Absent State Leadership, California Cities Continue to Lead on Parking Deregulation

Absent State Leadership, California Cities Continue to Lead on Parking Deregulation

Recently, San Diego moved to eliminate minimum parking regulations for businesses near transit and in neighborhood commercial areas. As reported in the San Diego Union-Tribune, the measure—which ended the practice of local regulators telling certain walkable and transit-accessible businesses how many off-street parking spaces they must build—enjoyed unanimous support from the City Council.

With COVID-19 and the rise of e-commerce continuing to shake up retail, San Diego business groups championed the reform, pointing to the need for greater flexibility in the use of parking spaces. Free of these mandates, restaurants can now shift unused spaces to outdoor dining, while empty storefronts that may otherwise have gone empty owing to a lack of government-mandated parking can now be leased out.

In 2019—under the leadership of then-mayor Kevin Faulconer—San Diego adopted similar reforms for residential developments, releasing new apartment buildings near transit from state mandates to build parking. By one estimate, scrapping these minimum parking regulations could shave as much as $95,000 off the price of a new condominium. Local planners are anticipating a long-overdue building boom near transit as a result.

Reform in San Diego comes on the heels of the California State Assembly failing to pass AB 1401, which would have preempted the power of local governments to force the construction of onerous and unnecessary parking near transit. Despite a wide and growing consensus on the need to scrap minimum parking requirements, the bill unceremoniously died in committee.

Thankfully, most California cities aren’t waiting around for state leadership that isn’t coming. In 2018, San Francisco abolished parking mandates citywide, and Sacramento and Berkeley both started down the road to reform earlier this year. These reforms will go a long way toward reducing barriers to new housing construction and empowering business owners to leverage otherwise wasted parking spaces.

Yet in suburbs across the state—as well as in many booming Central Valley cities—minimum parking requirements remain in full effect, mandating the construction of towering parking garages and largely-empty surface lots.

In Anaheim, the city government mandates that a one-bedroom apartment must come with two parking spaces, regardless of whether the market demands it. In Stockton, it’s illegal to build 200 feet of office space without a nearly commensurate amount of parking. And in Bakersfield, a nightclub must provide one parking space per 50 square feet of floor area—so much for preventing drunk driving!

In Los Angeles, the story is slightly more complicated. While the city has loosened minimum parking requirements for certain projects in downtown and near transit—to enormous success—conventional mandates remain in effect for nearly all of the city. As housing costs in Los Angeles hit new highs, and the cost of doing business bedevils local entrepreneurs, minimum parking requirements are one big-ticket mandate that regulators could easily scrap.

An ounce of state leadership wouldn’t hurt either: for all of Gov. Newsom’s tough talk on housing, production remains well below what the state needs to build to get back to being affordable for regular California families. In cities and suburbs alike, a web of complicated and costly regulations still stand in the way of that housing—parking mandates key among them. While statewide deregulation died in 2021, let’s hope that the state policymakers haven’t given up altogether.

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