SF may no longer require housing developers to build parking

If you build it, they will come, the saying goes. But that’s exactly the problem when it comes to cars.

City leaders say requiring developers to build parking spaces in new projects invites too many new cars into The City, congesting streets and harming the environment.

Now Supervisor Jane Kim is seeking to rescind a requirement that developers create minimum amounts of parking when they build new housing or commercial property, as part of a larger effort to reform a city policy called “Better Streets.”

“Workers are now biking and taking [ride-hails],” Kim told the San Francisco Examiner Tuesday. “Parking is becoming this archaic concept.”

Archaic may be a slight exaggeration, but the concept does hail all the way back to 1955, when the roads were clear and Muni was less robust, according to advocacy group Livable City. “Rock Around the Clock” by Bill Haley and His Comets topped radio charts when San Francisco leaders first required one new parking space be created with each new dwelling unit built, be that an apartment or a house. In 1985, as car radios tuned to “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go,” that minimum residential requirement was lowered to one parking space for every four units built.

Currently, the minimums vary across The City, according to the planning department, but are generally one space per unit.

The politically-progressive Kim is not the only one to regard the parking requirements as antiquated. At its meeting on October 18, the Planning Commission voted to recommend the Board of Supervisors adopt Kim’s Better Streets reform package, which includes the proposal to eliminate parking minimums and will also eliminate the ability of developers to make “curb cuts” — driveways and other curb ramps — along transit corridors and bike lanes.

Tom Radulovich, executive director of Liveable City, long worked to bring those proposals forward. For years, he said, San Francisco has “chipped away” at parking minimums, allowing developers to swap parking spaces for bicycle parking in their plans, among other changes.

“Practically anyone who is motivated can get around them,” he said of parking minimums, but the problem is that not every developer knows that. He pointed out that just because minimums are going away, it doesn’t mean developers can’t still provide parking, The City just won’t require them to do so.

“People hear ‘let’s get rid of all cars and all parking,’ well, no,” he said, that’s not what the plan is about.

Housing developers and their political backers also like the idea because it makes development cheaper, possibly paving the way for more housing be built, faster, to alleviate San Francisco’s rental crisis.

“This is the wave of the future,” said Todd David, executive director of Housing Action Coalition, an advocacy group.

David pointed to San Francisco’s self-proclaimed status as a “transit first” city and a need to cut greenhouse gases as compelling reasons to ditch parking. But, he said, it’s also common sense for developers because “they’d rather spend that money building homes,” not parking spaces.

At least one developer agrees with David. Michael Yarne, a co-founder of Social Construct Company with 15 years of experience developing in San Francisco, said building parking can get mighty expensive.

“It can add substantial cost to the project, in some cases perhaps make projects less feasible,” he said, especially when a lack of space on the property forces construction underground. He also said many new renters, who tend to be younger, are turning to bikeshare, Lyft, Uber, e-scooters, and any number of new transportation options to zip around The City.

Yarne famously battled city legislators over allowing more parking at the One Oak project, which is slated to see 304 condos rise near Market Street and Van Ness Avenue, leaving him with plenty of experience wrestling with The City’s parking codes. Despite that history, he said it’s time San Francisco embraced its transit tomorrow.

“Banning parking minimums is a fantastic idea,” he said, adding, “I would even go further to say it’s a no-brainer, particularly for a city that says it wants to be on the bleeding edge of sustainability.”


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