San Jose mulls new citywide parking policy ideas to cut greenhouse gases
An aerial view of downtown San Jose. Image by Janice Bitters

San Jose Planning Commission members received a recent preview of an Urban Land Institute parking study and a slew of recommendations that aim to reduce congestion and the number of miles vehicles travel in the city as a way to cut down on greenhouse gas emissions.

ULI is an urban planning research organization and thinktank, which has members from development, financing and government that help with studies like the one done in San Jose. The study included a tour of the city and meeting with developers, local businesses, nonprofits, city officials and residents.

Parking is hot topic across communities, often paired with complicated nuance and clouded by anxiety from residents and businesses, ULI representatives acknowledged. In a large, diverse city like San Jose, the ULI study underlines that no one size fits all when it comes to reducing residents’ reliance on cars while also trying to meet legitimate parking needs.

But the ULI representatives — a cross-section of Bay Area commercial developers, affordable housing developers real estate financiers and officials from area cities — had many ideas about what San Jose could do better.

Among those ideas: Eliminating parking minimums, encouraging dense and mixed-use development, investing more money into transit and launching transit and parking pilots to try new things with detailed data collection.

The implementation of the recommendations should be done gradually, earning buy-in from residents, investors and businesses as those groups see the initiatives work, said Rick Dishnica, ULI executive board member and president of The Dishnica Co., a real estate development, investment and consulting organization based in Point Richmond.

“I think the challenge you have is that you have to take everybody on the bus with you,” he told commissioners.

“The detailed data is what sells the argument,” he added. “We have not seen the hard data in a lot of cases to support the argument. And when I say ‘hard data,’ I mean in the city of San Jose, not data from other places.”

San Jose officials in 2018 adopted an initiative known as Climate Smart San Jose, which prioritizes reducing greenhouse gas emissions. The effort received funding from Bloomberg Philanthropies, which helped to pay for the ULI study. A full report will be distributed in the coming months.

In the meantime, the key planning body in San Jose has started to digest the ideas, mulling how they might push implementation while balancing city leaders’ well-known desire for jobs and commercial growth, with neighbors’ anxieties regarding parking and gridlock.

A graph presented to San Jose Planning Commissioners shows what types of properties need more or less parking. Image credit: city of San Jose, ULI

But in San Jose, which has more homes than jobs, some say the study suggests that bringing more commercial development to the city — particularly around transit — could help combat congestion.

“We will have accomplished reducing vehicle miles traveled simply by having San Jose residents working in San Jose and no longer driving up to Santa Clara and Palo Alto and Mountain View and other places,” said Dennis Williams, managing director at NorthMarq Capital, who helped with study.

And while the ULI presentation suggests the city back away from including parking minimums in its zoning code, the group was quick to note that projects often do need parking.

“Eliminating minimum parking requirements doesn’t mean eliminating parking,” said Darin Ranelletti, policy director for housing security in the city of Oakland. “Rather than prescribe a static parking amount, that parking really needs to be sized for the project because different projects need different amounts of parking.”

Affordable and low-income housing tends to need less parking, said Wendi Baker, ULI member and principal and COO of Los Gatos-based Harmonie Park Development. But retailers often can’t give up as many spaces.

“Policy changes can be really, really impactful to businesses,” she said. “Very small policy changes on parking could shutter that business because retail is kind of hanging on by a thread right now.”

Meanwhile, some once-hot retail spots are “over-parked,” meaning they have too many spots compared to demand and right-sizing surface parking lots could have significantly more opportunities for affordable housing, said Mary Murtagh who is the executive board chair for affordable developer EAH Housing and also helped with the study.

In fact, Murtagh said, sometimes building housing in communities with single-family homes that are already overcrowded could help with parking and traffic.

“This is a situation that occurs all over the Bay Area because rents are high, salaries are low and people are renting out spare rooms and garages so … you see a lot of streets where there are cars flowing out into the street from the driveway and there’s barely any room at the curb to park,” she said. “We need more housing in these areas, if we can create it.”

Murtagh proposed the creation of a “neighborhood preference” program for affordable developments to encourage people who are already living there to move into the new homes.

While many ideas were thrown around during the hour and a half presentation and public hearing last week, a key takeaway was the call to test new ideas.

Ron Golem, VTA’s director of real estate and transit-oriented development, urged commissioners to try new things, though he did not assist in creating the study.

“I think a lot of times, the challenge in front of us is fear, and the focus on preventing bad outcomes and that we only have one shot at it,” he said at the meeting. “That gets in the way of thinking about how do we create a better outcome and how do we think about the best ways to do things?”

Contact Janice Bitters at janice@sanjosespotlight.com or follow @JaniceBitters on Twitter.

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