The injustice of bundled parking

The other day, we looked at a new apartment building proposed for downtown San Rafael with mindbogglingly expensive parking and tried to determine how the project could be improved. One big way that deserves a second look is allowing people to rent parking spots and apartments separately.

Thanks to city law, a developer is not allowed to unbundle the cost of those parking spaces from the rent it charges tenants. Tenants don’t get the choice of whether they get a parking space or not. They just do.

Unlike a single-family home, however, these garages aren’t adaptable. A tenant can’t just use their reserved 153 square feet (8’6” by 18’) for storage or as a workspace. Adaptation isn’t just impractical, but per the city code, it would be illegal. Instead, the parking space will just sit, an empty slab of concrete soaking up $700 per month in rent. That raises the income needed to rent a market-rate home by $25,200. This is fundamentally unfair, soaking money from tenants for a resource that may not be used, damaging the vitality of the city. It gets worse.

If I’m already paying for car storage, then it’s a strong incentive for me to get a car. The developer has already spent over $55,000; I might as well go the extra $5,000 and buy a car. That will incentivize me to do things like drive more, avoid transit, and otherwise help choke up the roads and air. It gets worse.

If I’m paying $700 per month for the required car storage and another $300 per month on car ownership (car payments, gas, maintenance), that’s $1,000 I won’t be able to spend around Marin, depressing my value as a resident. That’s $12,000 per year leaving the county rather than going to local business (gas and maintenance shops ship most of their income out of the local economy).

Not only does this law restrict personal freedom of choice, it drains away hundreds of thousands of dollars from the local economy each year, and that’s just on this project. If San Rafael’s empty parcels get a similar treatment, it will be millions. It encourages car ownership and traffic and wastes the money of people who might want to go car-free.

There are three, radically simple solutions.

Repeal the parking minimum requirements for all new development in San Rafael. Developers know that they need parking sometimes to sell or rent units, but the city shouldn't substitute the judgment of skilled businesspeople for the judgment of whoever wrote the parking codes long ago.

Allow developers to unbundle parking spaces from any rent or purchase. If someone wants to buy or rent a place to keep their car, they're welcome to it, but like most products it shouldn't be forced upon consumers.

Allow parking space owners or renters to use the space for other purposes, whether a storage unit or even a workshop. It's a lot of square feet, and the owner/renter is paying for it. They should have a right to do whatever they like with it.

Each of these may have some unintended consequences, which we'll discuss next week.

How to improve the San Rafael apartment proposal

On Wednesday, news broke that San Rafael could soon find itself home to another 162 households, thanks to a proposed redevelopment of the Third Street garage and a couple ancillary buildings. This is the kind of development San Rafael needs more of, and the unique parking situation means it could get even better.

The basics

Lennar Multifamily Communities wants to build a 60-foot, 162-home building on Fourth Street across from Courthouse Square. Of these, 11 percent will be affordable. This is within the scope of downtown zoning and height limits, as well as within the realm of San Rafael’s place as Marin’s urban core.

Thanks to parking minimums, the lots where Lennar wants to build – 1001 Fourth Street and 924 Third Street – are too small to fit homes, businesses, and parking all on-site. To make things work, Lennar wants to incorporate and rebuild the 180-space Third Street garage, fulfilling San Rafael’s long-time goal of rebuilding the old structure.

This is on top of the minimum parking requirements for the apartments themselves, which comes to 194 spaces.

Parking is hella expensive

The Third Street garage is curiously expensive. The cost to tear down and rebuild has been estimated by the town to be about $10 million, or about $55,556 per space. This is well above the average for above-ground parking garages. Although some of the cost may be in demolition, it is still over 3.5 times the national average (PDF) ($15,552), and well over twice the cost of construction in San Francisco ($19,253) and New York City ($20,326).

If this is the cost of building a parking garage in downtown San Rafael, then over $20 million of development cost will be absorbed by parking alone - $10 million for the garage, $10 million for the additional spaces. The rest of the construction will probably cost around $14.3 million*, which means 60 percent of the cost of construction will be taken up by parking. It speaks to the huge demand for homes in Marin that this is even considered feasible.

Parking reform

Given the astronomical cost of parking in this project and the eminently walkable nature of downtown San Rafael, this may be a good place to eliminate parking minimums for affordable units, and to unbundle parking rental from apartment rent.

About a month ago, Dick Spotswood proposed eliminating parking requirements for affordable housing. Although I don’t believe he was serious – he regularly backs car-centric activists, politicians, and thinkers – perhaps we should take him seriously anyway.

Doing so here, with the current 11 percent affordable ratio, would eliminate 23 spaces from the project. That would shave $1.3 million from construction costs. If the affordability ratio were raised to 20 percent, it would cut 40 spaces, shaving $2.2 million from construction costs.

For the developer, that’s huge. Affordable housing is a legal requirement, after all, and its costs are subsidized either by taxpayers (in the case of nonprofit housing) or by market rate renters (in the case of for-profit housing). In this project, the parking requirements add $694 per month to the rent of one- and two-bedroom apartments and $1,042 to the rent of three-bedroom apartments.** Cutting out that cost would be nearly enough to subsidize the apartments on their own. Indeed, it may be enough to improve the ratio of affordable homes to 20 percent or higher.

Another concept that San Rafael should pursue is unbundling the cost of parking from rent. Providing the parking space as a benefit of renting encourages car ownership. Whether they want a car or not, renters would be paying for an extra 270 square feet of space in the garage.

