Proposition H - Parking Initiative

Voter Guide
November 1, 2007
This measure appeared on the November 2007 San Francisco ballot.

 

What it does

This measure would revise numerous provisions of the Planning Code to allow developers, at their discretion, to provide as much or as little parking in new projects downtown as they choose, and to prevent the reduction of current parking requirements in certain neighborhoods outside the downtown area. The initiative ordinance was placed onto the ballot through the gathering of signatures. If passed, this measure has the potential to radically increase the amount of commuter parking in downtown San Francisco, and to disrupt Muni operations by increasing congestion in the downtown transit core, and by allowing curb cuts at Muni stops and along major transit corridors.

Why it is on the ballot

HOW PARKING IS REGULATED IN SAN FRANCISCO

As in every other city, the City's Planning Code regulates how much parking is required and permitted in buildings. It allows project sponsors to do some things "as of right," meaning that no special judgment or discretion is needed to approve the project, while other things are allowed with a "conditional use permit," meaning that the City may impose special conditions on the project because it requires judgment or discretion to allow it. Typically, the Planning Code establishes a minimum amount of required parking for a given use and a given location; developers are usually allowed to build up to 150 percent of the minimum amount as their maximum, and with a conditional use permit they may be allowed to build even more.

Minimum parking requirements in San Francisco vary depending upon the neighborhood and the use. These requirements are spelled out in excruciating detail in the Planning Code, and are custom-tailored every time there is a new neighborhood plan. (Thus, this ordinance, which revises the code line by line, takes up nearly 60 pages.) Currently there are different requirements for the downtown area and for residential neighborhoods.

DOWNTOWN

For almost 30 years, San Francisco has been pioneering in its approach to parking in its downtown commercial district. Since 1978, parking for new office buildings has not been required and only a small amount has been allowed as of right. Parking greater than these amounts can be allowed by the Planning Commission in the Downtown but only after considering (1) whether the trips to be served by the parking instead could be served by existing and reasonably foreseeable transit, by car-pools, by more efficient use of existing on and off-street parking, or by other means; and (2) whether there would be detrimental effects created by the provision of increased parking, such as contributions to traffic congestion or conflict with or disruption of transit. The downtown has grown and prospered under this approach. Office buildings and the economy have flourished.

Last year, the mayor and the Board of Supervisors adopted a measure to better control the growth of residential parking downtown. The new zoning codes slightly decreased allowable parking in recognition that the extensive availability of transit and the growing success of car-sharing will attract many people to live downtown without personal automobiles. Among other effects of the new codes, the amount of parking allowed for residential uses was capped at three spaces for every four one-bedroom or studio units, and one space for every unit of two bedrooms or more.

RESIDENTIAL NEIGHBORHOODS

In neighborhoods outside the downtown area, the Planning Code generally requires a minimum of one parking space for each newly constructed dwelling unit. In recent years the City has engaged residents in some neighborhoods to develop area plans which the residents prefer, including plans that call for reduced parking requirements in order to provide more transit-friendly and affordable housing in keeping with the existing character of the neighborhood. This initiative imposes the same parking requirements in all neighborhoods and takes away the ability of neighborhood plans to change parking requirements through the current process. For instance, it would prohibit the implementation of some aspects of the Market-Octavia neighborhood plan that the Planning Commission already has approved.

NEIGHBORHOOD COMMERCIAL DISTRICTS

Auto ownership in the City has risen and, as more vacant lots with surface parking have been developed, there has been a loss of off-street parking. The demand for parking is acute in some neighborhood commercial districts. The use of on-street parking by merchants and their employees, who feed the parking meters all day, often is a problem. To date the City has made little effort to manage parking in neighborhood commercial districts through traffic-demand management strategies that would price parking to allow for greater availability for short term on-street parking needs, although the San Francisco County Transportation Authority is developing procedures to improve neighborhood parking through their "On-street Parking Management and Pricing Study."

Pros

Those who support this measure claim:

  • San Francisco needs more parking. For many people, transit, bicycling or walking are not reasonable alternatives, so automobile uses should be accommodated.
  • In some instances, residents in buildings with less than one parking space per unit may own a car and park it on the street, thus making the parking situation in the immediate area slightly more difficult. By requiring developers to build a minimum amount of parking (or to choose to avoid such parking through a moderate fee), this measure could reduce circumstances in which new residents park their cars in existing street spaces.
  • The current system can be construed as unfair to some property owners. In certain situations they can be prohibited from adding a parking space and driveway if it will negatively affect a transit stop, bicycle lane or street tree. Neighbors without these public amenities in front of their property are not so restricted.
  • The measure may result in the payment of fees that can be used to help build public parking garages in neighborhood commercial districts.
  • The measure would produce more off-street parking citywide at no direct cost to the City.

