November Parking Initiative Threatens “Green” San Francisco

by Paul Hogarth on July 19, 2007

San Franciscans pride themselves on being “green,” but an electorate that twice denied George Bush a single precinct will vote this November on a proposition that might as well ignore global warming. It would encourage more driving, weaken our public transit system, drive up the cost of housing, and hamstring innovative solutions for a sustainable future. Drafted by Downtown Business elites – and funded by Republican C.E.O. Don Fisher – the Parking Initiative is easily the worst thing on the ballot, and progressives must prioritize its defeat at all costs. If passed, it would set stringent parking requirements that will bring more cars Downtown, while tying the hands of neighborhoods who want to control their future and deserve concessions from developers. It will eliminate the incentive to build affordable housing, while letting homeowners put up a driveway – even if it means blocking a Muni stop. No matter how you cut it, the Parking Initiative stinks and must be soundly defeated.

The Parking Initiative is a 61-page document that puts a “one-size-fits-all” formula on San Francisco’s neighborhoods. And because it’s a ballot initiative, if passed it would trump any action by the Planning Department or the Board of Supervisors and could only be repealed by the voters. It splits the City into two areas – Downtown and the neighborhoods – and imposes extra parking requirements that would hurt the flexibility of our diverse neighborhoods to come up with their own planning solutions.

Let’s start with what it does for Downtown. Under current law, a developer only needs to build one parking space Downtown for every four new units of housing – or two in the Rincon Hill area. This is good public policy because if you can live Downtown, you should not have to own a car. Public transportation is readily accessible, and you can probably walk to work. That’s what you pay for living in such a dense area.

But the Parking Initiative would increase the minimum Downtown parking requirement to three spaces for every four units of housing. This would encourage condo owners who move there to bring their car – as if they were still living in the suburbs. But it would also hurt affordable housing. Currently, developers can build more parking spaces in exchange for a higher percentage of affordable units. This would kill that incentive.

Even worse, the Initiative actively encourages people who work Downtown to bring their cars. Under current law, the maximum limit for parking space in office buildings is 7% of the floor area. It would loosen this requirement so that an office building with 500,000 square feet that currently has 189 parking spaces would have anywhere from 500 to 666 spots – or a 250% increase. Can you imagine more than 3 times the number of people driving Downtown during rush hour?

The measure’s proponents call it “Parking for the Neighborhoods,” and are hoping to tap into the frustration of neighborhood residents who can’t find a place to park. But it really doesn’t increase the minimum parking requirements outside of Downtown – it just locks the current regulations into place so that neighborhood people have no chance to ever come up with creative solutions that would create sustainable planning.

Under current law, San Francisco has a “one-for-one” parking policy in the neighborhoods – a developer must create one parking space for every new unit of housing built. The Parking Initiative doesn’t change that, but forever sets it into stone so that neighborhood residents can never work for a flexible solution to fit their needs. Developers often agree to certain concessions that the neighborhood wants in exchange for fewer parking spaces to make it more affordable. If this passes, it won’t be legal.

What if a developer wanted to build an apartment complex on a major street that is well served by public transportation? What if the building was designed for low-income seniors and the disabled, or young people who are less likely to own a car? Under the Parking Initiative, they would be obligated to build a parking space for every unit of housing – or else secure an off-site parking location with a 90-year lease. If it’s a commercial structure, the developer could build fewer spots – but only if they pay the City $15,000 for every parking space they don’t build.

At a time when families, working people, seniors, the disabled and people of color are fleeing the city because it’s too expensive, we must create incentives for developers to build more affordable housing. At a time when our streets are getting more congested – and our public transit system is unreliable because Muni buses get stuck in traffic – we need to encourage development that reduces the number of auto trips. By setting a rigid parking requirement in the Neighborhoods, any attempt to create new development that promotes an affordable, environmentally friendly future will be stalled.

Incredibly, the Parking Initiative would even allow homeowners to replace a bus stop in front of their house with a driveway. The owner of a residential building of up to four units would be allowed to create a curb cut in front of their property, regardless of “any potential effects on transit stops, transit preferential street, bicycle or primary pedestrian street.” Will Muni have to eliminate stops – and thus provide inferior service – because individual homeowners want to drive up to their front door?

But what’s most insulting for neighborhood residents is that the Parking Initiative would render hours of planning, hard work and deliberation that community activists put in to create their neighborhood plans meaningless. In Hayes Valley, Glen Park and other communities, residents have come together to create Planning Documents that have set varying parking guidelines for their neighborhoods that are appropriate to their areas, and that often created more pedestrian-oriented communities. If passed, the Parking Initiative would retroactively throw out any of these plans’ parking guidelines that deviated from it.

Of course, the Downtown interests behind the Parking Initiative are not stupid, so they are painting it as a “pro-neighborhood.” But they’ve also had the gall to pretend that it’s “pro-environment” by adding some very minimal requirements. Under the Initiative, any new buildings of 25 or more units would set aside at least one parking space for a “low emission vehicle.” It doesn’t distinguish between a 25-unit building or a 200-unit building, so the actual requirements are pitiful. They clearly put it in as a talking-point to rebut charges of the gross environmental catastrophes that this Initiative would bring.

Supervisor Michela Alioto-Pier had originally proposed this legislation at the Board of Supervisors, but removed it when they decided to collect signatures for the initiative process. By having a political consulting firm hire paid signature gatherers, along with generous funds from Don Fisher, it didn’t take long for this astroturf corporate campaign to qualify for the November ballot.

In March 2004, San Francisco voters soundly rejected a “Work Force Housing” initiative that would have massively gentrified the City. This Parking Initiative is more of the same – as the business elites envision a whiter, wealthier city that has dumped its public transportation system in exchange for more S.U.V.’s and Hummers. We defeated the “Work Force Housing” initiative. We can defeat this Parking Initiative in November.

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