Unbundling would allow car owners to pay for a space to park if they want it and lower rents for those that don’t, putting these homes within reach of more people and keeping more of renters’ money in downtown.

Indeed, there would be a multiplier effect of encouraging car-free living within downtown. People who walk or bike to retail tend to spend more money per month in their own neighborhood. And, by encouraging car-free living, new residents would be incentivized to stay downtown, raising sales tax revenue for the city, reducing traffic costs, and adding revenue to downtown businesses.

Further reductions could be made with transportation demand management strategies, such as providing residents and employees with subsidized Clipper cards and ZipCar memberships, and providing bicycle parking.

This will be a much-needed infusion of new homes to Marin and downtown San Rafael. The city has hardly grown at all in the past five years despite a crushing need for new revenue and new homes. This is precisely the right place, and the right form, for these homes to take.

*San Rafael has a floor-area ratio of 2.0 along Fourth Street, and the three parcels that will be part of the Lennar development have an area of about 59,900 square feet. If we assume the 70,686 square feet dedicated to parking will not be included in the floor area calculation, then the structure will be 119,800 square feet. Given its size, it can be wood frame construction on top of concrete, which costs $119.77 per square foot to construct. $119.77 * 119,800 square feet = $14,348,446.

**This assumes each parking space costs $55,556 to build and a market capitalization rate of 1.25 percent.

Optical illusions on Fourth Street

While working on a piece about bike lanes, I stumbled across something odd that says a lot about how the built environment influences perceptions. Downtown San Rafael. Image from Google Maps.

A pet peeve of mine for years has been Fourth Street through West End in San Rafael. The neighborhood has struggled for years under the shadow of downtown, hidden just over a short hill, and street width is part of the reason I rarely spend time there. It just doesn’t feel cozy like downtown. Downtown is above this paragraph, West End is below.

San Rafael's West End

So when I got back street width data from city hall, I made a double take. Fourth Street through West End, which runs from H to E streets, was actually narrower than the rest of Fourth all the way to its end at Union, by up to 10 feet: 40 feet vs. 50 feet.

So why does it feel so much wider? Look again at the two pictures and you’ll see some stark differences. In downtown, the trees are older, the street parking is a bit fuller, and the buildings on both sides of the street cozy right up to the sidewalk. In West End, the buildings only cozy up to the sidewalk on one side of the street, with parking lots and show leading way back to squat buildings on the other side.

Those parking lots make the street appear significantly wider than it actually is, creating an optical illusion. I can’t think of a better example of how walkable development influences our sense of place better than this.

An entirely preventable death in San Rafael

The place of the crash. Image from Google Streetview. Someone lost a daughter last week. Olga Rodriguez was killed by a driver while crossing the street in downtown San Rafael. Though her unnamed walking companion survived, he's in the hospital with serious injuries. The driver, who stayed on the scene and is cooperating fully with police, only stopped after he heard them being hit. According to him, he never saw them.

The driver was turning left from Third Street to Heatherton. From photos, it appears that he was in the inner left-turn lane where it would be harder to see anyone in the crosswalk. The truck is also quite tall, so it's entirely possible he never did see either Olga or her companion. That's a sign the intersection is broken, and the crash was likely preventable.

The fix is fairly straightforward: give pedestrians a head start when crossing (something known as a Leading Pedestrian Interval, or LPI). After the light on Heatherton turns red to southbound traffic, pedestrians crossing Heatherton would get a walk sign but Third Street would stay red. Three or four seconds later, Third Street would turn green.

Whether or not the truck driver could have seen Olga or her companion before he hit them, they would have been much harder to miss had they had a short head start. As well, rather than trust drivers to give pedestrians priority, the structure of the intersection gives priority to pedestrians instead.

The LPI isn’t just window dressing. A study by Michael King in New York City found that a pedestrian head start leads to a 12 percent reduction in crashes over the baseline or 28 percent reduction compared to unmodified intersections, which saw crashes increase by 17 percent over the course of the study. While crashes did still occur, their severity occurred declined 55 percent overall and 68 percent in comparison to unmodified intersections.*

A flashing yellow arrow would make things even more apparent. Research on yellow arrows in this situation is scant, but in situations with two-way traffic they make drivers exceptionally aware of oncoming traffic. This is precisely the kind of awareness drivers need while navigating an awkward and busy intersection like Third and Heatherton. A zebra-striped crosswalk would further raise the visibility of people crossing.

Though these kinds of changes require advanced signal hardware, it needs to be purchased anyway to tie SMART in to area’s traffic signals. It would simply be part of that purchase.

The ubiquitous pedestrian barrier is often the tool of choice for San Rafael’s public works department, but deploying it here would just give up on the intersection. It’s a vital connection to the Transit Center for commuters at the park and ride and anyone coming from east San Rafael. The area can get sketchy at night, and discouraging legitimate foot traffic will only make it sketchier. Nobody should ever fear for their lives while crossing the street, especially not in an area that’s supposed to be the heart of the county’s transit system.

We cannot erase the physical scars of Olga's companion. We cannot bring back Olga or wash her blood from the conscience of the driver who killed her. But we can honor the companion's wounds and Olga's death and make sure this never happens again.

* New York State assigns numerical values to crashes based on cost to society. Collisions with fatalities were multiplied by 2729, those whose victims were hospitalized and seriously injured were multiplied by 1214, those whose victims were hospitalized but not seriously injured were multiplied by 303, and those whose victims were injured but walked away were multiplied by 76. The total was then divided by the number of crashes.