Some Bay Area Developers Ditch the Extra Parking Spaces for More Units

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.

no_parking_small.jpgPhoto: Matthew Roth

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.

gaia_building_small.jpgPatrick Kennedy’s Gaia Building in Berkeley has 91 units and only 35 parking spaces. Photo: jeremydw

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‚Ķ 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."

  • Bringing more cars into the city affects everyone. Exemptions to parking maximums should never be granted.

  • Hard to think of any neighborhood in the Bay Area with more transit options than Rincon Hill …. the 0.5 to 1 parking ratio works fine, especially if there are some car shares onsite too. Now if we could get a congestion charge to drive downtown during the worst hours, say 4pm – 7pm Monday through Friday … encourage those living outside of SF to use transit to get here … that’d be a bold step forward too.

  • Alan from Berkeley

    One thing that helps with both parking economics and the perceptions of potential residents is to de-link parking from units: require the new renter or condo purchaser to affirmatively select and separately pay for any dedicated parking space. That can happen independently of the parking-to-units ratio, and in buildings with a ratio less than one is a better idea than including parking only with the more expensive of the units.

    This was an “encouraged” idea in Berkeley’s Climate Action Plan and may still emerge in our Downtown Area Plan (currently the subject of another passionate battle that may only be resolved with a November 2010 ballot measure). Those of us favoring a denser downtown with 5000 new residents see unit-specific dedicated parking as an unaffordable luxury and a bad social use of center-city space.

  • patrick

    “The building will have 23 units and parking for only two cars, both of which will be car-share vehicles”

    I love that, I think every new development should have only car-share parking.

  • I agree with patrick, that one really stuck out to me as being awesome. On the flip side, how does a 2 family building in RUSSIAN HILL get 5 parking spots? That is beyond excusable. Those cars might be off the street while parking, but they will be on the street driving, taking up space, and spewing crap into the air. That is a crime and the planner that ok’d that variance should be fired.

  • StuartH

    I am all for de-coupling parking from housing; if people don’t want to pay for parking then they shouldn’t have too. Of course, that would work best if those people then were not allowed to buy a car; large developments without parking can wreak havoc on the parking situation in the neighborhood if new residents park on the street.
    But I don’t buy the argument that somehow parking is inherently uneconomic. In some instances it may be, but when you are dealing with developments that have larger units — particularly for families — then I expect the demand for parking is strong. Anyway, there is any easy way to find out — see if people will pay for the parking.
    The fact is that in most neighborhoods public transit is good enough only for getting yourself downtown to work. It is not viable for getting to other neighborhoods or for families. Also, people often live and work outside the City. So cars are essential.
    Sure there are some people whose lifestyle allows them to live without a car; but there is no reason that everyone should be forced to either live that lifestyle or move out of the City.
    Vague arguments about “sustainability” are just silly; We need to look at the actual needs of people who live in this City and cars are part of that. This City is more than just single bike riders. Anti-car fanatics should really try (for once) to think beyond themselves and care about the needs of the entire population of San Francisco.

  • Ian Turner


    Note that in this case we’re dealing with parking *minimums*, not maximums. ūüôĀ

  • CBrinkman

    Cars are a part of this City; some of us will argue they are too big a part of the city. Should we accommodate cars? Sure. Should we subsidize them and allow them to dominate our streets? No. I look forward to the day when car drivers will pay their fair share for the environmental and social impacts their vehicle of choice causes. I will happily pay whatever increase in price for goods and services that causes to have a city where walking, biking and taking transit are the best and easiest choices.

  • Glen

    A big problem in this is alot of people living in this type of housing will still buy a car and park it on the street.My apt building is old and has only 30 parking spots for 60 units I see these people move there cars all around every day and increasing that SF find the parking spot game

  • Tomas

    Excellent article Mr. Roth. There is an easy solution to providing families with the car they need, while minimizing the cost of housing: CAR SHARE. Even if I drove my Zipcar every day, it would still be cheaper than paying the cost of owning and parking a car in SF.

    Regarding on-street parking, the City is finally moving in a direction where parking will be priced according to market rates, so that a space will always be available for short-term parking. Accommodating long-term parking on the public street is a blatant subsidization.

  • StuartH and Glen – Yes, people will still own cars without the offstreet parking, but that doesn’t mean we should allow more parking. If they choose to play the parking spot game, then that is part of the cost of having a car. In turn, you can blame all the curb cuts providing access to off street parking for the lack of on street parking. So now the argument becomes which of the car owners are more important – the ones with off street parking or the ones fighting to get on street.

    And if I can say without car owners getting too upset, on street residential permits are way too cheap and that helps further the low subsidized cost of car ownership. Start paying closer to market rate and the find the parking spot game will become a bit easier.

  • Sprague

    As we all know, real estate in San Francisco is very expensive. In light of that, it makes little sense that on-street parking is so cheap. It’s still affordable for most San Franciscans to own cars, even if many of us would be just as well served with a car-sharing account. The cost of driving (and parking) should more accurately reflect the damages they cause. Since current global gas prices aren’t helping lessen our driving ways, local measures are the only way to go to reduce driving.

  • Alexei

    I do agree with StuartH that people’s real needs should be considered, and cars will play a significant role in people’s lives for the foreseeable future, so let’s not adopt car-unfriendly policies for their own sake.

    That said, there are some things that are obvious: unlinking parking spots from condos, for example, as well as removing parking minimums (there are plenty of old houses in the Richmond without parking, and someone wants to build a new one I don’t see why they shouldn’t be allowed to).

    I do agree with the idea of increasing the parking permit fee to ‘market rate’ (ie when there are a few free spaces on the street because people don’t pay). What are they now– $70? I think several hundred dollars would not be out of order. The proceeds can benefit public transit, which will help people give up their cars– the carrot and stick approach. Everyone wins– non-drivers get better service and drivers get better traffic and easier parking. I think most drivers would happily pay a dollar a day if it meant an easier time finding a space, and less traffic to contend with.

  • Peak Oil will make the need for parking moot, except for lots and lots of bike parking. (In Copenhagen, they are putting in 7000 new bike parking spots at the train station.) Rather than demanding the city be designed to accommodate massive car use, people will begin to organize their lives so that work and errands can be performed conveniently without a car. This is actually one of the prime benefits of living in a city. The fact that daily life in San Francisco truly can be conducted without using oil will be one of things that keeps San Francisco economically viable in the decades to come.

    For families, Bakfiets are wonderful things. If you live up a hill, get one and put an electric assist on it. If you own a van or a SUV, I suggest selling it soon before it loses all value. If you haven’t heard of Peak Oil, or you think I’m absolutely bonkers, it’s time to do some research.

    As a quick primer: The US imports 70% of its oil. The US passed its peak oil production in 1970 and has been in decline ever since. World oil supplies are declining 5 – 6 % a year. The easiest oil–the cheapest to exploit–has all been found and much of it pumped. Mexico, the second largest supplier of crude oil to the US, will become an oil importer in less than five years. Chinese and Indian usage of oil is increasing 10% a year. Turning Canadian tar sands into oil requires massive energy and is incredibly bad for the environment. Electric cars will be introduced, but with Peak Credit and deep economic malaise few but the very rich will be able to afford them. (There are some do-it-yourself kits out there to take a car, rip out its internal combustion engine, and electrify it. If you’re good at that sort of thing, go for it.)


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