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LA getting serious about lifting parking requirements in Downtown

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Downtown could become the city’s first neighborhood to do away with parking minimums 

Nationwide, it’s estimated that 17 percent of rent goes toward the cost of constructing a parking spot.

Buildings in Downtown LA are likely to get a lot taller. They might also include a lot less parking.

A draft set of development guidelines for Downtown, released by the city in July, is testing the waters for eliminating the requirement that developers put parking in new apartment and condo buildings.

Across the city, when developers build, they are required to put in a certain number of parking spaces. That number is based on the building’s use—residential buildings, for example, have to have between one and two parking spaces per apartment or condo, depending on the number of bedrooms in each unit.

But where parking minimums have been instituted, they’ve been “an unmitigated disaster,” says Michael Manville, an associate professor of urban planning at UCLA.

“Right now, it’s illegal to build for a tenant who doesn’t care if their car is in the same building with them,” or who doesn’t own a car at all, says Manville, who is a faculty fellow at UCLA’s Institute of Transportation Studies.

In order to add the mandated parking, developers, especially of larger projects, often have to add floors of above-ground parking, creating unsightly garages or podiums, or dig underground, which gets expensive.

The rest of us are paying for it. Nationwide, it’s estimated that 17 percent of rent goes toward the cost of constructing that parking spot, as developers pass on costs to tenants.

Parking minimums have been blamed for driving up the cost of housing, but they’re also a detriment to local efforts to combat climate change. The city’s “green new deal” calls on Angelenos to reduce their personal car use by 50 percent over the next three decades. (Though some have argued that timeline is dangerously over-generous.)

“When you require parking, you really do encourage driving,” says Manville.

That opinion is shared by city leaders in Santa Monica, which eliminated parking minimums in its downtown two years ago.

“We can’t reduce our [carbon] footprint and do our part to fight climate change without driving less,” then-Santa Monica mayor Ted Winterer wrote in a Los Angeles Times op-ed that year.

The city planners certainly see it that way.

“By eliminating parking minimums, we are making it easier to provide housing for all and meet our goals on climate change,” Clare Kelley, planning associate with department of city planning, said in a statement.

Getting rid of the cookie-cutter requirement for parking in Downtown wouldn’t mean that housing in Downtown would suddenly be dramatically cheaper or any less upscale.

Compare a brand-new unit with a parking space to a brand-new unit without parking, and the one without parking will cost a bit less, says Manville, but “you’re still talking about new housing, so it’s not going to be cheap.”

It also wouldn’t mean that no one is going to build parking anymore, says Nate Cherry, director of urban planning at Gensler.

Instead of having to heed a one-size-fits-all mandate for parking, each project would instead be built with the amount of parking the developer thought it needed, taking into account considerations like who will be living there.

Much of the housing in Downtown is aimed at the higher end of the market, Cherry points out, and those households are likely to have cars and want to store them. Without parking minimums, developers could work out arrangements to use existing parking spaces in nearby garages to meet that need without having to build new parking spaces.

But Cherry says part of the challenge will be seeing if those residents will “accept lower standards for parking.”

He’s optimistic, though, noting that many people move Downtown because they’re seeking out an urban environment, including one that does not require every single trip to be taken by car.

Manville notes, too, that investors in larger projects, like glassy high-rise towers of high-end apartments, tend to be conservative and would likely be hesitant to jump head-first into a project that had significantly fewer parking spots than the pre-existing buildings that surround it. It would take a little time for those investors to come around to the idea that a parking-light (or -less) building would be profitable.

Eventually, though, experts say the elimination of parking minimums will likely mean we’ll see a whole lot less new parking in general, especially parking podiums, long a target for their unwelcoming appearance and pedestrian-unfriendliness.

The draft version of the Downtown plan has a way to go before it’s put into action. If approved with the elimination of parking minimums, it would be the first community plan in LA to do so.

The Cornfield Arroyo Specific Plan, approved in 2012, was the first plan of any kind in the city to eliminate parking requirements, but it covers a much smaller area, including only portions of Chinatown and Lincoln Heights around the Los Angeles State Historic Park.

The proposal for Downtown comes as a number of changes are underway to make it easier for people to ride bikes and scooters or walk around the area, and when major investments in public transportation are being made.

When the cost of parking is laid bare, and the options to get around in other ways are available and made easy, people will choose those alternatives to driving, says Cherry, who bikes and takes the Expo Line to Downtown for work.

Though there’s much more that could and should be done to help Angelenos drive less, this is an “absolutely necessary” step, says Manville.

“If there was ever a time to do this, it would be now,” Cherry says.