car-free life if they choose to."