By Megan Burks
San Diego is stuck in a tight spot when it comes to parking. As the city gears up to change its parking requirements for new construction, debate has centered on whether to house people or to house cars.
Increasingly, state grants that subsidize affordable housing for low-income people are being awarded to “smart-growth” projects that encourage the use of public transit. One way to do that is to reduce the number of parking spaces in residential complexes, a strategy favored by cost-conscious developers and transit advocates.But residents in dense and growing neighborhoods take the opposite view: they want to require more parking, not less. Many say space for cars is already limited and that current transit offerings couldn’t shoulder a new wave of car-less riders.
A recent case in Lincoln Park, a low-income and predominantly Latino community in southeastern San Diego, illustrates the problem. The Jacobs Center for Neighborhood Innovation, a local non-profit, wanted to build 200 affordable housing units in the community but needed a grant from a state housing bond for the project to pencil out.
The Jacobs Center scored 328 on an application for funding from Prop 1C. The qualifying score is 330. Chip Buttner, the group’s president and CEO, said most of the deductions were made because in San Diego, affordable two bedrooms need at least 1.75 parking spaces each, as opposed to one in Los Angeles and San Francisco. The different standards amount to an addition 150 parking spaces for the San Diego project. With California looking to cut carbon emissions, developments like this that allow for the status quo in car use just aren’t as attractive to the grant managers.
Now, at the behest of redevelopment agencies and affordable housing developers like Jacobs, San Diego is reevaluating its parking allotments in a study due out next year. The city is expected to reduce the ratio for affordable housing, and changes could eventually span the entire housing spectrum—potential reductions that worry residents in neighborhoods with little curb space to spare.
Developers favor reduced parking to increase housing
Market Creek Plaza, the partially completed project in Lincoln Park, is a bright, multi-colored compound that stands out among dry-brush hills, warehouses and fading homes. It brought the first grocery store to the area and has raised property values enough for a neighboring medical center to take out loans for expansion and offer hope for new jobs. Trolley tracks and 12 bus routes crisscross the 45 acres of continuous land slated for residential and commercial development by JCNI. It has the makings of a sustainable community center, except too much pavement.
According to Buttner, San Diego’s parking requirements have cost the project about $17 million in grants and set construction back at least a year. Michael VanBuskirk, a private consultant who helps developers write and submit proposals, said Buttner’s assertion that parking requirements weigh heavily on funding opportunities is valid. According to VanBuskirk, funding and government agencies typically ask developers to address sustainable practices in their proposals. Builds that encourage transit use and walking are favored, as are those that qualify for LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certification, which accounts for parking ratios.
“A certain level of sustainable design is becoming expected in these projects rather than the exception,” VanBuskirk said.
Charles Davis, the director of project development at JCNI, said the amount of Prop 1C funding San Diego County got as a whole is representative of the preference given to smart growth projects. San Diego brought in just $23 million while San Francisco, a denser city with more efficient transit, won $175 million.
Eliminating space for cars could make San Diego developers more competitive. It could also help alleviate a shortage of affordable housing, said Davis and others. In 2002, the city council declared a housing state of emergency that hasn’t been lifted; the city can only meet about 25 percent of the demand for affordable housing, according to Terri O’Connor, a planner with the group conducting the parking study.
“We have a housing crisis, not a parking crisis,” said Doris Payne Camp of the San Diego Housing Federation.
Camp, as well as Buttner and Davis, said the cost of building parking spaces might be better spent on constructing additional housing units. According to a city report, an individual parking space costs between $1,000 for surface and $22,000 for underground parking. Dave Gatzke, a project manager with Community Housing Works, said the range can actually top out at $40,000 when design and financing costs are included.
Gatzke said most new units in San Diego’s mid-city neighborhoods are stacked above ground-level parking. A parking space for this type of building costs $31,000 to construct, according to Chris Kennedy of Advent Companies, an Orange County development group that has studied parking costs throughout the state. Kennedy said eliminating eight of these stalls would fund one additional unit of affordable housing.
“The way I see it, you can either park people or you can park cars,” Davis said. The developers who spoke with HealthyCal.org said they’re more interested in sheltering people.
Some confused about designated affordable housing
Some residents, however, have said they’re worried that developer support for a parking reduction is actually aimed at bolstering profits. In a workshop hosted by the parking study organizers, several homeowners said they doubt money saved on parking would actually go to more housing.
“There’s this perception that every developer wears a black hat and rides away on an expensive horse,” said Marcela Escobar-Eck, a land-use consultant with Atlantis Group, LLC. “Affordable housing developers are a different breed.”
Because they use public subsidies from redevelopment agencies and state and federal funds, money spared by a potential parking reduction would go toward subsidizing similar projects. What’s more, the amount of rent charged and the type of tenants leased to are restricted for 55 years, Camp said. The owners of these buildings base rent on a fixed percentage of the tenant’s income. According to Buttner, rent typically covers just 10 percent of the cost to build and maintain the units.
