Many businesses in San Diego would no longer need to provide parking spaces for customers under a controversial new proposal that aims to accelerate efforts to make the city less car-reliant and more climate-friendly.
The proposal, which the City Council is scheduled to vote on next month, would eliminate parking requirements for businesses located near mass transit or in small plazas near dense residential areas.
New businesses in those areas would no longer have to provide any parking spaces for customers or staff. And existing businesses could immediately transform their parking spots into outdoor dining or extra retail space.
City officials say it makes sense to allow businesses — not city officials — to decide how many parking spots they need, especially with more San Diego residents commuting by transit, bicycles and ride-booking services like Uber and Lyft.
They also said fewer parking spots at businesses would encourage more people to commute and get to shopping areas by mass transit, bicycle or by walking, which would help the city meet the goals of its legally binding climate action plan.
Many neighborhood leaders criticized the proposal as premature, contending that parking requirements should stay in place until San Diego has enough mass transit and bike lanes to make it truly feasible to commute without a car.
Other critics said the policy changes would worsen parking scarcity in many neighborhoods and business districts, reducing quality of life and frustrating many residents.
The proposal, which the Planning Commission approved 4-3 last week, would build on San Diego’s elimination two years ago of parking requirements for new condominium and apartment complexes near mass transit.
But unlike that proposal, which only applied to future projects, the parking policy change for businesses would be retroactive. That’s why businesses could immediately transform parking spots into other uses under the policy.
City officials said it’s too early to tell whether the elimination of parking requirements for multifamily housing in 2019 has been a success, but they said two subsidized housing projects have been approved with zero parking spots.
Both the housing and business policies are modeled after similar policies that eliminated parking requirements in Seattle, Portland, Minneapolis and Denver.
While the policies have helped spur housing construction in those cities by lowering the costs that come with providing parking, they’ve had mixed results in getting people to switch away from cars toward transit, biking or walking.
San Diego’s new parking policy would apply to businesses located near transit hubs, which are defined as areas located within half a mile of a trolley line, a bus rapid transit station or two high-frequency bus routes.
The nearby transit must be operating or scheduled to begin operating within five years.
The new policy would also apply to businesses located in plazas and business districts designated “neighborhood commercial,” which are smaller plazas and business districts that serve adjacent residents.
That’s in contrast to regional commercial centers, like Fashion Valley mall, and general commercial areas and industrial areas.
City parking requirements currently vary by business and area of the city, but restaurants and retail stores are required to provide significantly more spots than other types of businesses.
Surface parking spots typically cost $25,000 each, so a business required to provide 20 spots would have to spend roughly $500,000 on parking. Parking garages are even more expensive, with each space costing as much as $100,000.
The proposal is supported by many business leaders, merchant groups and organizations focused on the environment.
“Parking is not only expensive to build but also expensive to maintain,” Angeli Calinog, a policy advisor for the San Diego Regional Chamber of Commerce, told the Planning Commission Thursday. “This will make new business development more affordable, allowing the choice to provide parking for customers where public transit, jobs and services are already close by.”
Noah Harris of nonprofit Climate Action Campaign said the policy would encourage people to switch their commuting method away from cars, which would reduce the amount of greenhouse gas emissions produced in the city.
“Transportation accounts for more emissions that any other sector,” Harris told the commission.
Many community leaders harshly criticized the proposal, telling the commission it’s unrealistic and too aggressive for a city that lacks quality transit and was built for automobiles.
“Any reduction in parking requirements should be phased in over a period of years to coincide with transit improvements that would maintain a balance between the need for parking and the supply,” said Pat Sexton, a member of the North Park Planning Committee.
Resident Julie Hamilton said San Diego needs more protected bike lanes, more light rail, more rapid buses and many other things before parking requirements can be eliminated.
“When you take something like parking in isolation and you don’t include the other aspects that are necessary to get people out of their cars, you create issues without solving problems,” she said.
Nicole Ueno, a small business owner in Ocean Beach, said she generally supports the policy change but wants it to apply to more businesses to avoid an uneven playing field.
“It seems a little unfair that some businesses in the city benefit from this great proposal and some do not,” she said.
Wally Wulfeck, leader of an umbrella group for the city’s 52 community planning groups, said neighborhood leaders across the city need more time to analyze the proposal and gather feedback.
The umbrella group, the Community Planners Committee, voted 21-3 in late May to reject the proposal based on concerns it is moving forward too quickly.
City officials said there will be more opportunities for residents to provide feedback on the policy, including a June 16 presentation to the City Council’s Active Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.
Bill Hofman, chairman of the Planning Commission, said the lack of public input was his only reason for voting against the proposal Thursday.
“It’s something I definitely support, but I think community input is vital,” he said. “I feel it’s just not quite cooked all the way.”
Commissioner Dennis Otsuji voted no for the same reason. Commissioner Ken Marlbrough said his “no” vote was because city officials haven’t adequately studied how the policy would impact ethnically diverse and low-income areas.
The four commissioners who supported the proposal said it would be a crucial step forward for San Diego.
“It’s needed for the health of our planet and for the health of San Diego,” said Commissioner Doug Austin, contending it will make San Diego more like less car-reliant cities in Northern California. “Is it perfect, no, but it’s doing a lot of the right things and going in the right direction.”
Commissioner Kelly Moden said it’s likely the state will force San Diego to make such changes. AB 1401, which is working its way through the state Legislature, would force cities to loosen parking requirements.
Commissioner Matthew Boomhower said the proposal is a good first step, contending that the elimination of “free parking” in many places would persuade more people to explore other ways to get around San Diego.
But he also agreed with some critics that San Diego must accelerate creation of protected bike paths and other amenities, such as “rapid” buses in special lanes created by the city.
“Watching people in buses go past them, going faster than they are, is what’s going to motivate people to get out of their cars,” he said.