Libertarians at the Reason Foundation oppose latest California parking minimum reform bill

From Baruch Feisenbaum, who’s the Reason Foundation’s transportation analyst (disclaimer: I did an internship at Reason magazine a few years ago), surprising agreement with the American Planning Association’s California branch on the parking minimum reform bill (or at least, it surprised me):

The proposed bill has both positives and negatives. The positives include introducing a market-based approach to parking, allowing local governments to set higher standards if it is appropriate for the community, granting certain exemptions to the law including rent control and deed-restricted housing and using substantially more quantitative standards than the old ITE approach. (Under the ITE standards, there were multiple categories for each business using insufficient data points and low r-squared values. For example, adult entertainment had multiple categories. The nude dancing category had separate subcategories for different types of nude dancing including fully nude, partially nude, etc.)

However, there are significant problems with the bill that outweigh its positives. First, the bill sets a statewide standard. California is one of the largest, most diverse states in the country. What is effective in San Francisco may not work in Truckee, CA.

He also takes issue with the fact that the bill was sponsored by the California Infill Builders Association (disclaimer: I’m friendly with Mott Smith, who runs the group), which obviously stands to gain from reduced minimum parking requirements:

The bill is sponsored by the California Infill Builders Association. The association is a trade group working to increase infill housing. As parking spaces cost money, for developers to be able to build these apartments/houses they need something in return. The something could be lower parking standards. Parking should be priced and I understand the desire for infill housing. However, the bill would be best originating from someone without a stake in the game. Such legislation can then be reviewed by a university researcher, the California Legislative Analyst’s Office, and another independent party. The only professional transportation group that has weighted in, APA, is not a strong supporter of the bill.

Finally, he sides with APA California:

This bill presents a big government solution to a government created problem. Free market solutions should operate outside of big government meddling. If the government is restricting free-market parking pricing (which it is) the bill should end subsidies to automobile drivers and developers. All transportation modes should operate on an equal plane. Creating a subsidy to counter another subsidy is both expensive and counterintuitive.

Assemblyman Nancy Skinner deserves credit for trying to encourage market-based pricing. And APA California could be more open to the concept. However, this bill is a big government state-imposed solution that may or may not offer exemptions, does not consider the different geographies of the state and does not separate existing from current transit service. As written this bill needs substantial changes. If the author’s amendment passes, it still has some significant aspects that need fine tuning before it should be considered on a statewide basis.

Stam Staley, a senior research fellow at the Reason Foundation, said on Twitter that he agrees with Baruch.

First of all, regarding the fact that developers are sponsoring the group, as long as they’re being honest about their involvement with the bill, I see no problem with it. The APA’s members obviously also have a stake in the legislation: the state of California is trying to reign in their powers to regulate land use. Does Baruch have a problem with the fact that airline deregulation was spurred by lawsuits by Southwest?

But more importantly, I think there’s a slippery slope in saying that state governments should not infringe on their localities’ abilities to infringe upon private property rights. Libertarians often advocate devolving government to the lowest level possible, but there are certain instances – this one included, in my opinion – where decentralization and libertarianism clash. I tend to come down on the side of libertarianism, local autonomy be damned, but it looks like Baruch and Sam have come to a different conclusion here.

But how far are they willing to take that principle? Do Baruch and Sam also oppose state-level laws that emerged after the Supreme Court’s Kelo ruling that limit localities’ abilities to take land by eminent domain for private use? What about Massachusetts’ 1995 state referendum that ended Boston, Cambridge, and Brookline’s locally-enacted rent control laws? Does lowest-level-governance always trump free markets, or do they draw the line somewhere?

I should also say that I’m a bit disturbed by the fact that Baruch thinks that parking minimums are okay so long as they’re based on something more sophisticated than the standard ITE numbers. Is he basically saying that bureaucrats telling developers how much parking they must include on their private property is okay, so long as the bureaucrats are using a good model?

