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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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"Every city in the region, including those that have been increasingly thoughtful about their parking codes, still have portions of their code trapped in 1950," said Jeffrey Tumlin, principal at Nelson/Nygaard, a San Francisco consulting firm that has helped cities develop innovative parking strategies.

While Oakland's parking code is fairly complex — the requirements change depending on the neighborhood and specific zoning regulations — for many new apartment buildings, the minimum parking required is one space per unit. As such, a developer who wants to construct a fifty-unit building must first consider if he or she can also build a fifty-car garage or lot.

There are some notable exceptions for which the city requires more parking. The city mandates that single-family homes in residential areas have two off-street parking spaces. Additionally, there are also higher parking minimums in select areas where there are specific concerns about on-street parking congestion. In these zones (such as the Adams Point neighborhood along Grand Avenue and Lake Merritt), the city essentially requires developers to build two spaces for two-bedroom apartments, meaning some buildings may have closer to a 2-1 parking ratio.

On the flip side, the city's parking code allows for lower minimums in a few areas — mainly in areas surrounding BART stations. For example, in the streets immediately adjacent to the West Oakland, MacArthur, and Fruitvale BART stations, developers can build one space for every two units. And by Lake Merritt BART station, apartment buildings can have three-quarters of a space for every unit.

In recent years, the city has allowed residential developers in some commercial districts and along specific transit corridors to go below the standard one-space per-unit minimum if they apply for special approvals known as "conditional use permits." Though this process, developers can in some cases go as low as one space for every two units (half of what is required) if they effectively can demonstrate that it's feasible to provide less parking. In select areas, there are also opportunities for developers to do reduced parking if they're building affordable housing.

However, Oakland's parking system is still rooted in policies that overly value car ownership. Critics note that developers have to proactively seek parking exemptions, which, in turn, tends to increase the intensity of the parking backlash because developers are forced to publicly request to bypass city rules.

As a result, developers continue to build a lot of parking in Oakland. A review of recently completed residential developments in the city — along with proposed projects in the works — reveals that many projects have built or are on track to build at least one parking spot per unit. Across seven new apartment buildings completed in 2014, developers built a total of 382 parking spaces for 392 housing units. The slightly lower than one-to-one ratio was a result of a 33-unit senior housing project that included only 17 parking spaces (since senior housing projects typically have only one space per four units). Three of the 2014 projects — including two Madison Park buildings in West Oakland — built exactly one space per unit. Two new buildings in East Oakland built more parking spaces than their total units; a 32-unit project included 40 spaces, and a 12-unit project had 22 spaces.

"We target, almost by default, the minimum requirement," said Chen from Madison Park, noting that the company has four more projects underway that will all have at least one space per unit. One of the projects under construction on Adeline and 39th streets (on the border of West Oakland and Emeryville) will have 109 parking spaces for 101 residential units and a cafe. And according to Chen, three other proposed Madison Park projects — two in West Oakland, and another in Jingletown near Fruitvale BART station — will bring about 230 units total to Oakland and at least 230 new parking spaces.

AvéVista, a 68-unit project under construction at 460 Grand Avenue in the Adams Point neighborhood — where parking requirements are particularly high — will include 97 parking spaces, according to Joe McCarthy, senior project manager with BRIDGE Housing, a nonprofit developer. In other neighborhoods and cities, BRIDGE has launched progressive projects with limited parking, including a major mixed-used development adjacent to MacArthur BART. But at 460 Grand, due to Oakland's strict code requirements, BRIDGE had to provide nearly one hundred spots, McCarthy said.

While the number of parking spots built and proposed in these recent projects may seem standard — and while some residents will continue to argue that it's not enough — research on the existing housing and parking in Oakland shows that the city already has way too much off-street parking. In fact, one analysis by TransForm reveals that millions of dollars have been wasted on unused parking in just a dozen or so buildings in Oakland. And if development rules and trends don't change, the amount of money and land Oakland wastes on parking in the coming decades will be astronomical.

By 2040, Oakland is projected to create roughly 51,000 new housing units — a 30 percent growth from the city's current stock, according to forecasts published by the Association of Bay Area Governments and the Metropolitan Transportation Commission.

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