Despite Skewed Parking Math, Planning Commission Approves 55 Laguna

Image: Woods LLC

The SF Planning Commission unanimously approved a major housing development at 55 Laguna Street yesterday, despite an excessive amount of car parking that livable streets advocates say should be lowered under stricter parking maximums.

The development would include two housing projects: one with 330 apartments, and another with 110 affordable apartments for an LGBT senior community. They would share a block at Laguna and Waller with existing buildings owned by the University of California, filling in what is currently mostly a parking lot, used primarily for the UC Dental School. All told, 310 underground parking spaces would be built on the site.

But the developers and Planning Department staff used misleading calculations and inappropriate zoning requirements to build a number of parking spaces that falls within parking maximums, say members of the Hayes Valley Neighborhood Association. As Streetsblog has written, more car parking generally means residents are more likely to own and drive cars.

In a letter to the Planning Commission [PDF], HVNA Transportation and Planning Committee Chair Jason Henderson claimed that developer Woods LLC is skewing the number of parking spaces by claiming that 51 of the 310 parking spaces will be used by the UC Dental School (even though the public can use 15 of them), and incorporating the 110 affordable housing units into the ratio, which HVNA doesn’t think should be counted. HVNA says the developers have refused the organization’s requests to reduce the number of residential parking spaces from 249 to 165, which would include only one parking space for every two market-rate housing units, or 0.5:1.

HVNA's table of parking ratio calculations.

“Parking ruins density — all the benefits of this high density infill project will be negated by too many cars and garage entrances on Laguna and Buchanan Streets,” Henderson wrote. “The circulation for these additional cars will inevitably jam Haight Street, a key transit first street, causing more delay to transit passengers and more danger to pedestrians and bicyclists.”

Henderson told the Planning Commission that throughout the years-long negotiations, UC administrators have “stubbornly insisted on 51 parking spaces for their dental school. On any given day, go check it out, there are about 20 cars there at the most.”

Even with the math used by developers, the project doesn’t meet the 0.5:1 parking ratio required for sites zoned as “Neighborhood Commercial Transit” (NCT) in the Market-Octavia Plan, which HVNA argues should apply to 55 Laguna. However, the plan zoned the site as a “RM-3” (Residential, Mixed, “medium” density) and a “NC‐3” (Neighborhood Commercial, moderate scale) district. The applicable parking maximum, then, is a 0.75:1 ratio under the Special Use District for the area. Steve Vettel of Farella Braun + Martel, who spoke for the project developers, said that their calculated parking ratio of 0.57:1 “falls well below” that zoning requirement.

Henderson argued in the letter that the Planning Department ought to have applied the 0.5:1 maximum used for NCT districts. “The immediate neighborhood has over 50 percent car free households and one of the guiding principles of the Market and Octavia Plan is to accommodate new infill development while maintaining neighborhood character and livability.”

But because the Planning Department chose not to apply the stricter parking ratio, wrote Henderson, the developers were able “to insert an egregiously large amount of parking at the expense of the city’s transit first goals, the integrity of the Market and Octavia Plan, and the livability of our neighborhood.”

The excess parking was also opposed by SPUR and D5 Supervisor Christina Olague, the previous president of the Planning Commission, who “hopes that more could be done regarding the parking, but is pleased with the progress thus far,” an aide from her office said.

One improvement worth noting in the project is that a section of Waller Street, which is currently a pair of parking lots with a wall in the middle, would be reconnected as a pedestrian “mews” with stairways.

The site as it exists today. Photo: Google Maps

While affordable housing advocates speaking at the Planning Commission hearing called for stricter requirements for including below-market-rate apartments, Henderson pointed out that reducing parking was a key step towards that goal: “You get affordable housing by having less parking — zero parking.”

The only member of the Planning Commission who went on the record in support of the amount of parking was Michael Antonini. No other commissioners spoke on the parking issue at the hearing.

“The last thing a senior wants to do is give up his or her ability to drive,” said Antonini.

However, Henderson pointed out that adding parking works against seniors’ needs. “Many seniors I know, and even people I know who are approaching old age, are more concerned about being able to afford to live  in a safe, convenient, walkable and transit-rich area like this one. Walkable neighborhoods are mobility independence,” said Henderson.