“This is the dirty secret of California’s Density Bonus law…”

Inclusionary zoning – everyone wants to talk about it! Dave Alpert at GGW started the discussion with his pro-IZ piece, and hot on the heels of Emily’s post earlier today, I got an email from a California developer who wishes to remain anonymous:

This is the dirty secret of California’s Density Bonus law: it’s primarily a way to give 100% affordable projects easy land use concessions. It has barely any effect on market-rate projects, despite all the attention it gets from affordable housing advocates.

Incidentally, the number of affordable units in market-rate density bonus projects – 212 – over the total number of units produced in L.A. during the same period – 53,000 – is 0.4%. Vanishingly few. The number of units produced exclusively with the parking concession – the 6 condo conversion units – is 0.01%. Statistically the same as zero.

If people really want to get affordable housing built, they would do much better to find more direct ways to pay for it – like through property tax revenues or other sources where everybody pays. Trying to pay for affordable units by constraining market-rate development and trying to the capture value that is “created” when those constraints are released is not only a pretty ineffective way to create affordable housing, it’s an excellent way to make market rate housing more expensive.

I’ve got some thoughts of my own on inclusionary zoning and the anti-density sentiment it can engender among some affordable housing activists, which I’ll hopefully post tomorrow.

APA California hints (strongly) at opposition to parking minimum reform bill

Minimum parking requirement reform bills have been floating around the California legislature for a while – last year it was AB 710, and this year it’s AB 904, both authored by East Bay Asm. Nancy Skinner.

This email blast to members from the American Planning Association’s California chapter doesn’t take an official position and does ask at the end for input, but their feelings on the bill are kind of hard to miss (all emphasis theirs, edited slightly for clarity):

AB 904 [.pdf], sponsored by the Infill Builder Association and authored again by Assembly Member Skinner, is a gut and amend that is now similar to AB 710 (Skinner). This bill requires restrictive parking standards similar to those included in AB 710, which you’ll recall died on the Senate floor at the end of last year. AB 904, in a different form, already passed the Assembly, and is now awaiting hearing in the Senate.

APA California is not opposed to the concept of lower parking requirements near transit when a community decides it is right for them – the issue is that a one-sized-fits-all statewide standard is not appropriate.

AB 904, on and after January 1, 2014, would prohibit a city or county (including charter cities) from requiring minimum parking requirements in transit-intensive areas greater than the following:

• One parking space per 1000 square feet for nonresidential projects (including commercial, industrial, institutional, or any other nonresidential projects regardless of type of use).
• One parking space per unit for non-income-restricted residential projects.
• 75/100ths parking spaces per unit for projects that include both income restricted and non-income restricted units.
• 5/10ths parking spaces per unit for units that are deed restricted at least 55 years to rents or prices affordable to persons and families making less than 60% of area median income.

The definition of “transit-intensive area” means an area that is within 1/2 mile of a major transit stop or within 1/4 mile of the center line of a high-quality transit corridor included in a regional transportation plan, including a major transit stop such as a High Speed Rail transit stop) included in a regional transportation plan but not completed.

There are a few exceptions. Units with floor ratios below 0.75, deed-restricted rent control/rental replacement units, and units where the owner withdrew the units from rental are all exempt from the parking restrictions.

Local agencies can impose higher parking standards than are included in the bill if they make written findings, based on substantial evidence and “objective criteria” that all of the following apply to the specific transit-intensive area:
1. There isn’t sufficient walkability.
2. There isn’t sufficient level of transit service or bike access to provide viable alternatives to the car.
3. The lower standards undermine “existing parking standards that create effective incentives for transit-oriented development or affordable housing production, or both”.
4. The standards conflict with a station area plan in effect as of 1/1/2013 that provides reduced off-street parking compared to standard zoning required outside the transit-intensive area.

The local agency would be required to adopt an ordinance implementing any parking standards above those included in the bill. But, if the agency does not adopt such an ordinance by January 1, 2014, projects deemed complete after January 1, 2014, but before adoption of the ordinance, would be required to meet the reduced parking requirements in this bill.

