PARKING KARMA - This Thursday morning in Van Nuys, the Los Angeles City Planning Commission will take up a proposed new ordinance that would dramatically change parking policy across the city. The proposed law doesn’t directly change parking requirements; the policy is more insidious. It provides a way for the city, on a case by case basis, to reduce parking requirements and in some cases effectively eliminate them over time. I am a member of several organizations that have considered the new policy. This commentary reflects my personal views.
It is said that sunshine is a God-given right for those of us who live in Southern California … a reward for enduring the risk of earthquakes, mudslides, fires and, we are now reminded, tsunamis. Some consider free, plentiful parking to be #2 on that list of inalienable rights.
I wouldn’t go that far (car trips do, after all, generate greenhouse gases), but the point is well taken.
Los Angeles, even with its expansive bus system and evolving rail lines, is a driving city. Our boulevards and freeways offer a mobility platform that alternatives in many cases just can’t match … because the network isn’t there yet, the time required for travel can be prohibitive, and safety challenges remain for pedestrians and cyclists.
With its proposed new parking districts ordinance, the city rightly recognizes that providing parking is a costly proposition that often impedes economic development, be it for commercial or residential purposes. The city’s current parking requirements generally are one size fits all; in a city as large as Los Angeles, rarely do blanket solutions fit the bill.
Creativity is needed, and we’re seeing it. Notable examples include shared-parking systems in Beverly Hills, Pasadena and Santa Monica, and approaches like LA has taken downtown and in Hollywood to facilitate the redevelopment of significant older buildings by waiving parking requirements.
But LA’s proposed new parking districts ordinance, though well intentioned, is far from prudent. It would create an anything-goes atmosphere, with parking requirement reductions to be meted out at the will of politicians to reward patrons or to gin up the Pottersville growth machine at the expense of safety and LA neighborhoods.
The current code may not be perfect, but it’s far closer to perfection than what’s been proposed. The code can be fixed and should be, perhaps to include clear-cut parking reduction requirements within fixed-transit overlay districts, River overlay districts, and neighborhood revitalization districts, assuming certain conditions are met.
If anything as far-reaching (and as vague) as the proposed ordinance is enacted, its application should be limited to community plan updates, so parking decisions are made in context, with their impacts honestly identified and analyzed.
Here’s a look at seven key issues surrounding the proposed parking policy.
1. Of Babies and Bathwater
The zoning code already includes a mechanism to reduce parking requirements. It’s called a “Parking Reduction District.” The city maintains that the criteria to establish these districts is too tough, and that the requirements to maintain them are too burdensome. The city proposes to trash this tool and replace it with a policy that is extreme in the other direction. The baby need not be thrown out with the bathwater. The current code can be fixed.
2. Spot Zoning Isn’t Planning
The proposed ordinance would allow new reduced parking districts to be as small as three acres, which often is less than a block long. Thus, a single shopping center or apartment project could qualify for reduced parking at the arbitrary discretion of politicians. A colleague on my neighborhood council has suggested a minimum five-acre district size. That would be better, but it’s really still too small to be a true “district.” This approach is no replacement for holistic community planning.
3. City Hall’s Power Grab
The proposed ordinance would give extraordinary power to politicians and zoning administrators to waive parking requirements that today only can be reduced through zoning variances or conditional use permits. Once a parking district is created under the new law, the Kremlin (er, City Hall) would be able to apply additional parking reduction strategies within the area unless otherwise prohibited by the legislation establishing a district at the outset … with no further community notification.
4. Land Use and Transportation Disconnected
Consider the proposed “change of use parking standards.” Here’s the idea: A retail space is proposed to be a restaurant. A restaurant has higher parking requirements. Satisfying those requirements is costly, so sometimes the conversion doesn’t occur, and thus economic development is impeded. The ordinance proposes to address the problem by waiving the higher parking requirement for the restaurant.
The city report accompanying the ordinance offers this comfort: “It is anticipated that this tool would be utilized primarily in dense areas with ample transit opportunities or other transportation options, and/or areas with large supplies of publicly-available parking.” That’s fair enough, except that the ordinance doesn’t require as much, and thus it decouples land use and transportation planning.
Unanswered questions remain: What about existing businesses that may be located in or near change-of-use districts, in other words, the former retail space that already has converted to a restaurant and maintains off-site parking? Would that business be relieved of its off-site parking obligations? If so, that impact needs to be acknowledged. If not, the new businesses would get special privileges. This issue alone illustrates how fraught the proposed ordinance is with potential problems.
5. Who Needs Infrastructure and Code Enforcement Anyway?
The most significant language proposed to be deleted from current code requirements for reduced parking districts is (1) “infrastructure improvements” and (2) “a method for city monitoring and ensuring compliance therewith.” On infrastructure improvements, the presumption currently is that infrastructure improvements often are necessary to affect parking reduction districts, such as through improved sidewalk access.
This is true. For example, if off-site parking is 1,000 feet away but the sidewalks connecting the parking and the businesses are inadequate or unsafe (including when outdoor dining impedes pedestrian access), allowing the off-site parking without infrastructure improvements is risky business. But this language disappears from the proposed ordinance. The same is true with monitoring and compliance, which are necessary to assure a district’s success. But monitoring and compliance take a holiday from the new ordinance. Lucky them.
6. The Importance of Safe Streets
The city report accompanying the ordinance begins to make the case that some of the city’s parking requirements are too high, particularly for rental housing developments in highly dense areas well served by transit, where household members may have fewer than average cars. Higher parking requirements in these cases, the report says, create unnecessary development expense that in turn drives up the cost of housing creation and the cost of household rent.
This is an important issue; advancing the ordinance without fully airing it could have potentially significant consequences, particularly relative to pedestrian and cyclist safety. Is it appropriate to be encouraging more pedestrian and cyclist activity in neighborhoods that don’t have built-out sidewalks, where sidewalks are broken or too narrow, where curbs are too high or too low, where streets are challenging to cross? The condition of street-level infrastructure has to be considered in this debate.
7. The Mystery of Transit Development
Just as the proposed ordinance talks about making Los Angeles more “sustainable and pedestrian-friendly” but doesn’t actually do anything to that end, the proposed ordinance rationalizes reduced parking requirements as critical to transit-oriented development but does nothing to illuminate what transit-oriented development is or in what areas specifically these reduced parking districts should be.
Are all buildings within sight of a bus stop across all 469 square miles of Los Angeles transit development? Should the city be granting parking reductions for transit development in the absence of objective criteria to determine what it is?
Los Angeles can continue to avoid these planning challenges, or we can come to grips with them. LA Neighbors United has begun to do that, most recently with its proposal to establish fixed-transit overlay planning districts, River overlay planning districts and neighborhood revitalization planning districts.
The alternative to planning is anything-goes-anywhere … building out the city on a project-by-project basis. Isn’t that how LA’s dysfunctional density came to be in the first place?
(Cary Brazeman, a CityWatch contributor, is a Neighborhood Council member, founder of LA Neighbors United, and a former executive with CB Richard Ellis based in Los Angeles. Contact him through www.LAneighbors.org .) -cw
Vol 9 Issue 33
Pub: Apr 26, 2011