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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.



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One recent analysis of cities across the United States found that the costs of constructing parking garages with one spot per apartment result in average increases in rent of $2,700 per year. The study was conducted by Reinventing Parking, an international transportation advocacy group. The impacts of excess parking on affordability tend to be more severe in denser urban areas because land is more costly and developers typically have to spend more to create structured garages (as opposed to paved surface lots, which are cheaper).

Led by Oakland-based nonprofit group TransForm, transportation and housing activists are pushing for local developers and the city to fundamentally rethink residential parking in a way that lowers costs for renters and shifts real estate investments toward affordable housing and sustainable modes of transit — and away from expensive parking garages.

Through its initiative called Green Traffic Reduction and Innovative Parking (GreenTRIP), TransForm has compiled and analyzed extensive data illustrating the potentially profound benefits of progressive parking strategies. The group's research sheds light on how archaic rules have led to extremely inefficient uses of space and financial resources in Oakland development projects. TransForm's research also shows that the city could make significant strides in tackling its housing affordability crisis and fighting climate change if it eliminated regressive parking requirements.

Yet it remains to be seen whether Oakland is willing to go far enough in adopting progressive reforms that could limit the spread of new parking and establish the city as a leader in sustainable development. And the need for change, advocates say, is urgent as rents skyrocket at alarming rates in Oakland and as real estate investors continue to propose and break ground on new projects. If Oakland doesn't get it right soon, it could mean an influx of new development that lacks forward-thinking designs — and instead continues the promotion of 20th century car culture, harmful emissions, and unaffordable rents for years to come.

In the 1910s, the proliferation of automobiles started to shape the way cities and towns approached planning and development. Local governments began designing their cities in a way that encouraged — and required — families and workers to drive everywhere.

Federal law in the 1920s paved the way for municipalities to start using zoning policies to guide and regulate growth, and in 1926, the landmark Supreme Court decision Euclid v. Ambler enabled governments to exercise much greater control over land use on private property. That case gave birth to what is known as "Euclidean zoning," the practice of governments creating distinct districts with singular land uses — meaning residential areas, office parks, industrial zones, and shopping mall centers, all geographically isolated from one another. It was the policy basis for the American vision of suburbia — a lifestyle in which automobiles reigned.

Car-oriented development persisted for decades. Oakland created its first zoning policies in 1935, establishing separate residential, commercial, and industrial districts. Yet despite these conventional zoning practices, the city had some fairly forward-thinking urban planning in the 1930s. Most notably, the city's Key System streetcar network connected many residential neighborhoods, such as Montclair and Lakeshore, to a dense, vibrant downtown.

But automobile use skyrocketed, and transportation officials eventually dismantled Oakland's streetcar system in 1958. Meanwhile, federal, state, and local governments expanded the regional freeway network, cutting through, and in some cases, destroying existing neighborhoods and communities in the 1950s and 1960s. "It was the car that really caused the demise of Oakland," said Rachel Flynn, director of the city's planning and building department.

In more recent decades, there has been increasing awareness in Oakland and across the country that these car-centric urban planning policies came with grave long-term consequences. "Cars dominated urban development in the Bay Area and most of California, so unwinding that is going to be a multi-decade process," said Ann Cheng, director of GreenTRIP. "The cost to our health, climate, and economy — there's just so many reasons why those days are over."

Among environmental and transportation advocates, there is now widespread recognition that in order to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, policymakers must spur smart growth in cities, meaning building high-density housing in downtowns and other transit-accessible neighborhoods — making it easy for residents to drive less or live without cars. The creation of more housing near BART stations could also have positive implications for public health; studies have consistently shown that physical inactivity is linked to obesity and other chronic health problems, and that when people live near public transit, they walk and bike more, and their physical and mental health improves.

Smart growth and urban planning that discourages car use can also boost local economies, given that small businesses and retail districts benefit when more people walk and bike to stores and restaurants. In the East Bay, high-density development could also help address the current housing crisis — in which the existing supply has greatly failed to meet regional demands.

What's more, sprawl and poor access to public transit in a city like Oakland drives up people's cost of living because they're forced to own, maintain, and drive cars. After housing costs, transportation is the second largest expense for Bay Area households, eating up an average of 27 percent of incomes, according to the Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC), the Bay Area's transit planning agency. Most of those expenses are related to auto ownership.

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