At first glance, it seems almost counterintuitive to be skeptical about the “Parking for Neighborhoods Initiative.” Surely anyone who drives in San Francisco recognizes that the near-universal shortage of parking spaces is among The City’s worst frustrations.
It is easy to understand why the business community — which qualified this proposition for the November ballot — believes that more downtown parking available for customers and employees is good for commerce and jobs. It is also understandable that neighborhood voters might well approve a measure promising to increase off-street parking and make more curbside space available.
Parking for Neighborhoods would permanently mandate that more garage spaces be included in all future large-scale construction. It also empowers owners of existing smaller residences to add new garages.
The initiative’s selling point taps into another aggravating San Francisco issue. Putting it bluntly, San Franciscans are thoroughly dissatisfied with Muni. The buses and light rail are unreliable and overcrowded.
Muni riders are so disheartened that they actually feel relieved if there hasn’t been a systemwide breakdown for a few weeks.
Disappointingly, closer examination reveals this well-intentioned parking measure as a veritable minefield of unintended consequences. It could actually take away parking, harm business, reduce new housing and drive out neighborhood retail. By now, Californians should be wary of unexpected mischief unleashed from propositions that legislate by direct referendum.
Like all propositions, Parking for Neighborhoods was entirely written by its backers. As such, it was never vetted by public feedback or legislative debate. If the initiative organizers had faced harder questioning, they might have recognized that merely adding parking to a fast-growing downtown is likely to make already-bad traffic congestion dramatically worse.
As for neighborhood parking, when residential property owners build new garages, they also get to cut a new driveway into the curb, effectively removing a street parking space. Incredibly, the initiative specifies that new residential driveways have priority over lesser civic niceties such as bus stops or trees. Bus riders could be forced to walk farther and trees could be cut down to accommodate a private driveway.
Substantially increased parking-space minimums for new housing would increase developer costs, so fewer housing units would be built. Meeting expanded garage capacity requirements would also eliminate street footage for tax-generating neighborhood retail. And reserving bottom levels of high-rises for parking slots is a sure-fire method for encouraging Los Angeles-style sidewalks empty of human life.
Perhaps the single most startling loophole in the entire parking initiative is that it exempts all limits on how many parking spaces can be built for low-emission vehicles. Since virtually every passenger car and truck sold in America as of 2008 will qualify as low emission, this means there essentially would be no limits on how big new garages could be.