Residents at the workshop also said they worry low-income families are the wrong target for a parking reduction, citing neighbors who share dwellings with other families and keep cars for both. While such living arrangements can be observed throughout the city, tenants in designated affordable housing cannot exceed maximum occupancy. Additionally, 2000 Census data suggests car ownership does, indeed, correlate with income; the less money a family makes, the fewer cars it owns. The current study will look at ownership trends, among others, at up to 30 affordable housing sites to further assess this trend, according to the study organizers.
Residents say they’re already over-parked
Despite the data, the daily hunt for prized curb space is still enough for residents to question a parking reduction. Recent gentrification has brought booming business districts and new duplexes to mid-city neighborhoods. Streets are full during peak shopping hours and again at night when residents return home and popular bars open. The San Diego Association of Government’s most recent forecast anticipates the population will grow by almost 50 percent by 2050, with most of the growth occurring in these same urban areas. With infill imminent and parking already at a premium, many residents are calling for an increase in parking ratios.About 15 minutes from the stalled Lincoln Park project, another residential development is idling—this time after neighbors complained it provided too little parking. In 2008, residents in Serra Mesa filed a lawsuit against the City of San Diego because it didn’t complete a traffic impact study for a new Westcore Properties development, the Palladium. Neighbors said the city didn’t consider traffic patterns and parking needs when it approved the multi-family project, and feared limited parking infrastructure would send new residents looking for parking in front of their homes.
“Try going over there late in the evening, parking is at a premium. People park in the adjacent single-family home area,” said Cindy Moore, the community member who spearheaded the lawsuit.
That’s because Serra Mesa is made up of subdivisions tucked between business parks and busy roads where parking is largely prohibited. A nearby hospital often means nursing and medical students share units while keeping a car each. Meanwhile, families in the more suburban subdivisions need space for multiple cars and recreation vehicles.
“I know my own family and friends and we have at least two cars, if not more,” said Carl Demas, the president of the local community council. “The city is being unrealistic about current patterns. We need an increase in parking.”
With rent set fairly high—about $1,600 for a one bedroom, Demas said—new residents were expected to have similar lifestyles and pavement needs. Though parking would be difficult, residents assumed Palladium tenants would also rely on cars, because services and entertainment aren’t within walking distance and transit is inadequate, Moore said.
“If excellent mass transit and abundant on-street parking were available, reducing the parking requirements might work,” Moore said.
Moore and her neighbors, who collectively raised more than $30,000 for the lawsuit, illustrate a sentiment that echoes throughout San Diego communities, no matter the location or density. In a city where public transit is deemed inefficient (http://www.healthycal.org/transit-cuts-hit-hard-in-san-diego.html), residents aren’t convinced to give up their cars or the pavement beneath them.
The city and Westcore settled with Serra Mesa residents out of court, electing to reduce the number of units and increase the parking ratio from two per two-bedroom dwelling (the city requirement for non-affordable housing) to 2.25. While awaiting an outcome, Westcore lost its funding and the project has since come to a halt, Demas said.
Transit advocates call for “growing pains”
Escobar-Eck, who consulted Westcore, said the settlement “ripped my heart out.” Escobar-Eck is in the camp of public transit advocates who say a parking reduction is necessary to break San Diego’s dependence on driving.
“In Southern California, we think it’s a right to have free parking—so much that we’re willing to drive around for 20 minutes to find a spot,” said Elyse Lowe, the executive director of Move San Diego, a nonprofit group that works to improve transit and increase ridership. “People don’t think about how much parking actually costs.”
“Parking [availability] and the pricing of parking is how we will see behavior change,” Lowe continued.
In addition to easing the development of affordable housing, supporters of a parking decrease said parking is a significant piece of moving San Diego toward smart growth and more robust transit. Lowe said residents may experience “growing pains” with infill and a subsequent parking shortage, but that the struggle could aid in changing people’s transportation habits.
“I think it’s important to look at how we’re evolving as a region,” Gatzke said. “As prices get higher and we see the environmental impacts of the fuel we use, we need to think about how we want to get around in 20, 30 and 50 years from now. Parking is a part of that equation.”
Study aims to strike a balance
Bill Keller, a business owner in downtown San Diego, said he would also like to see a greater reliance on public transit and walking. But he said he also recognizes that the downtown area, where cafés and services are concentrated, “is a different animal than other parts of town.” Keller said he hopes the city’s parking study will result in requirements that are tailored to individual neighborhoods.
The city is, indeed, looking at efficiency-based parking standards for affordable housing that vary according to proximity to transit and tenant demographics like age, O’Connor said. The changes are expected, however, to represent an overall decrease in affordable housing parking, according to Lowe, who sat on the committee that pushed for the current study. A 2007 study by the San Diego Housing Commission and planning division has already recommended a decrease to affordable and market-priced housing alike, suggesting that changes could eventually affect housing beyond the affordable designation.
The study is scheduled for completion in January 2011, with data from neighborhoods as varied and as Lincoln Park and Serra Mesa. A second public workshop for the study is scheduled for Sept. 21.
“It’s not a one-size-fits all,” Keller said. “It’s a tough issue because both sides are right.”