Metropolis

Everyone Agrees California’s Parking Laws Are Bad for Cities. So Why Do Planners Like Them?

ANAHEIM, CALIFORNIA - APRIL 17: A group of fans wearing Mike Trout #27 jerseys walk through the parking lot after it was announced that the game between the Los Angeles Angels and the Minnesota Twins was postponed at Angel Stadium of Anaheim on April 17, 2021 in Anaheim, California. (Photo by Katharine Lotze/Getty Images)
Is this a good use of space? Katharine Lotze/Getty Images

A few years ago, Laura Friedman toured an affordable housing project in Glendale, the city of 200,000 she represents in the California State Assembly. What caught her eye was the garage: a cavernous, subterranean space, virtually empty. To comply with local parking requirements—two spaces for every studio or one-bedroom apartment, and rising from there—the builders had been forced to pour millions of dollars of concrete and reduce their number of new apartments, all to build a garage their low-income tenants would never fill. “These requirements are definitely stopping housing,” she concluded.

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It’s a familiar situation: Nearly all California cities require that enormous amounts of parking accompany every piece of new construction. In Cupertino, for example, where Apple has its headquarters, a new single-family home must come with four parking spaces. Such requirements effectively block most small-scale, affordable, and infill housing; they distort the size and shape of commercial architecture; they render thousands of older buildings functionally obsolete (no parking lot, no adaptive reuse);they subsidize driving and make it difficult to build walkable places.

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Also, a lot of that parking winds up going unused—a helpful oversupply if you need a spare outbuilding to start a computer company, but an expensive one if you’re trying to solve a housing crisis. Local parking requirements add $36,000, on average, to the cost every new housing unit in California built with the Low-Income Housing Tax Credit, according to a study by the Terner Center for Housing Innovation at the University of California, Berkeley. For low-income tenants, that means fewer units. For market-rate tenants, it means higher rents.

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Friedman is trying to change that. She is the author of Assembly Bill 1401, which would void California’s local parking requirements for residential and commercial construction near high-quality transit. That would be a seismic change in her home turf in Los Angeles County, and for hundreds of other cities and suburbs as well, where the provision of parking would finally be left up to builders themselves. It is the latest in a series of reforms from Sacramento that have pre-empted local regulations to get California building homes again.

A decade ago, Friedman was a member of the city council in Glendale, and for two years, its mayor. Back then, if you wanted to add so much as a dining room or a bathroom to your house, Glendale required you to build a two-car garage as well. Friedman tried to get rid of the parking requirement; she lost the vote, three to two. Now she’s in a position to help override that law—and many more.

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“The bottom line is, we need to prioritize people over cars,” Friedman told me this week. That sounds like a metaphor until you’ve tried to build a small apartment building in a city with high parking requirements. In much of California, parking really does take the place of new housing.

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If parking minimums are so bad, then why do we have them? There are two common explanations. One is that well-meaning traffic engineers believed that they could force the private sector to solve the mess of curbside parking chaos, and local politicians are now afraid of risking a dreaded “parking shortage” by letting the market decide how much parking is necessary. A more cynical take is that neighborhoods use parking as a value-neutral argument to stop new development, effectively banning low-income and infill housing without having to say so.

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But the effort to pre-empt local parking rules at the state level has suggested a much weirder explanation: Planners know parking minimums are bad, but they like that these onerous, counterproductive regulations give them leverage over developers.

That is the argument of the California chapter of the American Planning Association, which has declined to endorse the bill as is. The California APA agrees that parking requirements are bad. But their argument, which APA vice president for policy Eric Phillips explained to me, is that freedom from parking requirements is a crucial carrot that cities offer developers in exchange for building affordable housing. You would think city planners would be a natural ally of parking reform, seeking to undo policies that most of the profession now regards as a mistake. That’s not the case.

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As it turns out, this is not the first time that statewide parking reform in California has foundered on this very point. In 2011, for example, California assemblymember Nancy Skinner tried to cut baseline parking rules in half near transit. The Southern California Association of Non-Profit Housing opposed the bill, which failed. “We have 30 years of history… that recognizes the value of trading a planning concession, whether it be height, density, or parking, for supplying the mix of incomes in a project,” said Lisa Payne, the organization’s policy director. “This bill would have removed that tool.”

