August 1, 2012 - From the August, 2012 issue

AIA/LA Roundtable: Minimum Parking Requirments, Yes/No?

In June the AIA-LA hosted a roundtable discussion on lowering parking requirement minimums around transit stops. AB 904 was designed to free developers from building off-street parking spaces by assuming their tenants may use existing transit infrastructure. Supported by The Infill Builders and opposed by the California APA and the California League of Cities, the bill was eventually withdrawn in July. MIR offers the following excerpts of the lively debate around whether parking reform should be led by lawmakers in Sacramento. Moderated by David Abel, Editor-in-Chief of The Planning Report, the discussion features Mott Smith (Civic Enterprise), Don Shoup (UCLA), Jeff Kiernan (California League of Cities), Dave Snow (APA), Carl Muhlstein (Cushman & Wakefield), and Bill Roschen (LA Planning Commission).

Mott Smith

“Obviously, the League of California Cities is opposed to (AB 904). This is the same one-size-fits-all that’s supposed to rubber stamp a parking requirement for San Francisco, Los Angeles, San Diego.” -Jeff Kiernan

“Moreover, parking minimums don’t actually mitigate the demand for on-street parking—the whole justification for their existence. Don was the first to show this, and it’s been proven again and again.” -Mott Smith

David Abel: Mott, since the Infill Builders Federation very much supports AB 904, please begin by sharing the bill’s objectives, provisions and history?

Mott Smith: The Infill Builders are made up of affordable, market rate and commercial developers. We are committed to economic and environmental sustainability. And we see every day how minimum parking requirements do no end of evil to project economics, the environment and urban communities. They simply cause developers to build too much parking and contribute nothing of value. Moreover, they also raise the cost of housing; they encourage excess driving; and they create a draw on public subsidies in former redevelopment areas. We agree with all the academic research that shows parking minimums are exclusionary forces that keep a diverse range of housing products out of many areas. And, frankly, we believe that developers generally want to build as much parking as market demand required regardless of minimum requirements.    

Despite all this, few cities have the political will and the resources to change minimum parking requirements. Many City Planning directors and officials say to us, “I wish we could remove the burden of 80 years of bad planning, but we just don’t have the money or the political will.”    

That’s what AB 904, which builds on last year’s AB 710 is about. AB 904 would reduce minimum parking requirements around transit, statewide, at no cost to cities, and with no CEQA burden. And thanks to feedback from the League of Cities on local control issues, we’ve already amended the bill and will probably amend it again to make it as easy as possible for cities that don’t want to live by these rules to opt out. We want to make it easy and cheap for cities who want to push the reset button on their old minimum parking requirements to do so.

David Abel: Let’s now ask our representatives from the League of Cities and the APA to comment, and then we’ll drill down on the bill’s provisions with others in this roundtable.

Jeff Kiernan: Obviously the League of California Cities is opposed to this bill. This is the same one-size-fits-all that’s supposed to rubber stamp a parking requirement for San Francisco, Los Angeles, San Diego, and you’re talking about the same standard that would be used for a movie theater, a stadium, and a big box Costco.    

This standard is extremely aggressive. Not only is it aggressive, it would reduce the number of spaces that even San Francisco has currently—it has about 1.2 spaces per 1000 square feet at the moment, so you’re looking at places whose transit has not met that standard of what is considered to be one of the finest in the state, and you’re looking at reducing that further.    

This is a matter of local control; we believe that cities and regions should be able to do what they can on a regional basis. I was speaking with a councilmember from Santa Monica, and they’re talking about doing regional parking hubs to collect people’s cars in parking structures, like they’ve done successfully around their 3rd street promenade. This bill would make the city planning commission negotiate again with the developers who want to build. As Mott said, the bill hasn’t changed that much from last year, but it’s skipped a lot of committees, and I think it’s never a good sign when bills are thrown at you in the last moment.

David Abel: David Snow, representing the American Planning Association, APA. Please share your organizations current views on the Infill Developers’ AB 904.

