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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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Supporters of new developments near transit also note that there is significant data demonstrating the huge demand for this type of housing. For starters, demographic data has shown that many Bay Area residents are using their cars less. In Oakland in 2013, according to the latest American Community Survey data, more than 45,000 people took public transit, walked, or biked to work — about 25 percent of the working population. That rate has climbed since 2009 when 43,000 people (23 percent of workers) biked, walked, or took transit. The Census data further showed that nearly 14,000 Oakland commuters said they had no access to a vehicle in 2013.

According to statistics from the Center for Transit-Oriented Development, which analyzes demographic trends related to public transportation, car ownership rates are dramatically lower for households within a half-mile radius of BART stations — 70 percent have zero or one vehicle. For households within a half-mile of the San Francisco Bay Ferry, which stops in Oakland and Alameda, 87 percent have one car or less.

The MTC's research has further found that significant numbers of Bay Area residents want to live near transit; a 2010 survey of 900 people concluded that two of the top factors people consider when choosing where to live are convenience for walking and biking and having a short commute to work. And MTC found that 38 percent of respondents said they would be interested in living in a transit-oriented development. This group included low-income families with low car ownership rates, households with two incomes and no children, students, and younger, well-educated residents.

"Among the millennials, more of them are deciding they would rather have other things besides a car," explained Valerie Knepper, MTC's regional parking initiative manager. "They would prefer not to pay for parking or driving expenses."

While a number of recently adopted California and Oakland climate change policies are aimed broadly at supporting housing developments that accommodate alternative modes of transit and reduce car travel and emissions, one area in which policy has lagged substantially is the parking requirements for new projects, critics say.

Although parking policy often takes a back seat in debates over global warming, transportation, housing, and gentrification, urban planning experts say that the way governments decide where cars must be stationed and how much drivers pay for spaces can in many ways determine the long-term health and sustainability of a city. In Oakland, that means the ripple effect of reforms in parking policy could be profound — which is why a group of environmentalists are devoting their energy to changing it.

Madison Park Financial Corporation — currently the most active market-rate housing developer in Oakland — has tripled the amount of bike parking in its apartment buildings over the last decade. "A lot of tenants prefer a certain lifestyle ... and would not have a car if they could avoid it," said Simon Chen, chief financial officer of Madison Park, which is headquartered by Lake Merritt.

This surge in demand for on-site bike parking appears to be a reflection of the increasing number of Oakland residents who want to drive less or live car-free — and Madison Park has worked hard to attract and accommodate these renters, Chen said. But he added that traditional neighborhood concerns about parking have not changed, so Madison Park continues to build the same — relatively large — amount of car parking spaces in its new buildings.

The problem is that Oakland residents who live near Madison Park's proposed projects demand that the company build a substantial amount of off-street parking for tenants. "They want as much parking as humanly possible," Chen said.

The conventional not-in-my-backyard (NIMBY) fear from residents, and sometimes from businesses, is that developers will fail to build a big enough on-site garage, and that parking on adjacent streets will quickly become crowded and impossible to find. The thinking goes that without enough off-street parking in new buildings, residents who have lived in the area longer — and possibly shoppers or diners in a commercial district — will have to drive around in circles looking for spots, making the neighborhood less desirable.

Developers say these cries from residents for large amounts of new parking remain loud and influential — despite policymakers' stated interest in promoting alternative modes of transit. It's also despite the fact that experts have repeatedly argued that people's perceptions about parking shortages are usually wrong and that building huge garages in apartment buildings often does little to address on-street parking problems.

"It's just a constant struggle," Chen said. Ultimately, Madison Park relies on the Oakland Planning Code when determining how many parking spaces to build. Other developers — who also fear controversy and backlash — do the same, choosing simply to rely on the guidelines written into the municipal policies. That's why advocates say the codes are so important: They shape the city.

Like many municipalities in the United States, Oakland has long had minimum parking requirements for new developments — meaning every time developers propose projects, they must agree to build a certain amount of parking spaces on site. The city first adopted parking regulations in 1960 for new apartment buildings — and those rules largely remain intact today, resulting in a huge amount of parking.

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