It took roughly $150,000 to convince city planners that the Boulevard Apartments provided enough parking for tenants.
Back in 2007, the Boulevard Apartments project had a lot of things going for it: For starters, each of the building's 24 units were deeply affordable, priced within reach for families getting by on minimum-wage salaries. Located near 30th Street and El Cajon Boulevard in North Park, the project was on a major bus route and within walking distance of plenty of shops and services, making it the sort of urban infill development that smart-growth proponents love. And it was being built by the nonprofit St. Vincent de Paul, with the goal of housing families that might otherwise end up homeless.
As Mathew Packard, vice president of development for St. Vincent de Paul, put it at a March 15, 2007, meeting of the city's Planning Commission, “It's exactly the kind of project we must be encouraging.”
Packard was at the Planning Commission meeting because the city's Development Services Department had denied the project's permit. Per San Diego's land-development code, such a project (three one-bedroom units, 18 two-bedroom units, three three-bedroom units) requires 47 parking spaces, but St. Vincent de Paul was proposing to build only 17.
Ultimately, the project's benefits outweighed what it lacked; the appeal was successful, and the apartments opened to tenants earlier this year.
But getting the permit came at a cost. The appeals process delayed the project. And, Packard estimates that his organization spent between $150,000 and $200,000 to prove to city planners something that, as one affordable-housing proponent recently put it, “has been studied to death”: Poor people, on average, own fewer cars than middle- or upper-class folks, and consequently, low-income-housing projects don't need as many parking spaces as market-rate projects. To put what St. Vincent de Paul spent on parking studies into perspective, $150,000 could cover 25 years' worth of rent for one of Boulevard Apartments' three-bedroom units.
Affordable-housing developers have long urged the city to reduce the per-unit parking-space requirements for projects like Boulevard Apartments. Projects aimed at very-low-income earners (roughly $41,000 for a family of four) already benefit from a reduced parking requirement, but advocates and developers think it can go even lower, especially if the project is near public transportation. Parking spaces are costly, they argue, and making affordable projects pencil out is already difficult enough. According to a 2006 report to a City Council committee, each surface parking spot costs $1,105—not too bad, but carving out space for a lot takes away from building space. A parking garage—like the one at Boulevard Apartments—costs $8,327 per space, while subterranean parking spaces cost $21,539 each.
As the report put it, “The cost of providing parking, especially when developing in an urban setting, can contribute a tremendous amount to the cost of construction. However, there is also a significant concern that if sufficient parking is not provided, a negative impact on the surrounding communities could result.”
At a panel discussion last week hosted by the Affordable Housing Coalition of San Diego, Nancy Lytle, manager of projects and development for the Southeastern Economic Development Corporation, a public redevelopment agency, described the city's parking requirement as an “obstacle” to building more affordable housing.
In 2002, the city's Housing Commission and Planning Department jointly commissioned a study by consulting firm Katz, Okitsu and Associates, hoping it would provide the foundation for a policy change. But the study, which proposed a reduction to the parking requirement for affordable projects, was shelved. “The methodology was flawed,” one former Housing Commission staffer who preferred not to be identified told CityBeat.
Tom Scott, executive director of the San Diego Housing Federation, came across the KOA study a couple of years ago when his organization was gearing up to do advocacy work on the parking issue.
“I think that [the city] knew that it just wasn't a satisfactory study to be used to sell to folks,” Scott said.
And it's a tough sell. Parking, Scott said, is “the new NIMBY thing. People don't [say] ‘those people' anymore because they know they can't get away with it. So they do a ‘parking and traffic' and ‘we don't want a two-story building next to our single-family house.'”
In August 2007, the City Council's Land Use and Housing Committee voted to commission a study more comprehensive than the one KOA produced. The cost estimate for such a study was $160,000, to be divided four ways between the Housing Commission, the city and the city's two redevelopment corporations. It was decided that a working group composed of community planners, developers and advocates would guide a consultant in producing the study. Scott was asked to be a part of the working group—and that's the last he's heard about it.
“Getting going on the study has just been—.” Scott paused for a few seconds. “I'd almost forgotten about it.”
Jim Varnadore, chair of the City Heights Planning Committee, was also asked to be part of the working group, representing the city's community planning groups.
“I haven't heard a peep from city staff about when/where, etc the group will meet,” Varnadore said in an e-mail to CityBeat.
Amy Benjamin, the city's housing and homeless services coordinator, said the delay is due to an increase in the study's cost—from $160,000 to $218,357. Because the cost of the study was divided four ways, each agency needed to approve the additional expense. The City Council did its final approval in August.
“I can't imagine it will be more than two months” before the study gets underway, Benjamin said.
The point of the study, she said, is to provide city planners with an empirical analysis to justify alternative parking requirements for affordable projects. She anticipates the study will take a year to complete.
Cory Briggs, an attorney who specializes in land use, called the cost of the study “ridiculous.”
“We need to call it out when studies are done to provide political cover as opposed to reasoned ideas that promote informed debate and decision-making,” he said.
“The city could get the answer to the questions posed in the [new study's proposal] for a $5,000 stipend to a grad student at SDSU,” Briggs added.
He's reviewed the proposal for the study and, in his opinion, it neither asks the right questions nor is it aimed at building consensus among developers and community members concerned about traffic and parking shortages in their neighborhoods.
“We should start with identifying our areas of agreement, then identifying the issues of concern and then tasking the consultants to propose solutions to the concerns. That's progress,” Briggs said. “But paying for expensive studies to wave in someone's face, knowing that those folks are already skeptical about the bureaucracies commissioning the studies, is no different than getting a bigger hammer to drive a nail. We don't need bigger tools. We need different, better tools.
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