The sponsors believe that builders and the market should decide how much parking to provide, and that these reduced parking standards significantly reduce the cost of development and increase the number of transit-accessible and affordable housing units, increase density and development and use of public transit, and reduce green house gas emissions and vehicle miles traveled by removing an incentive to drive.

APA California is interested in receiving your comments on this measure, and are also interested in how you believe the bill would specifically impact your jurisdiction or community. Please send your comments to Sande George, contact info below, within the next two weeks.

In addition, if you believe that this bill would create problems for you community, we urge you to write a letter to the author, with a copy to Sande, expressing opposition.

Sande George
Lobbyist, APA California
Stefan/George Associates
925 L Street, Suite 200
Sacramento, CA 95814
916-443-3494 (fax)

Thank you everyone,
Dave Snow, APA California Vice President of Policy and Legislation
Sande George, APA California Executive Director and Lobbyist
Lauren Silva, APA California Lobbyist

(Not sure if they took a position on last year’s bill – anyone know?)

And then there’s also the issue of affordable housing groups. Last go around, some opposed the legislation because they felt it would negate a specific type of affordable housing incentive where developers are allowed to build less parking than the statutory minimums require in exchange for setting aside some units for below-market rents/sales prices.

Here’s Mott Smith, a board member of the California Infill Builders Federation (which backs the bill) and a principal at LA-based Civic Enterprise, on affordable housing groups’ positions on today’s bill:

We already have the support of the California Housing Consortium, the State’s largest big-tent affordable housing builder group, the NRDC, the Nonprofit Housing Association of Northern California and some other key groups from across the political spectrum. We are working with Housing California, who we expect to take a position on June 20th, the San Diego Housing Federation and the Southern California Association of Nonprofit Housing, who we expect to take positions in the coming several days.

What good is form-based zoning when you just keep everything the same?

“Form-based zoning” is something that I’ve never entirely understood. It’s always explained to me as regulating form not use, and generally the example given is that form-based zoning will require certain design aesthetics but not dictate whether something is used as a residence or a place of business or whatever. And instead of setbacks, FAR requirements, etc., it will dictate overall size (I guess with a height limit?). But while it seems marginally more pleasant to mandate parking lots go behind buildings, it doesn’t seem to me like zoning by “form” is inherently better than the status quo American planning tools. A planner can use a Euclidean designation to accomodate high-density development just as easily as he can use a form-based code to force suburbia on an area. In other words, the devil’s in the details, and just moving to a form-based code doesn’t really change anything if you don’t also allow for more growth overall

After reading this paper (abridged ungated version as a .pdf here) on parking in Miami’s new form-based code – “Miami 21,” implemented in 2009 – I fear that I was right, and that form-based codes will probably end up looking just like the old ones:

In general, there are minimal parking requirement changes in the Miami 21 form-based code. Lower minimum requirements or the establishment of appropriate parking maximums in existing, compact urban neighborhoods would protect the existing character of these areas and encourage the development of context-sensitive development that promotes walkability. Yet the proposed parking requirements in the Miami 21 form-based code still include relatively high minimums, even in the more urban transects

This is partially a critique of DPZ’s SmartCode, which does not reduce parking requirements signi?cantly even in the more urban transects. Considering the level of public transportation service in its urban core and the rapid construction of multiple high-rises in its downtown, parking requirements in at least the urban core (T6) transect for Miami could be lower. In particular, fewer parking spaces in the urban core would support market-level parking pricing, public transportation, and walking. This requirement would reduce greenhouse gases, air pollution, and the urban degradation that results from parking lots creating characterless voids and increasing automobile use, which deteriorates urban street life

The Miami 21 “form-based code” doesn’t even actually drop the use-based zoning – commercial use is not allowed in the “suburban transect” and part of the “general urban” one. In fact, the authors found that the development patterns allowed by the new form-based code are generally pretty similar to what was allowed by the old code – they just translated it into the new “form-based” language. And whereas the old code exempted small buildings from parking minimums, Miami 21 doesn’t give any exceptions for size. It does appear to drop the parking minimums entirely for development within 1,000 feet of a rail station, but only for residential and only in the densest two zones, which, based on their names (T6-60 and T6-80), sound like only the very core of the skyscraper district.

