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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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On a larger scale, if the roughly 51,000 units of new housing forecasted to be built in Oakland over the next 25 years adopted GreenTRIP-style parking plans the benefits would be huge. According to TransForm's projections, developers would build 28,000 fewer parking spots under GreenTRIP guidelines — a 44 percent reduction from the parking that would be built under current code.

This model would result in huge reductions in pollution; Cheng estimated that residents of the city's projected new housing units would emit a total of 250 fewer tons of greenhouse gases per day if future developments followed GreenTRIP formulas for limited parking.

Yet while some developers and city leaders are starting to see the incredible potential for greener and more affordable projects, transportation advocates question whether local governments are willing to make reduced parking the norm instead of the exception.

In the coming months, the City of Oakland is, in fact, scheduled to rewrite its parking policies for new developments. It's a rare chance to shape the future of Oakland, and transportation activists hope that city officials will seize the opportunity to lay the groundwork for sustainable and equitable development. After all, the stakes are high.

Policies that proactively promote alternative modes of transit can actually change people's behavior. Separated bike lanes, for example, attract new cyclists to the road. Pedestrian plazas with lots of public seating draw visitors and shoppers. And policies that make it harder or more expensive to drive can lead to a reduction in car trips.

On the flip side, apartment buildings with free on-site parking spaces attract car owners to neighborhoods — even in locations where driving is unnecessary. Liz Brisson, co-founder of local advocacy group Transport Oakland and a transportation planner who works in San Francisco, explained it this way in a recent email to Oakland's planning commissioners urging them to approve the reduced parking for 4700 Telegraph, Nautilus' Temescal project: "If you build it, people who own cars will come. If you don't build it, it will be too much of a pain to own a car, and people will choose other ways to get around."

That latter point is critical when considering how to create progressive parking policies, experts say. And while it may seem obvious that less parking will lead to less driving, that thinking is largely absent from policies and local planning processes. Instead, policymakers (who write, study, and rewrite parking requirements) and planning commissioners and elected officials (who decide whether to approve development proposals) tend to assume that less parking simply means more traffic. As a result, transportation policies and development approval decisions are often geared toward accommodating existing rates of driving, which, in turn, not only maintain or increase current levels of pollution and greenhouse gases, but also keep housing prices unnecessarily high.

"In order for us to actually build the communities that we want to see, we need to limit the amount of parking that is going to occur in those communities," said Wade Wietgrefe, a senior planner with the San Francisco Planning Department. Referencing a quote from a former director of his agency, he added: "No great city is known for its parking availability."

In other words, if Oakland wants to be a true leader in progressive parking policies, it's not enough for the city to acknowledge that it's currently forcing developers to build too much parking and adjust the requirements accordingly. While that would be a productive first step, advocates said Oakland should be much more aggressive by adopting policies that push developers to build a city with significantly fewer cars per capita. That means helping Oakland grow without increasing the number of cars driving and parking here.

The San Francisco Planning Department, the San Francisco Municipal Transit Agency, and San Francisco County Transportation Authority will soon publish the results of a study of off-street parking in residential and commercial properties showing that when there are more parking spaces available, more people choose to drive, according to Wietgrefe. "Parking supply affects vehicle behavior," he said.

Transportation advocates point out that city officials with conventional, car-centric views tend to overlook the fact that parking requirements can block developers from building projects with less parking and force sustainably minded people to pay rents that are steeper than necessary and oftentimes higher than they can afford. As such, outdated parking minimums interfere with consumers' increasing desire to live green lifestyles — and developers' growing interest in accommodating them.

Experts further note that parking minimums can block the creation of housing altogether. With the high costs of building huge amounts of parking, some developers will reduce the size of their projects or completely abandon them. This can be especially problematic during economic downturns when unnecessarily high parking minimums can prompt developers to build housing that prices out struggling low-income renters.

That's why, some experts say, one obvious way for cities to make their required parking ratios more environmentally friendly is to get rid of them. "The absolute best practice is to simply not have parking requirements," said Michael Manville, an assistant professor of city and regional planning at Cornell University who has written about how parking requirements create barriers to housing development.

When cities deregulate off-street parking rules and scrap outdated minimums, developers tend to build fewer parking spots, he said. "That's a pretty clear sign the government was making them provide more parking than they thought they needed to sell their units." He added of existing minimum laws: "A non-trivial portion of the population doesn't own a car. You're basically telling developers they can't build housing explicitly for those people."

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