Cons

Those who oppose this measure claim:

  • This measure would negate decades of sound planning and transportation policy for downtown San Francisco, as well as more recent policies that support reduced parking requirements in some transit-rich areas of the city, by allowing as much as six times more parking in new buildings.
  • The measure restricts the ability of City officials - the Planning Commission and the Board of Supervisors - to manage the supply of downtown parking, thereby removing the ability of our city's leaders to manage congestion.
  • The measure would pre-empt neighborhoods from determining their own parking needs, instead applying a "one size fits all" set of parking requirements to the rest of the city. In several of the recent examples of neighborhood planning (such as the Market and Octavia Better Neighborhoods Plan) neighbors have supported increased residential development with neighborhood-specific restrictions on the development of new parking. This measure would prevent neighborhoods from customizing parking requirements based on their transit accessibility, and community needs and desires.
  • The measure would contradict the City's own Transit First policy by encouraging auto commuting to work, in violation with the city's General Plan, according to the city's Planning Department. The increases in parking permitted downtown could overwhelm the capacity of downtown streets to handle the traffic and further slow public transit operating on and near downtown streets. The resulting traffic would impede our ability to continue to build a dense, walkable downtown where the vast majority of commuters now arrive at work via transit.
  • The increased car traffic generated by downtown development will also impose an increasing burden on the neighborhoods surrounding the downtown area, limiting the City's ability to make these neighborhoods more safe and livable.
  • By expanding commuter parking in the downtown, this measure will increase automobile-generated greenhouse gas emissions and air pollution, which will undermine San Francisco's goals of protecting and improving the local and global environment.
  • Allowing new garages and curb cuts without restriction in any residential structure in a residential district with four or fewer units would mean the disruption of transit stops and transit shelters, as well as the removal of mature trees. This provision would undermine neighborhood character, degrade transit and the walkability of neighborhoods, and eliminate one - and often, two - publicly accessible on-street parking spaces.
  • Exempting parking for "low emission" vehicles from the parking limits while defining such vehicles so broadly is a huge loophole that results in virtually no limits on the amount of commuter parking a developer can build and operate.
  • Many people in San Francisco, comprising about 30 percent of the city's households, do not own cars and live a car-free lifestyle. By requiring a parking space in each new dwelling unit outside downtown, housing will be made less affordable to the many San Franciscans who live without a car.
  • This measure is the worst example of ballot-box planning. The initiative prevents the Planning Commission and Board of Supervisors from making any changes, however much needed, that violate the "intent" of the dozens of amendments made throughout dozens of sub-sections of the Planning Code unless they return to the voters to do so.

SPUR's analysis

This measure proposes a radical departure from the current approach to parking regulation in San Francisco. Its primary impacts would:

  • Dramatically increase the amount of parking allowed as of right in all new development downtown.
  • Set a floor for minimum parking requirements in the rest of the city outside of downtown, regardless of what future neighborhood planning efforts propose.
  • Establish a new right for property owners to add at least one parking space for each unit regardless of whether it harms Muni operations or street trees.
  • Place nearly 60 pages of established existing and amended Planning Code onto the ballot, thereby restricting the ability of the Planning Commission or Board of Supervisors to make any changes to that code in the future without going back to the voters for approval.
  • Shrink the Downtown Commercial District (C-3 zoning). This would prevent the expansion of the high-density downtown district to new areas like Mission Bay.
  • Allow for some flexibility in the provision of off-site parking.

The following sections describe each of the key aspects of the measure.

1. THE INITIATIVE DRAMATICALLY INCREASES THE AMOUNT OF PARKING ALLOWED AS OF RIGHT IN ALL NEW DEVELOPMENTS DOWNTOWN.

Additional Office Parking Downtown. The measure proposes a radical departure from the current successful approach to parking regulation in downtown San Francisco, quintupling the amount of parking allowed. Currently, the Planning Code allows approximately parking to occupy no more than 7 percent of the building's gross floor area, equal to about one space for each 4,000 square feet of occupied space. The initiative would allow as-of-right one space for each 1,000 square feet of occupied building area, four times as much as the current Planning Code. An additional increment, bringing the total up to one space per 750 square feet, would be allowable by the Planning Commission under certain circumstances.

Additional Residential Parking Downtown. The initiative increases the amount of residential parking in the Downtown Commercial, or C-3, zoning districts. In the downtown area, the initiative allows three spaces as of right for every four dwelling units instead of the current one space for every four dwelling units. The initiative also allows, "by exception," an additional space for each four units for a total of one space per dwelling unit, instead of the current maximum of three spaces for every four dwelling units. The initiative also slightly increases the number of as-of-right spaces in Rincon Hill from two spaces for each four dwelling units to three spaces for each four dwelling units.

Parking for "Low Emission" Vehicles Exempt from Parking Limits. The initiative provides that parking for "low emission" vehicles shall not be counted toward the maximum quantities of off-street parking allowed as accessory. The initiative's definition of low-emission vehicle includes not just most hybrids and alternative-fuel vehicles, but many other types of vehicles as well. At least 208 models of cars and trucks are low-emissions vehicles under this standard.

