Initial Thoughts on Proposed Downtown LA "Parking Podium" Reforms

An especially heinous parking podium at the corner of Wilshire and Vermont.

Parking podiums are a pretty ugly feature of a lot of new development in downtown LA and throughout the region, and the City Planning department has some ideas for how to fight back. In a recommendation report to be presented to the City Planning Commission on the 27th, they outlined a number of possible proposals that could help reduce the blight and waste represented by these structures. 

Urbanized LA summed up their recommendations nicely (kudos especially warranted since I stole their summaries word for word), and i'm throwing in my thoughts on each proposal, breaking them down into the good, the bad, and the "eh." This definitely seems like the opening salvo to a long process of reform, so I think there's a place for people like you and me to let the department know what we think of these proposals, and to discuss our support, opposition, and reservations on each. Here's my effort at that:


The good

1. Create large free-standing garages which could serve multiple buildings. 

Huge advocate for this, since it means we can allow different groups to use the same garages at different times of day (residential at night, office and retail during the day), and because we're going to have a lot of wasted parking whenever autonomous vehicles finally take off. I'd rather have that wasted parking in the form of single-use structures that can be torn down and built into something better when the time comes.

My question: How can we encourage apartment and commercial property owners to open up their underutilized private parking garages to public use, thereby reducing the need for new parking construction?

2. Allow unbundled or shared parking independent from residential units. 

Unbundled parking means that you can't have the cost of parking "bundled" with rent—you only pay for it if you want it. A structured parking space can add $200 to $300 to your rent each month, and a lot of people who don't own cars are paying this whether they realize it or not. If we make those costs more transparent, developers might be motivated to build less parking—which would reduce the cost of housing—and residents might consider reducing their car use (or make space for people who want to be car-free to live here instead).

My question: Very few people are willing to pay $200+ per month for a parking space, even though that's just about the minimum it costs to recoup the costs of building one. If prices are completely unbundled and residents aren't willing to pay the full cost since they can rent at a public garage for much less, how do developers justify building any parking? And if they can't build any parking, what happens if that discourages them from building anything?

3. Codify design guidelines as zoning standards in Downtown to wrap all above-grade parking with habitable spaces on main commercial thoroughfares and only allow one level of screened parking on secondary streets. 

This is mainly aesthetic, and would probably increase costs somewhat, but it sounds good to me.

4. Design above-grade parking to allow for future change of uses, with flat levels built to standard residential and commercial floor heights. 

Great idea. I think some developers are already starting to do this, but codifying it is probably a good idea for when they feel the need to build their own parking instead of using a shared garage, to be sure, again, that we're not burdened with millions of square feet of useless space 20 years from now.

5. Reduce or eliminate minimum parking requirements in transit-rich areas of the City, particularly in Downtown. 

In downtown, there is zero reason to have minimum parking requirements. The main push-back in other neighborhoods is that if you don't build parking in new buildings, the residents will still have cars but they'll park them on the street. There's pretty much no free on-street parking in downtown to begin with, and very few residents rely on it for their daily parking needs, so developers already aren't in a position to push the costs of parking onto the public in this way.

6. Eliminate mandatory parking for neighborhood-serving businesses under 2,000 square feet. 

Yes, but this should be unnecessary if we get rid of parking requirements altogether in downtown.

7. Eliminate parking requirement triggers for change of use. 

Yes. This is what made the adaptive reuse ordinance from 15 years ago so successful, and it will allow downtown to evolve naturally and without unnecessary bureaucratic barriers to change.


And the bad

1. Disincentivizing podiums by counting floor area for above-grade parking towards total allowable FAR. 

Right now parking doesn't count toward FAR. This idea sounds good, but in practice it means developers have to choose between more housing or more parking, and you can bet that they're not going to choose housing 100% of the time. This would effectively give us nicer-looking buildings in exchange for less new housing. We shouldn't be adopting reforms that force us to make these trade-offs; other proposals, such as FAR bonuses, should be able to encourage both better aesthetics and additional housing at the same time.


And the "Eh"

1. Incentivize underground parking and other alternatives through floor area bonuses. 

I'd much prefer underground parking to above-ground parking, but underground parking is more expensive by a wide margin ($50k to $75k per space as opposed to ~$30k a space). I lean toward saying this is a good idea since you can make up the cost of moving the parking underground with profits on additional units. That said, it'd be even better if we could find a way to just not build the parking altogether.

2. Provide parking reductions in exchange for bike share stations, car share, electric car charging stations and other amenities.

A fine rule, but unnecessary if we don't have parking minimums in the first place. Without the minimums, developers will probably explore these options on their own. If they don't, we should directly incentive them to do so (by, for example, increasing FAR) rather setting minimums we don't actually want as a way to goad them into doing things we do want. Some will choose not to be goaded, and we'll end up with more parking than we need and no investments in car-share, bike parking, etc. There's a similar argument around the density bonus—that it encourages us to zone for less housing than we actually want so that we can extract some affordable housing out of developers when they use the bonus. In practice, unfortunately, we end up with many buildings that are built only to their base (non-bonus) density and we get no affordable housing either.

3. Introduce parking maximums. 

I'm kind of hesitant to introduce parking maximums since it goes against my general ethos of "stop telling people how they should live (parking minimums, minimum unit sizes, minimum lot sizes, etc.) and we'll automatically have much better outcomes." That said, I don't see big problems with parking maximums, unless they're set so low that development activity dries up because no one's willing to take a chance on an "under-parked" development project. I think this could be good if done thoughtfully, but you'd have to be very sensitive to the location of existing transit resources, which would probably lead to some very complicated zoning. Like I said: "eh."


If you have any thoughts to add, please share in the comments. Did City Planning miss any essential proposals? Could any of the above be improved somehow? Have other cities enacted similar reforms, and were there any lessons learned? This is just the start of the process, so let's make sure we get the best possible outcome when all is said and done.