And that DPZ SmartCode the authors mention? That’s the Duany Plater-Zyberk SmartCode, written by Andrés Duany, leader of the New Urbanism movement. The Miami 21 code has some unfortunately high minimums, but I was shocked to see that even the downtown minimums in Duany’s SmartCode are higher than the minimums that Miami had before the form-based revision. In other words, Miami’s old code was in some ways more transit- and pedestrian-friendly than the New Urbanist ideal.

Laneway housing in Vancouver and beyond

Vancouver holds a special place in most urbanists’ heart – a sort of supercharged version of Portland, with its stunning skyline and bold embrace of density and transit. In addition to the glassy forest of skyscrapers, it also passed a law enabling laneway housing under former mayor Sam Sullivan’s EcoDensity initiative. Sullivan was pretty controversial, but he never even came up for a second vote after Peter Ladner launched a party coup and then went on to lose the election anyway. As a result, it doesn’t look like the laneway housing rules have been revised, which is a shame, since as Vancouver architect Graham Barron (who has an excellent blog on development in Vancouver) writes, there are some problems:

The objective of the infill design guideline is to encourage the retention of existing buildings, but the guideline’s own side yard setback makes this nearly impossible. In practice, this means that the vast majority of developers of these lots demolish the existing building and construct a new duplex. (Many of these new duplexes look like character buildings, but in fact are built slab-on-grade, i.e. without basements, and without attics, much like the cheap Vancouver Specials that preceded them). This is the first irony.

The second irony is that many of the two-family zones in the City are meant to be heritage-friendly zones, which promote the preservation of character and heritage houses. Since it is largely impossible to build infill, and very costly to renovate or expand an older building, most developers will demolish the existing house, and then design the new duplex in a faux heritage style in order to get a density bonus that allows for greater floorspace. Result: character is being replaced with faux character.

The final irony is that these new duplexes are then required to have a two-car garage on the lane, a parking requirement that is meant to reduce crowding on the street. (Never mind that many duplex owners park on the street anyway, and use their garage for storage.) This required garage ends up being about the same size as the infill laneway house that the design guidelines originally prevented.

Even though Vancouver is, I believe, the only city in North America to allow any sort of laneway infill, I think it’s a very promising form. The District of Columbia, in particular could, desperately use it – strong demand has hit up against the limit of the Height Act downtown, and now that downtown is nearly built up to the absolute limit that Congress will allow, the gentrification line has hit the streetcar suburbs filled with rowhomes. Here people commonly see two options: don’t allow any more development, or allow the prewar rowhomes to be knocked down and replaced with mid- or high-rises.

But there is another option: Allow development in the alleyways! DC has tons of alleys, and in my neighborhood, Trinidad, some of the alleys are so wide that they show up as unmarked streets on Google Maps. In any other city they would had crammed at least one more row of houses. Most alleys are of course not that large, but any alley that currently has a garage could manage a small two-story house in its place. In Georgetown one alley was blessed by the intervention of Eastbanc, a developer with enough clout to have their way with the city planners, and is now one of the nicest places in Georgetown, but I don’t think any developer has managed to successfully persuade local community groups and city planners to allow that sort of redevelopment anywhere else.

If Washington and other cities across the US do some day deign to loosen their grip on development and allow laneway housing, they would do well to learn lessons from Vancouver – be flexible about where you allow the buildings, and for god’s sake, don’t mandate parking!

(By the way, here’s another good blog about development in Vancouver, this one by developer Michael Geller.)