Dave Snow: First of all, there were conversations last year with AB 710, and the APA was opposed but never put a letter in at that point because there was continuing conversation. And when 904 came up this year, we looked at it, our legislative review committee talked about it, a number of different planners voiced significant concern, and we’ve certainly received letters suggesting that the organization shouldn’t support the bill. A number of planning directors I’ve spoken to have concerns about the bill; they believe they should have the ability to analyze projects, come up with what they think are appropriate standards, and present that to the decision makers for consideration.   

I think the one size statewide standard is a concern, and I think there are technical difficulties with the bill regarding the procedures. There is concern about the risks that are infused into the projects that have to go through the opt-out provision. There are additional avenues to challenge projects when they’re opting out, and if the purpose of the bill is to help a relatively small number of jurisdictions that are looking for political cover, we don’t think that statewide legislation is necessarily the answer.    

That said, we’ve had continuing dialogue with the bill’s sponsors and are interested in trying to come up with something to address this issue. The APA does agree that it is a significant issue; it’s really more the provisions and language of the actual bill that’s been the concern of a significant number of members.

David Abel: I want to turn now to Professor Don Shoup, who taught Mott everything he knows about this subject and is cited by both sides here. Your thoughts on the need for AB 904?

Don Shoup: I’ve learned a lot from Mott Smith and Dave Snow, and I think one of the advantages of AB 904 is that each city would engage in the sort of debate that we’re having in this committee. There will be people called to speak at city council meetings: are you in favor or parking requirements or are you not? And we will hear the arguments. I think it will induce many cities to have serious debates about what I’m sure a number of planners and architects think is a very harmful policy.    

I did read Dave Snow’s very articulate letter, and one of the issues about the bill is the opt-out provisions, which would force local agencies to an unnecessary and complex process of defining objective criteria and documenting findings. That is something that never happens with minimum parking requirements: there are no objective criteria, there are no documented findings, it’s very different from all other types of zoning which tell you what use you can have and how high it can be and what the density will be. They tell you instead what you must do in order to get provisions built, and they force developers to provide big subsidies for cars at no expense to the city.    

I’ve taught planning for almost 40 years, and I know that no planning school has any instruction on how to set a parking requirement because the professors don’t know how to do it. Nobody knows how to do it. If you ask people how Beverly Hills required 22 parking spaces per 1,000 square feet for a restaurant, it’d be very hard to justify it. Is the cost taken into account? Is the effect on traffic and air quality? None of these things are considered; there are no objective criteria.

David Abel: Mott, the bill, in its current form, would prohibit cities from imposing minimum parking requirements of more than one space per residential unit or 1000 square feet of commercial space in “transit-intensive areas,” defined as areas within a half-mile of a major transit stop. Help us with these definitions because some might believe the Bill will be a platform for a lot of urban planning mischief.

Mott Smith: The authors of AB904 are doing their best to use existing definitions within the state code; we didn’t want to create a new animal here. A major transit stop is defined in the public resources code. It includes heavy rail stations, light rail stations and ferry terminals. Also included are bus lines with15-minute headways or less.    

Some of the AB 904 opponents have tried to paint it as a radical new idea. But there are cities all around the country that already have standards exactly like this.

David Abel: Are any of the local ordinances a result of a state action?

Mott Smith: I don’t think so, but Washington DC, Chicago, Seattle, Portland, Denver, Milwaukee, and Austin—even Boise—all have much more aggressive reduced minimums than the ones we are proposing. I also want to clarify that we’re not setting a parking standard for the state; we are undoing one.   

What we have in our local laws today is a one-size-fits-all standard, which happens to be driven by the ITE manual. This bill will remove the requirement that everybody live by those one-size-fits-all standards and, in so doing, create a more diverse marketplace.    

If you go to places where they completely eliminated minimum parking requirements, like downtown Seattle, you find that certain types of development—supermarkets, strip malls, drug stores—still build exactly as much parking that our codes in California currently require, just because supermarket, strip mall and drug store tenants demand a certain amount of parking in most locations. The difference is when you take away that minimum, you still get the drug stores, supermarkets, football stadiums, but you also get the neighborhood coffee shops and the transit oriented housing projects—things that are basically zoned out of existence in California today.  