2. THE INITIATIVE SETS A FLOOR FOR MINIMUM PARKING REQUIREMENTS IN THE REST OF THE CITY OUTSIDE OF DOWNTOWN, REGARDLESS OF WHAT FUTURE NEIGHBORHOOD PLANNING EFFORTS PROPOSE.

The initiative prevents the reduction of parking requirements in individual neighborhoods by freezing the existing parking requirements in rest of the city outside of downtown, including the requirement of one parking space per dwelling unit, regardless of what the residents in that neighborhood want. Parking regulations, which should be custom-tailored to a neighborhood through an inclusive planning process, would be locked in at the ballot, amendable only by another vote of the city's electorate.

3. THE INITIATIVE ESTABLISHES A NEW RIGHT FOR PROPERTY OWNERS TO PUT IN ONE PARKING SPACE FOR EACH UNIT, REGARDLESS OF WHETHER IT HARMS MUNI OPERATIONS OR EXISTING STREET TREES.

The initiative allows property owners to add garages without regard to "any potential effect on transit stops, bicycle or primary pedestrian street, or any existing street tree, provided that such conversion or modification is consistent with all applicable development standards for the district where the structure is located." Currently, the Planning Commission may deny a building permit if the construction would destroy an important tree or transit stop.

4. THE INITIATIVE PLACES NEARLY 60 PAGES OF EXISTING AND AMENDED PLANNING CODE ONTO THE BALLOT.

The impact of this is to restrict the ability of the Planning Commission or Board of Supervisors to make any changes to that code in the future without going back to the voters for approval. The initiative makes dozens of amendments, spread throughout dozens of sub-sections of the Planning Code. In the future, these amendments could be modified only by going back to the voters for approval.

5. THE INITIATIVE CONTRACTS THE WESTERN BOUNDARY OF THE DOWNTOWN COMMERCIAL DISTRICT.

The initiative restricts the Downtown Commercial and Downtown Residential districts to the area bounded by Van Ness Avenue, 11th Street, Townsend Street and the Bay, thereby reversing the planned expansion of those transit-friendly designations to the neighborhoods around Market Street and Van Ness Avenue. In this sense, the measure surreptitiously undertakes a very significant ballot-box zoning, affecting the future of this city's urban core.

6. THE INITIATIVE PROVIDES MORE FLEXIBILITY IN PROVIDING PARKING OFF-SITE.

In the only provision that reflects a good idea that supports SPUR's goal of sustainable urban development, this initiative makes it easier to locate a development's parking a reasonable walking distance away from the development and makes it easier to encourage shared parking uses. For example, workday users and users on nights and weekends could make use of the same parking facility. In neighborhood commercial districts only, the initiative permits a project sponsor - in lieu of providing a required parking space - to pay $15,000 per space to the Off-Street Parking Revenue Account to be used to help pay for new public parking facilities or to help pay for the City's traffic-signal management program, SFgo. This provision replaces current Code requirements that allow the Planning Commission to set payments in lieu of building a parking space at "an amount deemed sufficient to provide for the future construction of the required number of parking stalls." The $15,000 amount proposed by this initiative is far less than the actual cost of building a parking space, and may not be adjusted for inflation or changed for any reason without another vote of the people. For reference, the North Beach, completed several years ago before recent construction cost escalation, cost more than $100,000 per parking space.

This measure would reverse 35 years of city planning policy in San Francisco, undermines the City's Transit First policy and runs counter to established SPUR policy. SPUR has long stood for a vision of San Francisco that promotes residential and job growth through reliance on transit. Our current downtown plan reaffirmed those principles and helped create a job center where more than 50 percent of workers take transit to their jobs. Forcing additional parking into new office and residential development will increase congestion and destroy the relatively successful downtown transportation system by making Muni slower, less reliable and costlier to operate.

The measure also contradicts SPUR's longstanding critique of ballot-box planning. By placing dozens of pages of Planning Code directly into the text of the measure, it locks these sections of code and prevents any changes to them by the Planning Commission or the Board of Supervisors. Neighborhood-planning process such as the one that has earned consensus support of the residents in the Market-Octavia neighborhood could not culminate with a simple vote at the Board of Supervisors, but would have to go to San Francisco voters for approval. The measure contains no sunset provision, which means that these provisions must stand indefinitely, even if circumstances change that would make amendments to the code desirable.

The measure also specifically reduces the discretion of the Planning Department and Planning Commission to make adjustments to parking requirements depending on neighborhood context or any other factor. In short, it invalidates neighborhood planning. There is a real need for better parking management in San Francisco's neighborhoods, but this measure does not address those key concerns. Simply adding more parking in new development without improving parking management and transit will exacerbate parking problems and traffic congestion. Lastly, this measure is divisive, as it tries to pit drivers against transit riders, and neighborhood against neighborhood. Instead, we need to find collaborative solutions to the important issue of parking management in a dense city. This measure fails to achieve that. Ultimately, this is a backward-looking measure that does not move the city forward into a more sustainable, more livable future.

SPUR recommends a "No" vote on Prop. H.