Links: “At least they’re being honest” edition

1. NY Governor Cuomo promises the “most aggressive” strengthening of the state’s (read: NYC’s) rent laws.

2. Bronx <3 parking: “This community wants a moratorium on any more building until we get a parking lot.” “We don’t want any bigger buildings and we want parking space for everyone.”

3. Do people realize that “I don’t mind modernist architecture” and “All new buildings must have decorative cornices and intricate brickwork” are fundamentally incompatible statements?

4. Witold Rybczynski on density. Nothing you haven’t already heard a million times before, but, Witold Rybczynski!

5. DC’s zoning code finally allows building owners to enclose the once-encouraged outdoor arcades.

“I’ve Walked Away From Projects Because of Parking Minimums”

Streetsblog NYC has been doing an excellent job of hounding the city on its lack of action on parking reforms, but this article with developer Alan Bell talking about his experience with parking minimums in the city is, I think, the best so far. Here’s an excerpt:

Hudson might have built more housing were it not for parking minimums, however. Bell said in an interview that he’s walked away from a number of projects because he couldn’t make the required parking fit or evade the parking minimums by subdividing the development into small pieces. “One comes to mind on Grand Street in East Williamsburg. You couldn’t get out with the waiver because you’re building too many units.”

Without the ability to claim an exemption from parking minimums, the economics of the development didn’t add up. “If you have a modest size building, it’s really prohibitive,” said Bell. In addition to the direct costs of building structured parking, which Bell said can range from $25,000 to $50,000 per space, making room for the parking can also reduce revenues. “If you’re up against other buildings on both sides, you’re going to have to reduce your perimeter retail frontage because you need an entrance for a garage.”

Other times, said Bell, he’s able to manipulate the structure of the development to ensure that he can avoid parking minimums. In East New York, he divided one project into four different five to six story buildings. “We just played around with the unit mixes so that we could get each of them under the waiver.” Had he not been trying to avoid the parking regulations, said Bell, “theoretically, we could have built more units.” (In practice, a different set of city regulations would have prevented that at this particular site, even without the parking requirements.)


1. NYT reports on dense suburban projects being scaled back across Long Island not because of financing constraints or the recession, but because local governments are refusing to accept the density. At the end it cites AvalonBay as saying that after the its rebuke on the Island, it will reconsider “whether we would stay on Long Island and be an investor.” AvalonBay is a developer that specifically targets “high barrier-to-entry markets,” so the fact that it’s considering pulling out of the market entirely is a bad sign for Long Island’s long-term growth prospects.

2. Cap’n Transit on the private bus battle brewing in New York City that we should all be paying more attention to. Coincidentally, earlier today I did a search for new about dollar vans, and the only coverage I found was about car crashes – anyone know of any new developments that have flew under the radar of the mainstream media? Separated by language and legality, private buses might be one of New York City’s most undercovered industries.

3. An incredible list of demands from DC Walmart foes. I have no particular love for Walmart – it’s clear that their business model relies heavily on government intervention in favor of roads and sprawl – but any self-styled “community” group that’s demanding free buses every 10 minutes to the Metro, transit benefits for workers, and “free or low-priced parking spaces” is not to be taken seriously. I also like how they want Walmart not to screen workers’ backgrounds at all but also want “no less than two off-duty D.C. police officers on its premises at all times.” The demand for direct cash bribes at the end is also pretty classy.

4. SFpark, the San Francisco market-based on-street parking pricing scheme, has launched. Apparently the price can get up to $18/hour during special events – I hope they let it rise that high all the time if the market can bear it!

5. Manhattan developers are pushing upzoning in Chinatown, which some are linking to the creation of the BID. Given that Asian migrants seem to be skipping the traditional Manhattan Chinatown entirely and going directly to Queens, Brooklyn, and North Jersey, I wouldn’t be surprised if Manhattan’s Chinatown becomes significantly less Asian in the years to come.