Potrero Ave. NIMBYs Lead Supes to Grapple With the Minimum Parking Myth

For NIMBYs fighting a residential building project in the northeast corner of the Mission on the basis of negative environmental impacts, you might think minimizing the number of new car parking spaces is a good thing. After all, the more parking that goes into a project, the more residents tend to own and drive cars.

480 Potrero. Image: Planning Department via Curbed SF

But at an October 9 hearing on an appeal filed by neighbors against the environmental impact report for a proposed 75-unit residential building at 480 Potrero Avenue (at Mariposa Street), the appellants apparently had Supervisors Malia Cohen and David Campos convinced that if developers failed to provide “enough” parking, new residents will buy cars anyway and just circle around for a spot.

According to Juan Jayo of the Mariposa-Utah Neighborhood Association, opponents don’t buy the arguments to the contrary. “The Planning Commission’s response to this simply seems to be … eventually, people would get tired of looking for parking and move to Muni and bicycles and walk, so there would be no impact,” Jayo said. That’s basically correct, though new car-free residents who knowingly move in to an apartment without a dedicated parking spot wouldn’t be circling for parking in the first place.

Cohen and Campos, whose districts are near the site, grilled Planning Department staff on its determination that not building parking would not cause a significant environmental impact under the guidelines of the California Environmental Quality Act. Barely mentioned at the hearing, however, was the growing body of research showing that a guaranteed space to store a car is an incentive for residents to own one, and that any number of parking spots deemed necessary to meet some inevitable amount of parking demand is arbitrary. Meanwhile, parking spaces make housing more expensive and more difficult to build.

In other words, more parking facilitates more car use — not the other way around.

“The fact that everybody might not be able to find a spot to park their car is not considered a significant physical impact under CEQA,” Sarah Jones, director of environmental planning for the Planning Department, explained to Cohen. Jones limited her explanation to how car parking relates to CEQA, rather than discussing the city’s parking policies (which are slowly shedding minimum parking requirements), but she noted, “We do look at parking supply and parking shortages relative to calculated demand, which in and of itself is a bit of an academic exercise, because we need to catch up to how people really behave.”

Supervisors Malia Cohen and David Campos attempted to grapple with the dynamics of parking supply and demand.

In their fruitless attempts to appease the pro-parking opponents of 480 Potrero, developers have already traded housing for parking. Underground parking spots were increased from 35 to 49, and the number of apartment units from 84 to 75.

It’s not clear how much parking the project’s opponents would deem adequate, but the arbitrary nature of their assessment became especially perplexing at certain times. Because the vacant development site was recently used as a 50-space parking lot for a year-and-a-half, they claimed the supposed parking “shortage” would be even greater.

The 480 Potrero site is within the upzoned area of the Eastern Neighborhoods Plan. Because the Planning Department completed an environmental impact report for all projects within that area that comply with the plan, 480 Potrero didn’t need its own EIR.

In the end, the board dismissed the EIR appeal yesterday, after Cohen said further discussions with Planning staffers led her to determine that “What neighbors are struggling with is not related to CEQA. They’re related to the city’s overall vision of increased growth in the southeastern part of the city through the adopted Eastern Neighborhoods Plan.”

In the future, any EIR appeals based on parking “shortages” in the city will be especially frivolous thanks to a state law recently signed by Governor Jerry Brown. As Jones explained, the bill expressly mandates that any addition or “deficit” of car parking will not be considered as part of required environmental analyses for future development and transportation projects within “transit priority areas” in California (which is expected to include most, if not all, of San Francisco).