by Craig Adelman, Senior Principal, LDC

The City of San Diego just joined ranks with other prominent local government leaders from Santa Monica, Sacramento and San Francisco in prioritizing housing people over housing cars.

Under previous policies, housing developments in the City of San Diego must have included a minimum number of parking spaces depending on unit type and size. Unless granted discretionary approval, all new housing was required by statute to include a certain amount of parking, regardless of demonstrated usage patterns, affordability levels, proximity to transit, and environmental impact. Last month, San Diego City Council voted 7 to 2 to support a new policy that could have a great impact on lowering the cost of building new homes nears transit.

The new regulations eliminate parking minimums for multifamily developments in the downtown neighborhood and within Transit Priority Areas (TPAs). TPAs are defined as neighborhoods that are located one-half mile to a major existing transit stop. Instead of mandating parking construction, the City would allow developers to provide parking in accordance to what they perceive as the market demand. In some cases that could be no parking at all.

At up to $90,000 per parking space, the construction costs for housing automobiles is substantial and reduces project square footage for much needed housing for people. Either directly or indirectly, that cost is eventually born by the occupant. Relaxing parking requirements, then, is intended to improve the financial viability of smaller, infill housing developments, provide larger developments regulatory flexibility, and leverage existing transportation infrastructure to reduce housing costs and auto usage.

Other revisions include imposing a parking maximum of one parking space-per-unit and “unbundling” parking spaces from housing units. The latter prevents the cost of parking from being passed on to occupants who do not own automobiles, allowing the independent provision of housing and parking within a development (i.e. if an owner/occupant doesn’t use a car, they aren’t required to buy/rent a parking space). The former represents a shift in focus from housing cars to housing people.

When voicing her support for the proposed changes, San Diego Councilmember and Chair of the Land Use and Housing Committee, Vivian Moreno said, “We don’t have a parking crisis. We have a housing crisis.” By streamlining regulations, decreasing housing development costs, and encouraging the use of alternative modes of transportation, San Diego joins a growing list of world-class cities that have implemented innovative policies to address two of California’s greatest challenges: housing affordability and climate change.

The trend of Zero Parking Minimums continues to grow from about 25 cities in the U.S. in 2015 to over 125 today.  Parking guru Donald Shoup, a UCLA professor of planning and author of The High Cost of Free Parking, has been working to show the way to reform parking policies for almost 40 years.  In his book he argues that “minimum parking requirements subsidize cars, increase vehicle travel, encourage sprawl, worsen air pollution, raise housing costs, degrade urban design, preclude walkability, and exclude poor people.”  Professor Shoup’s recommendations are finally gaining traction and a new era that is not car-centric is being ushered in.