“There are many innovative ideas out there for senior mobility — delivery of groceries, tricycles, low-floor buses with discounted transit passes, and reliable service — but overarching all of that is affordable housing. And by saddling new housing with excessive parking like this, developers continue to ratchet-up housing costs to the detriment of many seniors’ housing choices. “

  • Mario Tanev

    And here is what cities that are serious about livability do:
    http://www.theatlanticcities.com/commute/2012/08/lessons-zurichs-parking-revolution/2874/

    Interestingly their limits are in parking spaces per area. Assuming 1000 square feet per apartment (big underestimate, since that’s not counting the common areas), you get the parking ratios in the table above. In Zurich, in an area as central as Hayes Valley, the requirement would be between 0.08 and 0.5 parking spaces.

  • Jeffrey Yasskin

    IMO, 

  • Abe

    The thing is, this area already has both the density and access to transit that you’re talking about. Off the top of my head I can think of 4 Muni lines that stop just one block from this site (and the Van Ness metro station is three blocks away). There’s also the Wiggle just a few blocks away and Market and Valencia streets are even closer (both great bicycle routes). To top it off, both Hayes Valley and the Castro are extremely walkable (there’s a huge Safeway four blocks away at the start of the Wiggle). There’s no need to use a car to do anything in the city.

    But…

    There’s a freeway entrance one block away as well. So a new resident might as well bring their car so they can go on weekend trips to Sonoma/Tahoe/Yosemite/Diablo or in case they need (need!) to buy a half-ton of groceries (now they might was well just go to Costco) or in case they want to go to Ikea or Target.

    So now they’ve got their car and it’s just so convenient and that’s how they’ll get around. It doesn’t matter how good Muni is for them at that location, they’ve heard it’s bad or had a bad experience when they lived in the Richmond so they might as well just drive. Who needs the hassle, right?

    We need parking limits in these dense areas. Because even in an area like this, already so suited to car-free living, developers and real estate agents want a parking space for each unit so they can have another bullet point on their “amenities” list. Building parking is cheaper than building a habitable unit (no plumbing, modest electrical, no trim or tile or appliances) and it allows them to sell those units for more money.

    Once the developer builds it, the residents will use it. It doesn’t matter how good transit is or how walkable the neighborhood is, once that parking space is there, a car will go in it. Once that car is there, it will be driven.

    And the walkability of that neighborhood will go down a little.

  • So this project is all about parking? The fact that the city is allowing UC to rip off property that’s been zoned for “public use” for 150 years for a for-profit housing development is okay? UC lied about why it was closing the extension that used to provide university courses for working people, which is also okay. And why is it a good idea to bring 1,000 new residents into a part of town that’s unable to digest all the traffic on Octavia Blvd. one block away? Is this what you folks call “smart growth”?

    Not to mention the fact that the site is a national landmark that will be damaged by putting a massive housing devleopment on the six-acre site.

    The Market/Octavia Plan will bring in another 10,000 people to the area, with a bunch of highrises at Market and Van Ness. Great planning! And all you can talk about is parking!

  • jimmy

    The only problem here is that the parking maximum for the NCT should have been respected as well as the parking maximum for the RTO.

    This project is building housing on top of parking lots.  From your Google Maps photo, there are ~300 parking spaces on the site already.  Adding 440 residential units while keeping the same amount of parking seems like a win to me.

  • No, the problem is density in general. San Francisco seems to think it’s so special that it can ignore the need for population density limits in the first place. This is called “smart growth” and/or “transit-oriented development,” even though neither UC’s housing project nor the Market/Octavia project provide more money for Muni. Bringing in even 300 more cars to the neighborhood seems like a bad idea, since the M/O project will also bring in thousands more. The notion that people who can afford these market-rate housing units won’t have cars is pure fantasy.

    Not to mention another issue: preserving housing for only one group—in this case, gays—is illegal under fair housing law. But of course the gay housing card was only played to give this bad project a PC fig leaf for our progressive rulers to hide behind while they approved UC’s ripoff.

  • jimmy

    You are right — there is a glaring typo in the article: the units are *not* reserved for LGBT seniors.  Rather, the development will be, to use openhouse’s language, “welcoming to LGBT seniors”.

