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A Green Solution to Oakland's Housing Crisis

If the city stopped building giant parking garages, it could become a leader in sustainable development — and create more affordable housing in the process.



Jason Laub did not want to dig a giant hole in the ground in North Oakland. On a recent morning, Laub stood in front of a chain-link fence protecting a vacant lot on Telegraph Avenue between 47th and 48th streets in the Temescal district. Laub, vice president of the Nautilus Group, an Oakland-based development firm, was giving me a tour of his company's three residential projects underway in the neighborhood — all located in a three-block radius in the center of the bustling commercial district.

At our first stop at 4700 Telegraph Avenue, where Nautilus Group plans to build a 48-unit apartment building, Laub described the various options for ground excavation at the site. The firm's engineers, he explained, have worked to minimize the project's underground footprint. Guiding the discussion of how deep and how wide the company would need to dig was a question that has long vexed local developers: how many parking spaces should new residential projects include?

The deceptively simple question touches on one of the most critical and controversial topics of modern urban development. And the debate surrounding the construction of parking spaces for apartment buildings is now gaining momentum in Oakland as real estate investors are increasingly purchasing land and building new housing near BART stations — in neighborhoods where driving and car ownership have become much less essential.

On this stretch of Telegraph Avenue next to the popular brunch spot Aunt Mary's Café and near the neighborhood cycling store Tip Top Bike Shop, the company plans to demolish a group of old, two-story residential properties and build a modern-looking, five-story building with mostly market-rate units and a ground-floor commercial space — possibly housing a microbrewery, Laub said.

"There's some really great small businesses, really great culture, great food," Laub said, when I asked him why Nautilus chose to do its first major Oakland projects in this neighborhood. "We want to be part of it and contribute to creating a very vibrant and thriving area here." Plus, he said, the project is close to public transportation.

Nautilus Group's three Temescal projects — 4700 Telegraph, 4801 Shattuck Avenue (one block west), and 5100 Telegraph (three blocks north) — are all just a ten- to fifteen-minute walk from the MacArthur BART Station. The City of Oakland is also in the process of redesigning Telegraph to be significantly more bike-friendly. It will soon implement Oakland's first-ever protected bike lane, meaning a roadway exclusively for cyclists separated from car traffic by a barrier. Given the proximity to BART, numerous AC Transit bus lines, and increasingly bike-friendly roads in the area, residents of Temescal can comfortably travel around the neighborhood and get to other parts of Oakland and the Bay Area without a car.

And because there is clearly demand for housing from residents who don't own cars and prefer biking, walking, and public transit, Nautilus Group has been working for months to plan and gain approvals for a design of its 4700 Telegraph project that does not cater to auto-dependent tenants. The company's proposed concept may seem obvious and non-controversial to those who support greener modes of transit, but given Oakland's history of encouraging — and in many ways requiring — developers to accommodate car owners, Nautilus' plan actually offers a somewhat revolutionary approach. Instead of constructing at least one parking space for each of the 48 units — which would be the default minimum standard for a project of this size in this location, according to Oakland's planning rules — the developers have secured a special exemption from city officials and will construct half the number of spaces in the project's on-site garage.

"Building parking is very expensive," Laub said. "If we can reduce the number of parking spaces that we build ... that means we can do a lot of other things for this project." Depending on the project and location, a single parking space can cost a developer anywhere from $35,000 to $75,000 to build, Laub said. For 4700 Telegraph, instead of building 48 residential parking spots (and 8 commercial parking spaces) in an underground 16,000-square-foot lot that has a footprint the size of the entire project, Nautilus will only be installing 24 spaces for tenants in an 8,200-square-foot garage.

With the financial savings from this reduced parking plan, Nautilus will be able to provide all residents with discounted public transit passes, free car-share memberships, secured bike parking, and other amenities. The company, however, had to go through an extensive process to convince city officials to let its project bypass municipal parking rules — the kind of effort that developers in Oakland have rarely completed on this scale. Instead, most developers continue to follow the city's planning guidelines and rules — and build large parking garages in areas where they aren't needed.

For this reason, environmentalists and housing advocates have begun pushing the city to allow and encourage developers to construct significantly fewer parking spaces than the Oakland Planning Code requires. And urban planning experts have increasingly recognized that overly strict municipal parking policies — which typically force developers to spend a significant amount of money building one or more parking space per new unit — ultimately drive up the cost of housing and stymie the creation of affordable units.

Critics point out that outdated suburban-style planning policies — like the ones Oakland still uses — incorrectly assume that all residents drive and want parking included in their rents. In truth, the much higher costs associated with mandated parking make housing less affordable for middle- and low-income people. Indeed, outmoded parking policies can help accelerate gentrification by forcing the construction of apartment buildings that attract wealthier people who own multiple cars and can afford to pay the higher rents that come with excess parking, thereby squeezing out lower-income tenants who want to live greener lifestyles.

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