David Abel: Bill Roschen, City of LA Planning Commission, we would welcome your take on the value of minimum parking standards.

Bill Roschen: The City of Los Angeles is aggressively looking at parking tools, and we did pass bills that are giving us that opportunity. The next question is how do you implement those tools? No small deal. Los Angeles has 115 train stations that are going to be completed within the next 10-20 years. That’s the good news. The bad news is at this point we have only taken on 15 of those stations with specific plans, or CPIOs, which is the only way the city can implement change to these parking requirements. For me, this is a regional issue, which is why I’m very interested in the statewide bill. I think the ability for the City of Los Angeles to implement parking restrictions or innovative parking guideline policy is going to be tough.


David Abel: Mott, what was the source for a half-mile radius?

Mott Smith: There are many precedents for the half-mile radius in the code. And, importantly, a half-mile is a reasonable walking distance for most people. That said, if I had my druthers, we wouldn’t have a half-mile radius, we’d have an infinity-mile radius around transit, because, in all honesty, parking requirements don’t do any good anywhere. All they do is serve to limit density in a backhanded way beyond what zoning itself does.    

Moreover, parking minimums don’t actually mitigate the demand for on-street parking—the whole justification for their existence. Don was the first to show this, and it’s been proven again and again that it doesn’t matter how much off-street parking you build, on street demand stays about the same. This is why we have crowded meters and empty parking garages in pretty much every city in the country.   There are much better ways to manage parking and development than with the blunt tool of parking minimums.

David Abel: Carl Muhlstein, as the senior commercial real estate broker at the table, what are your thoughts on the need for a reduction of parking requirements and for this bill?

Carl Muhlstein: The bill is too specific for me. We’re addressing live and play, and we’re leaving out work. I’m presently re-leasing a postal distribution center in Playa Vista on 20 acres. My average tenant request there is five parking spaces per thousand, and Hulu has asked me for nine per thousand. I’m closing escrow in July on Sunset Media Tower to be transformed on Sunset and Vine, and it’ll have two parking spaces per thousand square feet in Hollywood. Two per thousand in Hollywood works great in commercial.    

Second, small commercial is under siege in this city; it started with the proliferation of the mini malls. Now when you go on Melrose and all the streets in La Brea, there’s no parking. The second you go on to a side street you need 15 minutes to read how many ways you can say no. When I go on open house tours in West Hollywood, the broker says leave your emergency blinkers on while you go in and look at the house. There’s just no parking.

Mott Smith: Carl, it sounds like you’re actually making an argument against parking maximums—which are not what this bill is proposing. I am a developer, and I don’t know of any developer who would look at the tenants that you have and not want to build enough parking for them. The reason we need bills like AB 904 is that zoning code often makes us build more parking than tenants like these require.

Carl Muhlstein: Smaller tenants live with it. The Taft Building was purchased by DLJ at Hollywood and Vine and is undergoing a terrific office conversion. It has zero parking, and they’re signing leases. So the market thinks that that is accepted, again, as opposed to what I deal with on the Jefferson corridor, Culver City, Playa Vista, etc. The Facebooks, the Googles, that whole crowd, they rent a lot of the apartments in the area, but they still need that level of parking.

Mott Smith: If I understand what you’re saying, Carl, then I would imagine you’re OK with the bill. AB 904 doesn’t stop us from building any of the parking some tenants demand. It just lets us stop building parking no one wants or needs.  

David Abel: Dave Snow, Mott suggested that this whole idea of city parking requirements came out of thin air. What’s the purpose of minimum requirements, and what has to be taken into account when considering the merits of AB 904?

Dave Snow: There’s this idea that planners don’t know anything about parking and that they don’t know what may be an appropriate standard. Then there’s this default one-size-fits-all concept in California that doesn’t work. I don’t think that’s the case, and I think we’ve heard here, today, examples of local agencies that have put some time, money, and thought into determining what is an appropriate ratio and parking standard. Santa Monica has done it; Glendale is looking at it; the City of Los Angeles has looked at it in certain areas. I think that this implication that planners don’t know what they’re doing and can’t try to figure it out is misplaced.