  • It’s not a typo but recognition that reserving housing for only gays is illegal. “Welcoming” is weasel-wording that recognizes the legal realities, but of course they’ll get around the law one way or another.

  • Anonymous

    My question to the planning department and its supporters is if there’s any evidence that reducing the number of parking spaces has any effect on the number of cars. Even in San Francisco, cars are needed because activities are spaced far apart. We can commute by MUNI but everything else is easier with a car, and in many cases, require a car.

  • john riley

    I don’t understand. The public streets belong to everyone, not just car owners, and yet car owners are allowed to park on them for the small price of an annual pass. This amounts to a public subsidy of cars. The market rate for a parking space in SF is often hundreds of dollars PER MONTH. Meanwhile you try to restrict people from paying for space in the private sector. All this does is force people to seek out the subsidized public spaces.

    I am not necessarily saying the city should lease street parking or meter all of it, but given that the city does not, placing restrictions on private developers seems hypocritical. 

  • john riley

    MUNI is on the level of transit in Zurich?

  • Mario Tanev

    Muni is probably faster than transit in Zurich, and has pretty good coverage. What it doesn’t have is reliability, which Zurich has (and which is what riders care most about) because it doesn’t allow cars in surface transit rights of way.

  • No, there’s no evidence at all for what City Hall calls the “mode shift” theory, that travelers will shift from those wicked motor vehicles to other transportation “modes”—buses and, even more implausibly, bicycles. City traffic policy is based on what qualifies as a religious faith: that if you make it as difficult and expensive as possible to drive in the city, more people will turn to Muni or bikes.

    Two problems with that theory: First, as you point out, a lot of things really require a car for a lot of people. Second, if you make things too difficult for drivers—like taking away street parking and traffic lanes to make bike lanes—you are also going to make it more difficult for Muni buses, since our transit system must share our streets with those wicked cars and trucks.

  • Jeffrey Yasskin

    What’s the maximum density you’re thinking of? Paris, for example, has ~54000 people per square mile (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paris ) compared to SF’s 17,000. Even Queens (i.e. not Manhattan) has a density of 21000/sq mi. We have a long way to go before we’re unlivably dense.

  • Jeffrey Yasskin

    I found a master’s thesis on the subject: http://reconnectingamerica.org/resource-center/browse-research/2010/the-effects-of-residential-off-street-parking-availability-on-travel-behavior-in-san-francisco/
    I’ll let you read and summarize it, to avoid any bias I might introduce.

  • SF is already the second most densely-populated city in the US, second only to New York City. Our Planning Dept. and City Hall are acting on the assumption that significantly increasing our population density will have little impact on city traffic: encouraging a population of 19,000 on Treasure Island, thousands of additional residents at Parkmerced, 10,000 in the heart of SF with the Market/Octavia project, and 1,000 people on the six acres at the old UC Extension site.

    All this when we have a chronically cash and capital starved Muni transit system. Let them ride bikes!

  • Jeffrey refers to and links a master’s thesis, but, after a cursory look at the document, it looks like it’s not going to be much help. On page one, the author says, “At this point, there is little information available to describe the effects of reduced parking requirements on people’s travel behavior.” On page 3, we find this: “Although planners and analysts believe San Francisco’s parking policies will influence the eventual residents of units without off-street parking spaces to be less auto-dependent than their counterparts with off-street parking spaces, there is little evidence to suggest differences in the travel perferences of residents of these two types of neighborhood.”

  • 94103er

    Who cares about Muni? If you can drive, you have all the transit you need via carshare. If you are able, you can ride a bike. If all you do is walk, you can access just about everything you need in the Mid-Market/Hayes Valley area.
    People need to think more about geography and density of services in a city, rather than how slick its transit system is. I think even Manhattan suffers a bit from dead zones in its distribution of services because people think they might as well take a 15-minute Subway ride to go to some other neighborhood to eat or shop. Don’t get me started on Washington DC. There’s some seriously messed up distribution of services there.

  • 94013er

    Well, as Rob says, we’re special. Chicagoans, Portlandians, Minneapolitans, New Yorkers, the Dutch, the Danes, the Chinese, Mexicans, Australians–they can ride bikes. But San Franciscans can’t. It’s really special here.

