Concerning the elimination of parking minimums in Albany

Submitted to the Albany Planning Commission for their June 22, 2023 meeting.

See links here:

https://albanyca.primegov.com/portal/item?id=16761

https://albanyca.primegov.com/portal/viewer?id=19533&type=2

The June 22 agenda of the Transportation Commission features a discussion of eliminating parking minimums in Albany. This action is in response to a recently passed state bill, AB 2097, that bans local governments from requiring a minimum amount of parking in new buildings within a one-half-mile radius of major transportation facilities—including major bus routes.

AB 2097 is typical of the incompetent and cynical overreach of the state government into local government affairs, a course of action that has mainly benefitted private-sector developers. The justification for AB 2097 and many other bills has been that removing the impediment of local decision-making would dramatically increase the growth of housing production in California. But the promised boom in new housing development, especially of multi-family buildings (apartments), has not occurred and is unlikely to occur in the next several years.

In this note, I focus on the memo provided to the commission in the June 22 agenda package. There is much there that I disagree with, and I think the record needs to include alternative opinions. However, I will not attempt a point-by-point rebuttal. Rather I will try to address the broader issues raised by the memo and AB 2097.

But first, here are some facts I took from the Transportation Element of Albany’s General Plan, which was also included in the agenda package for the June 22 meeting:

(p. 3) According to US Census (American Community Survey) data for 2009-2013, only 15 percent of Albany’s employed residents worked within the Albany city limits, while 85 percent commuted to a workplace in another city.

(p.4) Albany households have fewer vehicles on average than households in Alameda County as a whole. Although 96 percent of the city’s households own at least one vehicle, which is the same as the countywide average, only 15 percent have 3 vehicles, compared to 32 percent countywide. Moreover, 38 percent of the city’s households have only one vehicle, compared to 23 percent countywide. About 43 percent have two vehicles, compared to the county average of 40 percent.

(p. 27) Although the transportation planning focus is shifting to other modes of travel, it is still likely that most trips in the city will continue to be made by motorized vehicles. (Note: the table on p.27 shows that between 2014 and 2040 driving trips will fall from 68 to 59 percent, transit trips will rise from 7 to 8 percent, and bicycle and pedestrian trips will rise from 25 to 33 percent of all trips.)

(p. 29) As noted earlier, 58 percent of the city’s households have two or more cars—many households park at least one car on the street. Most lots in the city are not large enough to add off-street parking spaces, resulting in high on-street parking demand.

I am writing as an Albany resident since 1995, a homeowner since 2000, a single parent, an avid cyclist and bike commuter, and now, after a recent accident, a temporarily disabled person with a handicapped parking permit. All these experiences give me a broad perspective on living in Albany.

Before coming to the Bay Area, I spent more than two years living in the badly overparked neighborhood of Capital Hill in Seattle. Although I took a vanpool to my job as a state analyst in Olympia, I still had to commute to the vanpool pick-up point. After work, there were many days when I spent several minutes looking for a parking spot in my neighborhood, and sometimes I had to park a quarter mile from my apartment. Here in the Bay Area, I have good friends who live in the Inner Richmond District of San Francisco, another badly overparked neighborhood. Visiting them can be frustrating. Often I can park in their driveway, but if not, I can spend 10 or 15 minutes circling the neighborhood.

I don’t want to see Albany become overparked, but I am afraid that is the direction we are heading. Street parking is a public good. If a developer builds an apartment building with inadequate parking, the tenants will park on the street. The building owner does not have the correct incentives to produce parking for the tenants. Instead, owners can cost-shift by letting the public provide parking while pocketing the savings from not having to build parking spots inside the building.

The fight against air pollution is a useful analogy. Air pollution is an example of what economists call a negative externality. In the past, many industries polluted the air because it was free. The problem of air pollution was not solved until the polluters were forced to internalize the costs they had previously imposed on society. The notion that the public sector should be banned from regulating pollution, and that polluters would voluntarily produce a socially optimal level of pollution, would be an absurd fantasy.

And yet with parking, this is the fantasy the state wants us to believe. If developers build apartments with inadequate parking, tenants will park on the street, creating a negative externality. Without local government’s ability to force developers to internalize this problem, cities will be required to allow overparking on their streets. Just like in Capitol Hill and the Inner Richmond.

The notion that many apartment dwellers in new buildings in Albany will be content to live without cars is difficult to believe, given that our Transportation Element shows that 96 percent of Albany households own at least one vehicle, and 58 percent own two or more. While it is possible that new residents might be more willing to go carless, that is a poor bet given the state of public transportation in the Bay Area, a situation that has been called a “death spiral.” Meanwhile, car- and bicycle-sharing programs have not yet proven to be feasible in Albany. Nor does the city’s history of code enforcement provide much optimism for complicated parking regulation schemes.

In addition, eliminating parking is a form of discrimination. As a single parent who worked full-time, I could not have given my son the quality of life that I did if I didn’t own a car—and one that I could reliably park nearby. If I had been a single parent in an apartment without parking, the quality of life for my son and I would have been drastically reduced.

