San Diego, Parking Reforms Work for Climate & Small Biz


City Heights Community Development Corporation, Image courtesy of NRDC

San Diego has quickly emerged as a leader when it comes to sensible updates to zoning rules that shape city neighborhoods. Since 2019, the City has adopted two key policies that will help its neighborhoods become more affordable, inclusive and climate-friendly; now a third is under consideration.

Freeing up parking

The latest parking reforms that the City Council is considering would eliminate parking requirements in all non-residential developments, like shops, markets, offices and venues, within one-half mile of the City’s most frequent transit stops. Further, it would allow neighborhood-serving retail to pick how much parking they want to provide, rather than be boxed in by a one-size-fits all parking requirement.

A little background—local laws in virtually every city going back decades dictate exactly how many parking spaces each home, businesses and other activity centers must have. From bowling alleys, to funeral homes to, yes, even bars, almost every land use imaginable has a special formula for parking. San Diego was no exception.

Due to these requirements, local home builders and commercial developers had to provide excessive amounts of parking—amounting to a major hidden subsidy and incentive for residents to use their cars. This has led to congestion, local air pollution, climate-warming emissions, more expensive housing and higher costs for consumers. Parking spaces can cost $20,000 to $30,000 per space in commercial garages and add $40,000 to $90,000 to the cost of building a housing unit, according to a City report.

Steps toward smarter land use

Joining the ranks of parking reformers like Seattle, Portland, Minneapolis and Denver, San Diego first acted in 2019 to eliminate parking requirements for homes built near public transit. This is now helping make housing more affordable and make it easier to walk to transit. Soon after,  the City adopted the “Mobility Choices” ordinance, which ensures that new developments support investments that make it easier for San Diegans to walk, bike and take transit. The City prioritized investments in communities that have had the least opportunity, as identified in the City’s Climate Equity report as “Communities of Concern.”

This summer, the City is planning to add a critical third piece to this formula for climate-friendly development by reforming parking requirements in key commercial and other non-residential areas.

Helping local businesses get creative

In addition to supporting the City’s climate goals, this reform will give businesses flexibility to decide whether to offer customers parking spaces in their parking lot or transform that spot into an outdoor dining parklet or extended retail space.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, several businesses took advantage of a temporary relaxation of parking rules to convert their parking lots to outdoor spaces that could safely serve their customers. Now they’re looking ahead and thinking about how to continue and perhaps expand these spaces.

NRDC partner City Heights Community Development Corporation connected with three local institutions to talk about how they adapted — or might still adapt — their parking spaces:

  • The San Ysidro non-profit, Casa Familiar, hopes that parking flexibility could help enable them to open another coffee cart to support their youth and community building efforts.
  • Ponce’s Mexican Restaurant in the Kensington neighborhood repurposed six parking spaces to create an outdoor dining area festooned with cheerful red umbrellas.
  • City Heights-based Super Cocina shifted approximately 1/3rd of its parking lot space to create an expanded outdoor dining area to create a safer and more inviting space.

With the City Council of San Diego taking up this issue in June and July, NRDC is excited to see San Diego continuing to be among leading cities in updating its parking rules to support more walkable and vibrant public spaces, while helping the city meet its ambitious climate goals.

Originally published on NRDC Expert Blog.

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