In their continued efforts to transform San Jose into a climate-friendly metropolis, city officials are proposing to abolish the decade-old zoning rules that fuel suburban sprawl.
One such relic is a requirement stemming from the California mindset that cars are king: developers and businesses must provide ample on-site parking.
Take away those precious spaces, say today’s city officials, and you’ll give people more incentive to park their cars and get on a bus or train, ride a bike, or even walk to get around.
And while it’s not all about “mandatory parking minimums,” according to a poll by this political news organization, San Jose has required developers and business owners to provide more on-site parking than any other major city in the Bay Area and state rules in Los Angeles, San Diego, San Francisco, Sacramento, Oakland and Berkeley.
However, if proposed to change, city officials could face stiff opposition from both affluent and low-income residents who live in multigenerational housing areas where they are already struggling for parking.
San Francisco and San Diego have eliminated minimum parking times altogether in recent years, and both Berkeley and Sacramento made plans to do the same in January. In 2016, Oakland removed parking requirements in areas closest to major transportation hubs and instead set a cap on the maximum amount of parking allowed in those areas. And while Los Angeles hasn’t gone that far, it takes up less space per development than San Jose.
How are changes implemented in such regulations? A 100-unit apartment complex in downtown San Jose must have a minimum of 100 parking spaces – or one space per unit – unless developers agree to certain traffic improvements or public transportation incentives. There are no minimum parking requirements for an apartment this size in downtown Oakland, and it is actually prohibited to have more than 1.25 spaces per unit.
Or while in San Jose a 200 square meter café in most areas outside the city center must have at least five parking spaces on site, such a restaurant of this size in Los Angeles would only have to offer two parking spaces according to city zone codes.
Unlike some of these cities, San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo points out that San Jose doesn’t have nearly the same transit infrastructure. Instead of reflecting their politics, San Jose are more oriented towards those of the suburban cities of Silicon Valley.
“You have to understand the context of what our city looks like and how it differs from other cities,” said Liccardo. “We’ll get there. Our inner city is evolving, we’re investing a lot in transit infrastructure, but that doesn’t happen overnight, and in the meantime people need to be able to come home and go to work.”
Parking requirements in San Jose are fairly typical of post World War II suburban cities, which arose out of concerns that if there weren’t enough parking spaces for offices or apartment complexes, cars would flood into the surrounding neighborhoods and residents.
To this day, Liccardo said, parking is “often the cause of minor civil wars in cities across the country” – and San Jose is no exception.
Parking is why the San Jose Sharks say Google’s new mega-campus could force them out of town. Because of this, downtown San Pedro Street may not be able to drive permanently car-free. For this reason, many San Jose residents attend community and town meetings to object to new developments in their area.
“This is a single family home town and parking is on your Bill of Rights,” said Michael Brilliot, assistant planning director for San Jose. “For many people, parking is very personal and very emotional.”
With new funding and resources from Bloomberg Philanthropies’ American Cities Climate Challenge, San Jose officials are investigating a range of new parking reforms – from reducing or eliminating minimum parking requirements, setting maximum parking limits, to creating a new policy for managing transportation demand Developers must provide certain incentives for tenants to reduce the number of trips a vehicle takes. These incentives could include an on-site bike or car sharing program, or free bus and light rail passes.
To support the development and implementation of environmentally friendly strategies, a biennial American Cities Climate Challenge was launched in 2018, providing San Jose and 19 other cities with technical support, a philanthropy-funded team member, and leadership training, among other things.
Next month, the San Jose Planning Department, which works with the Bay Area nonprofits SPUR and Greenbelt Alliance, will begin publicizing the proposed park reforms. The city council is then expected to make a decision in the fall.
“This will be a big change for the city of San Jose,” said Brilliot. “But I think one thing people need to understand is that more parking actually means more cars on the road and therefore more traffic problems.”
At the same time, a new bill, AB 1401, could prohibit cities across the state from placing minimum parking requirements on new homes and businesses within half a mile of train stations and bus routes.
Proponents of eliminating the requirements argue that it will decrease reliance on cars, increase housing production by lowering costs, increase safety for hikers and bikers, and reduce the impact on the environment.
A report produced last year by the Urban Land Institute found that San Jose’s current park policies are contrary to the city’s climate goals.
As part of Climate Smart San Jose, the city’s comprehensive climate protection plan, which was adopted in early 2018, those responsible for the city of San Jose not only want to make San Jose one of the first cities in the US to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to the level set in the Paris Agreement but also ensure this. By 2040, no more than 25% of commuting will be made by residents who drive alone.
“The current vehicle-oriented lifestyle is not only a threat to the quality of life of San José residents, it also has a significant impact on the climate, making car management and parking a high priority,” the report’s authors write.
Michael Lane, state policy director for the regional think tank SPUR, said dropping parking minima doesn’t mean eliminating parking altogether. It simply means assessing the number of parking spaces “based on real needs, not arbitrary and excessive demands”.
“San Jose is hugely overparked and it is time to move to a more realistic and holistic approach that is not only better for the environment, but also vital to the economy and meeting the housing needs we have,” said Lane.
Meanwhile, other residents are voicing concerns about the worsening parking shortages that already exist in their neighborhood.
Ernesto Barajas, 69, a community leader in the Cassell neighborhood of East San Jose, said the city needs to expand its residential parking permit program, which requires residents to obtain street parking permits if they want to remove minimum parking fees. According to Barajas, residents of a nearby apartment complex and trucks for contractors and construction workers who live in the area are already flooding the street.
SAN JOSE, CA – APRIL 21: Parked cars are seen on Endicott Drive in East San Jose on Wednesday, April 21, 2021 in San Jose, Calif. (Dai Sugano / Bay Area News Group).
“We have had a big problem with parking for a long time,” he said. “For my daughter and my neighbors who have to work early or late and walk a block or two in the dark – that is not safe.”
Erik Schoennauer, a well-known land use advisor in San Jose, described the removal of park minima as “a sensible policy that should have been implemented years ago.” However, he warned the city against introducing parking maximums or requirements for managing transport demand that would make the development “flawed and expensive”.
“This approach could discourage new projects and investments in San Jose as it could put itself at a competitive disadvantage compared to surrounding cities,” he said.