December 30, 1993 - From the December, 1993 issue

Density/Parking Nexus Issues Unresolved

The L.A. City Housing Department (LAHD) has proposed a controversial plan: reduce the amount of parking to entice develops to get density bonuses for affordable housing. Laureen Lazarovici lays out the defenders and opponents of the plan. LAHD presented studies that affordable housing currently do not use their parking lot to the fullest. Low-income housing developers agree. On the otherhand, The Planning Department is very skeptical of this finding. 

With the production of low-income housing dropping but the demand for it staying strong and steady, policy makers have been looking for ways to encourage developers to build affordable housing. The L.A. City Housing Department is championing a plan which would make it easier for builders to get density bonuses and would reduce the amount of parking - much of which is currently wasted under existing rules - that they would have to provide. Not surprisingly, though, the plan is coming under fire from homeowner leaders who oppose the effects of increased densification. The Planning Department is studying the proposal and the Planning Commission is slated to hear it by January 1994. 

A 1980 state law already mandates that developers be given a 25 percent density bonus if they set aside a certain percentage of units for low-income residents. "Developers do get density bonuses," says Maya Dunne, head of the planning and policy branch of the LAHD, "but there are a lot of roadblocks." It became clear that developers needed additional incentives to lure them into this market. The housing department came up with a plan that would allow the use of rooftops to meet the open space requirements, expedite processing, waive the required public hearing, and - most controversial of the suggestions - reduce the number of parking spaces required. 

"We've got vast numbers of un­used parking," argues LAHD's Dunne. "A lot of space is being wasted." The Housing Department contends that the lower a person's income, the fewer miles they drive and the fewer cars they have. They did a site survey, examining 22 affordable housing developments all over the city between the hours of 5:30 a.m. and 9 a.m. on weekends (when cars would most likely be there). No location had full parking lots; most were only one quarter to one half full. In addition, they found, there was lots of street parking available. The square footage and money that developers spend on parking spaces could be used to accommodate and fund additional needed units.

Low-income housing developers - many of whom get public funding - corroborate those statistics, their voices rising in frustration as they recount the money and space wasted. "At one of our projects, Strathern Park, we have 241 units of family housing. We have two spaces per unit plus visitor parking. We barely need one space per unit, but we couldn't get a waiver," complains Dave Ferguson, vice president of Thomas Safran and Associates. "On average, these spaces cost $8000 per space. That's public money!" he exclaims. But getting around rigid rules engendered creative solutions. "We built part of the parking lot out of concrete instead of tar and roped it off to create a children's play area."

Jack Gardner, executive director of the Hollywood Community Housing Corporation, says that at the Dunning Apartments Project, which was financed by the Community Redevelopment Agency, the parking is under 50 percent utilized. "That's the real life experience. We build barren landscapes of parking. Subterranean is especially expensive. Public agencies criticize non-profits for spending too much. So we ask for variances. The neighbors complain, so often we don't get them,” he says. "I have a project going now which could have benefited greatly from reduced parking. I could have saved $10,000 to $12,000 per unit and still provided the parking needed. The effect is that we provide fewer units than are needed." 

But not everyone is convinced. The Planning Department, which is studying exactly how much parking requirements should be waived, says that evidence about parking from other cities is contradictory. In fact, as of press time, the disagreements between the Housing and Planning departments on parking and other issues were so profound that they might not proceed to the Planning Commission with a joint report. The Housing Department wants to require only one space per unit while the Planning Department is pushing for 1.5 spaces per unit. The disagreement points up the philosophical differences between the departments. "The Planning Department gives a higher priority to parking than housing," says Housing Department General Manager Gary Squier. "We are a housing department, not a car­parking department." The Planning Department's point of view, on the other hand, is that, "the Housing Department has one mission, while our department has to balance a lot of interests," says senior planner Sarah Rodgers. 

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Others outside the bureaucracy also have doubts about requiring less parking. Former Planning Commissioner Suzette Neiman says simply, "I don't believe their parking studies. Whenever you have multiple units, cars are parked bumper to bumper." Neiman was the only commissioner to vote against the density bonus preliminary guidelines when they came before the Planning Commission in August. (When the final version is ready for consideration, it will come before the new commissioners appointed by Mayor Richard Riordan.) Homeowner leader Bill Christopher of PLAN/LA is sympathetic to the problem but skeptical about the proposed solution. "I don't like to build empty parking spaces. We treat our cars far better than we treat our people. The real question is how far we have to go to literally house our cars," he says. But, "the problem is balancing that in neighborhoods where there isn't enough parking." 

Nothing demonstrates more clearly the divergence of opinion around this issue than the competing attitudes regarding housing density and mass transit voiced by suburban homeowner leaders on the one hand and low-income housing developers on the other. Hollywood-area developer Jack Garnder says, "What I do in Hollywood is tied into Metro Rail and mass transit." When the Red Line is completed, "That would reduce the need for parking even more." But where Garnder sees opportunity, Gerald Silver, president of Homeowners of Encino, sees trouble. A policy on density bonuses "will be particularly disastrous if it is played out around transit stations," he says. 

Homeowner leaders are also concerned with the plan's changes to open space requirements. "The city's requirements are minimal at best," grouses Bill Christopher. ''To transfer it to the roof doesn't do anyone any good." In addition, doing away with some public hearings doesn't sit well. "We think that once you get above 25 percent, there should be hearings," says Christopher. The Housing Department would like to set up performance standards so if the developer offers more amenities, there would be no public hearing required for density bonuses between 25 and 50 percent. And as LAHD's Dunne points out, "the group that is unrepresented at public hearings are the very people who need the housing," 

Once the policy is hammered out, it will have to make its way through a political minefield. As the politics of development have shifted in L.A., proponents of the plan will have to try new strategies. "This is not a case of 'the developer getting away with murder,'" like it was in the boom days of the 1980s, says attorney Anthony Zamora, a new planning commissioner who formerly sat on the Affordable Housing Commission. The proposal is an opportunity to attempt to span the political spectrum, in Zamora's view. "Liberals see this as a social equity issue. Conservatives see it as a way to spark job creation. We have to cobble together that coalition." He adds, "Overcoming homeowner resistance means we have to articulate the issue broadly and overcome narrow interests by appealing to people's sense of the entire city," he adds. Engendering that spirit, however, has been difficult for L.A. civic leaders to achieve - to the extent that they have even been trying.

Supporters agree that navigating the policy through the City Council will be difficult. "Parking is an emotional issue," says one proponent. "Council members can't believe that some people don't have cars. And they think it's racist to talk about less parking. But it has nothing to do with race and everything to do with income." In addition, organized, vocal homeowner groups are important constituencies in virtually every council district. Supporters also agree that Councilman Hal Bernson, the powerful chairman of the Planning and Land Use Management Committee, is a critical player. So far, though, he's skeptical. While he would not comment on the specific ordinance being prepared, he did say that, "In general, we have to be careful of how we give density bonuses, making sure they are in the proper locations and for the proper reasons." Proponents, however, can count on support from Mayor Richard Riordan. ''I imagine he sees this as a pro-jobs, streamlining measure," says Zamora. Indeed, Rae James, the deputy mayor for planning and transportation, says, "We're supportive. If affordable housing can be increased by density bonuses, that's a good thing. This plan has something for everyone."

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