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In 2017, the planners Michael Manville and Taner Osman coined a term for this practice: “pretextual planning.” Local jurisdictions, they wrote, often “write rules primarily for the purpose of bargaining them away.”

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Once you realize this is the way things work, it explains a lot. Why do people think zoning is toothless when it is, in reality, very strict? Why do people think politicians are in the pocket of real estate developers when cities hardly grow at all? Because of pretextual planning. Washington, D.C., may be a place where legislators write laws by day and break them by night, but city councils are places where legislators write the laws one day in order to break them the next. This backtracking-by-design gets a nice, quiet name: “discretion.” It has become an expectation even for suburban developers, according to a 2003 study: More than half of surveyed builders said they needed regulatory relief on at least half their projects.

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As Daniel Herriges argues in Strong Towns, the very foundation of American land use planning—the single-family residential neighborhood—is an example of pretextual planning. The developer who pushed for the first single-family residential zone, which was established in 1916 in Berkeley, California, wanted to exclude Black residents; the code itself was a race-neutral document that stood up to the Supreme Court’s prohibition on racial zoning. Most of the country’s urban areas are blanketed in single-family zoning policies intended and maintained to keep out low-income residents, but defended on the firmer ground of “neighborhood character.”

But single-family zoning, at least, is a rule that is meant to be followed. Not so for many regulations that govern how cities grow on paper.

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Manville and Osman cite a pair of buildings in Santa Monica, California, doing battle with a paragon of pretextual planning: a 32-foot downtown height limit. If you’ve been to Santa Monica, you know it’s not some one-horse town. In exchange for going up, builders shell out. One developer agreed to spend more than a million bucks on a daycare, a contribution to a light rail line, and “traffic mitigation”—in addition to providing 15 months of shuttle service. A year later, a building was permitted to rise to 56 feet in exchange for new sidewalks, affordable housing, attaining LEED-Silver certification, and hiring local construction workers. Other discretionary concessions include land swaps, historic preservation, hotels, boat ramps, and pretty much anything a local council member can think of.

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Last month, I wrote about how a version of this process—in which the discretion to break the zoning code rests solely with the local council member—fosters corruption, restricts the creation of new housing, and entrenches boundaries of race and class.

It also creates a vicious cycle. Tight zoning codes reduce tax revenue, forcing politicians to negotiate with builders to provide public services in one-off deals. The more reliant politicians are on these negotiations, the more they depend on the straitjacket of zoning to deliver the upper hand. So it is in California cities, where property tax caps compel creative ways to open daycares.

But Manville and Osman are focused on a third issue with “pretextual zoning”: It’s bullshit. Developers may not love land-use laws with the rigid intention of a hollered price in a souk, where prices are fluid and haggling is expected. But residents really hate them.

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In a study of five recent, citizen-led “growth revolts” in California, the pair focus on voter anger not toward development itself (also known as NIMBYism) but toward local politicians’ use of discretion. “Voters rebelled not because zoning was permissive, but because local officials made exceptions,” they write. As one disgruntled resident said during a successful growth revolt in Newport Beach, California: “The General Plan was supposed to be a plan for development. If you keep changing it all the time, you do not have a plan for development.” The fight in Santa Monica was similar—though there, a proposal to require elections on buildings over 36 feet tall failed.

In the case of parking, California reformers argue, the make-rules-to-break-rules rationale is particularly perverse, since enforced parking laws thwart far more affordable housing than exemptions create—the daycare trades are exceptions, not the rule. In a letter to the California APA, the parking policy guru Donald Shoup, who exposed the waste of parking requirements in his 2005 book The High Cost of Free Parking, made that clear. “Even if AB 1401 might undermine the density bonus law (and there seems to be no evidence that it will),” he wrote, “in comparison the benefits of removing off-street parking requirements are immense.”

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From 2015 to 2017 California only permitted 449 “density bonus” projects—the type where parking relief is automatically offered as a chip in exchange for the creation affordable housing. Just 150 projects a year, at a time when the state built more than 80,000 homes annually. Furthermore, as the “density bonus” name implies, parking is not even the primary burden developers trade away—mostly, they want to build bigger.

That’s not to say that relief from parking rules does not make a strong bargaining chip—it does. But the hurdles to building affordable housing are numerous. If cities want to incentivize its creation, they will have no trouble doing so. Even if parking is optional.

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