    Also, the forces of economics won’t work here either. People will bring their cars here, no matter what it costs. That’s because San Francisco exists inside a force field of reality. Never mind the rollicking success of car share and falling rates of car ownership–that is all a hoax. San Francisco is really preserved in the 1950s, when Rob Anderson was born, and we have all been totally hallucinating.

  • Iskandr

    No, Rob, density follows from a vibrant culture which people choose to live in rather than have to commute to.  Why do you think all those Google employees live in expensive SF when they could live closer to the ‘plex?  Because when they are not at work they want to be where they can have fun.   So unless you persuade the BOS to get rid of the music venues, the bars, the excellent restaurants, and all of the other attractions–that is turn SF into Pleasanton, Lafayette, Foster City etc–more people are going to try to live here.  Perhaps you should check out South Bend; housing is cheap because most of the industry was sent to China and there aren’t many evening attractions so there is no such thing as a traffic jam (and not much public transit either).    

  • keenplanner

    No sense arguing with Rob Anderson.  He brushes off facts and survey data like pesky bugs.  If he gets the notion that water isn’t wet, even a walk in the rain without an umbrella wouldn’t change his mind. 

  • Haven’t seen any facts or survey data in this thread. Here’s the MTA’s latest Transportation Fact Sheet, which has a lot of facts about transportation in SF.
    http://www.sfmta.com/cms/rfact/documents/SFFactSheet201111-29-2011.pdf

  • Sprague

    94103er: If you can’t drive or don’t want to drive and your school, job, or grandma is clear across town it’s of utmost importance to have a well functioning and well used transit system.  My daughter’s “neighborhood” middle school is about halfway across town and can take an hour or longer to reach with Muni.  If Muni was more reliable it would be better used by thousands of schoolkids and their families.

  • Sprague

    If one works two, three, or more jobs in far flung locations or if one has multiple business or personal appointments in distant locations on a regular basis, perhaps a car is “required”.  But in a city with 49 square miles, faster and more reliable Muni would enable many more residents to live rich, full lives without feeling like they must own a car to do so.

  • Anonymous

    I was counting spaces the other day, and there are quite a few street spaces around that property, close to 100.  

    In general the neighborhood has an excess of parking, but it’s free so it’s full of little-used vehicles (even the occasional boat).  We enjoy the welfare for our vehicle, but a fair price would reduce a lot of problems with car-based drug dealing and loitering. 

  • UC’s development will bring in a 1,000 new residents, and the Market Octavia project will bring in another 10,000 new residents to that part of town. Think the traffic there is bad now?

  • Anonymous

    @Yaskin:disqus : thanks for the reference to the Master’s thesis. It’s an interesting work but probably limited in its usefulness. 
    1. The writer surveyed 182 people who shop at Rainbow, Whole Foods, and similar stores that attract more eco-minded, bike-riding customers. These people are also shopping in densely populated parts of San Francisco.

    2. The finding is that people who live in areas where parking maximums exist claim to make fewer trips each day. Of course, this does not mean that they own fewer cars.

    3. The author has a questionable conclusion to the question of whether people self-select their place of residence based on the availability of public transit and parking. She concludes they do not because they select based on the proximity to work or school. It’s clear to me that proximity to work or school is inversely proportional to the need for public transit and parking, so saying that people do not choose where they live based on the availability of parking and transit is not correct.

  • Jeffrey Yasskin

    Anyone who opposes this project because it has too much parking should read http://missionlocal.org/2012/08/residents-divided-on-valencia-st-condos/ and consider writing richard.sucre(at)sfgov.org to support that project because it doesn’t provide _any_ parking.

  • Anonymous

    I figured out how to solve Rob’s problems. Ban cars!

    1. Rob’s a transit-first kind of guy: think of how much faster transit would run!

    2. Rob’s worried about traffic flow and pollution — solved!

    3. We wouldn’t need bike lanes at all: bikes could just share the road with busses and trains!

    4. Rob is pretty sure people wouldn’t move to SF and not own cars, so by banning cars, in his mind, fewer people would move to SF, thereby limiting the population density and growth which he’s seemingly very concerned about.

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