The memo also assumes that low-income residents tend not to own cars and trucks. This is not my experience in Albany. The men and women who clean our houses, remodel our kitchens, maintain our yards, and provide care for our elderly and disabled do not have fixed workplaces and need vehicles to transport their equipment. It would be difficult for them to transport a lawnmower or a vacuum cleaner on BART. Given the amount of tool theft blue-collar workers are now facing, enclosed parking has become even more important.

But we really don’t have to provide apartments and parking spots for these disproportionately Latina and Latino workers. Why not? Because the nearby city of Richmond does it for us. According to the American Community Survey, two-thirds of the housing units in Richmond are single-family homes, while 43 percent of the population is Hispanic, 20 percent is Black, and 18 percent is White non-Hispanic.

But it’s not just blue-collar workers who cannot work remotely. Hospital medical staff must provide care to their patients 24 hours a day. Evening and night shift nurses and other medical staff typically can’t rely on public transportation late and night and early in the morning. Teachers often must carry textbooks and student papers with them, stay late for after-school meetings and events, and therefore find it difficult to rely on public transit, since many schools are not near bus routes.

As an avid cyclist, I have enjoyed cruising down to Solano Ave. for espresso and light shopping at CVS and Safeway. But due to my cycling accident, I cannot ride a bike for three or four more months, and my ability to walk long distances is limited. I am grateful that I have a temporary handicap permit and for the handicapped parking spots around Solano. This is why I am puzzled that the memo in the June 22 agenda indicates that disabled people don’t need vehicles. Now that I am temporarily disabled, I need my car more than ever.

The memo to the Transportation Commission has one glaring omission. It neglects to mention that like people everywhere, Albany residents have guests. If new apartment buildings have no parking and the streets are overparked, how will out-of-town guests be able to visit? Elderly parents will have a hard time visiting their adult children if they must park thousands of feet away and walk to the building.

In Albany, this is not a hypothetical situation. The condominium towers at 555 Pierce St. were built with about one parking space per unit. The newer mid-rise condominiums at 545 and 535 Pierce St. were built with two parking spaces per unit. That is because those two condominium complexes were built after the Albany voter-approved Measure D, which required two off-street parking spots for each housing unit.

I have suggested more than once that this is an interesting natural experiment, and that the city should study the occupancy rates of the parking lots in all three locations. I know from personal experience that it is easy to visit friends in the two new complexes, especially if the occupant only has one car. In that case, each unit effectively has one guest parking spot. I do not know how easy it is to visit the occupants of the older towers at 555 Piece, where there are minimal guest and street parking spots. It would be good to know the answers to these questions since the rest of Albany might be facing similar parking conditions in the future.

In closing, I want to return to the subject of the cynicism and dishonesty of the state’s invention in local housing policy. The real basis of the intervention, regardless of the stated intention, is to pad the profit margins of developers, who lobby the legislators in Sacramento and help fund their campaigns.

For example, SB 35, carried by Sen. Scott Wiener, was billed as a way to streamline and encourage affordable housing. Yet with the subsequent passage SB 828, also carried by Wiener but sponsored by the Bay Area Council and the Silicon Valley Leadership Group, ridiculously large targets were required by the state for market-rate housing, which allowed the streamlining provisions of SB 35 to be applied to market-rate housing as well. This was classic bait-and-switch. (I have written about this at my city council blog, mb4albany.org)

AB 2097, the bill that removes cities’ authority to enforce parking minimums near transit, is another bait-and-switch. The stated intention of the bill was to encourage the use of transit. The real intention, once again, was to pad the profit margins of developers by allowing them to cost-shift parking to the public sector.

In a June 19 article in California Policy and Development Review titled “Will TOD Survive the Transit Downturn?” author Josh Stephens writes: 

The fundamental question is whether transit-oriented development actually needs transit to succeed.

Some experts and advocates say TOD will still work because transit stations are located close to other amenities people find attractive such as supermarkets. Meanwhile, Michael Manville, professor of urban planning at UCLA, suggested that the “doom loop” scenario presents the state with an opportunity to potentially drop the pretense of transit ridership and instead extend TOD-style incentives to a wider range of infill locations.

“If you like these programs, it may be time to untether them from transit, and just say we’re just going to have the program along major commercial corridors, or something like that,” said Manville. Whatever the benefits of TOD are to residents, the benefits to developers all but ensure that state and local programs to promote TOD will stick around.

Manville noted that the average resident of TODs, especially those that include large numbers of market-rate units, are not likely to use transit very often under the best of circumstances. Nonetheless, transit orientation gives developers a host of benefits — including density bonuses and, following the 2021 passage of SB 2097, the opportunity for significant parking reductions, all of which can make projects pencil out for developers.

Correction: A resident of the 535 Pierce St. condominiums tells me that most of the units in that complex have only one parking spot, while some have two. I am puzzled by this because this complex was built after the passage of Measure D in 1978. I will need to explore this further.

Michael Barnes

Member, Albany Transportation Commission

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