I think Professor Shoup has rightly criticized some of those existing standards, but there is also, in many jurisdictions, the opportunity to seek approvals for reduced parking standards based on mixed uses, off peak hours, providing off-site parking, and paying in-loop fees for a community parking facility. I think part of the concern from the APA is, what are the implications for those that are working in this direction already by an inconsistent statewide mandate?

Part of the response is to adopt one of the four opt-out findings, but for the agency that is already looking at it thoughtfully and coming up with appropriate standards, to impose an additional procedure and potential legal risk for both the agency and the developer doesn’t seem like the best way to go about it.

David Abel: Professor Shoup, please join in the discussion again—it is time for intelligence to be part of this discussion.

Don Shoup: I’ve heard a lot of intelligent comments, and Will Wright of the Los Angeles AIA has brought up an interesting issue: what would be the effects of this bill?
I think cities have an enormous amount to gain. We have a lot of evidence of that from what happened in Los Angeles when we adopted the adaptive reuse ordinance. People said that it would never work. The ordinance said that historic buildings in downtown that were office buildings could be converted to housing without adding any parking spaces. Some people said no lender will lend for it, no builder would ever want to do it, nobody would ever buy an apartment in one of these buildings that doesn’t have two spaces per dwelling unit, which was what the city required. The relaxation of the parking requirement was the main effect of the ARO, and 57 historic buildings were converted into 7,000 housing units. Just think of how many people were employed in that conversion, and think of how the property taxes have paid for that construction. It turned around a whole neighborhood.

David Abel: To be fair to the discussion, because there is agreement on the need for reforming our parking requirements, AB 904 is a state bill, not a local ordinance. Its provisions are not at the discretion of a planning commission or city council; it’s a statewide bill that necessarily and uniformly impacts the cities of Maywood, Los Angeles, Sacramento, Seal Beach and Bakersfield. Are you OK with a state bill defining local planning requirements? Or do you just want, with the introduction of AB 904, to incite a thoughtful public policy discussion?

Don Shoup: I want the discussion, and I don’t see why a city would be unwilling to defend the claptrap they have regarding minimum parking requirements. Cities simply wouldn’t be able to set an arbitrary minimum parking requirement for, say, an animal grooming studio or anything else. And no city manager could tell you how it’s done, anyway. I think that many people will stand up in any kind of debate and say, “yes, we want to defend the status quo – the elaborate parking codes that have no sound policy foundations.”

David Abel: Well, why not let the city establish its own parking requirements?

Don Shoup: Cities can decide, but they generally don’t. There are a handful of cities that have been mentioned that are looking at progressive parking: Santa Monica, Culver City, and the City of LA, cities that are at the forefront of thinking on this. But that is only a handful of cities that are doing anything.     

I think the people opposing 904 are essentially defending the status quo. I admit there could be mischief caused by this law, but I think that if the worst mischief caused is having more permit parking districts, that’s not too much to worry about. I don’t think the people who are worried about the mischief in 904 will ever admit the immense amount of mischief caused by minimum parking requirements.

These parking requirements are causing immense unintended consequences. I was on the Design Review Board for Westwood for eight years and looked at every multi-family residential building that was built. Because I pay attention to parking, I saw that there was never a single building that provided more parking than what the law required. But I saw so many buildings that were disfigured by the required parking and had many fewer dwelling units than the zoning allows because the parking requirement limits density, not the rest of the zoning.

LA already has more parking spaces per square mile than any other city on earth, and we have more cars per square mile that any other city on earth. The reason we have the worst traffic congestion is we have a lot of people, and they all have cars because we will not allow development that does not have planning for cars.

David Abel: I believe it would fair to have the APA’s representative have the last comment.

Dave Snow: I don’t have anything to add other than we are in continued dialogue with Mott and the author’s office, and it’s certainly our hope to try and find some vehicle to address this issue. We’ve made suggestions of alternate vehicles like a model ordinance that’s on the shelf and ready for agencies to adopt, perhaps paired with a statutory CEQA exemption to encourage folks to adopt these standards without looking at a CEQA lawsuit. Maybe there are some other interesting approaches to achieve these admirable goals.


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