Panel supports idea to drop San Jose parking requirements
Parked vehicles are pictured in this file photo.

San Jose wants to lower its greenhouse gas emissions and is looking at eliminating required parking spaces to get there. But the plan is already facing heated debate and concerns about land use and public transportation.

Land use advocacy group Catalyze SV, the Mineta Transportation Institute and transportation and affordable housing advocacy organization TransForm sponsored a Wednesday night meeting on parking featuring C.J. Gabbe, a professor in urban planning at Santa Clara University, and five of his students.

Panelists said they're in favor of looking at alternative ways developers can look at building without a lot of parking.

“Parking is something that is one of our dominant land uses,” Gabbe said. “Parking brings up these kinds of reptilian fight-or-flight types of responses. It’s this very emotional issue for many people.”

Parking requirements

The city is looking at getting rid of minimum parking requirements, a mandate for developers to build a certain amount of parking spaces in each new development.

San Jose requires varying amounts of off-street parking for different types of buildings. A multi-dwelling residential building requires 1.7 parking spaces for every two-bedroom housing unit, according to city code. A food, beverage or grocery store requires one parking space per 200 square feet of area dedicated to retail sales.

The proposed policy will eliminate these requirements, leaving developers free to build parking spots—or not—without being tied to a required number. The plan is part of a larger goal to make sure that no more than 25% of commuter trips are made by solo drivers by 2040.

City officials have said previously that getting rid of parking requirements will help decrease the cost of construction for housing developments and reduce the reliance on cars for transportation. This also ties into the city's strategy to focus development in areas near public transit.

Are developers supportive?

According to an analysis by CatalyzeSV, developers might be onboard with the proposal. The group's analysis of 21 different developments in the region shows that when developers offer incentives such as transit passes and bike parking, developments are able to reduce parking to 0.85 spaces per unit. The analysis also shows that affordable housing developments offer 0.62 parking spaces per unit compared to 1.02 spaces per unit for market-rate housing.

“Really, there was this desire among many developers to build less parking than the city requires,” said Gavin Lohry, development manager for Catalyze SV.

There are concerns from residents, however, that San Jose’s size and lack of transportation infrastructure—compared to other denser cities such as San Francisco and New York—will make it difficult for residents to drive less and take public transit more.

Parking requirements are a holdover from post-World War II policies that encouraged urban sprawl. But that’s increased the number of vehicle miles traveled for residents over the years and raised environmental issues. As a result, cities such as Saint Paul, Minnesota, Buffalo, New York, San Francisco and Berkeley have done away with their requirements over the past four years.

“One thing that definitely wasn’t apparent to me before, but I now think about every time I see a parking lot, is issues like the way these paved surfaces in our cities can actually trap heat with negative health outcomes for people living in cities,” said Alex Varni, one of Gabbe’s former students.

Public concerns

Though the panel—consisting of college students who regularly use or have used public transit—is in favor of eliminating parking minimums, opponents of the proposal have concerns that this will disproportionately affect lower-income neighborhoods and people with disabilities who live far from bus stops and light rail.

“I’m concerned about accessible parking that won’t raise the rent for people who have adapted vans for their wheelchairs. Or people who have other disabilities who can drive but not walk a long distance,” said resident Kathryn Hedges, who supports the parking proposal despite her concerns. “They’re probably not going to be transit users if they have that much difficulty walking. People with heart and respiratory issues and people who have difficulty with balance and pain but don’t necessarily use wheelchairs and other invisible disabilities.”

The San Jose City Council will make a final decision on the policy in January. Catalyze SV Executive Director Alex Shoor hopes the discussion will spur interest in the issue as the council's vote gets closer.

“We wanted to highlight the perspectives of folks in our community, young folks who are inheriting this Silicon Valley that we call home and might have some different perspectives than some of us on parking, cars, transportation and sustainability,” Shoor said.

Learn more about the proposed policy to eliminate minimum parking requirements in San Jose.

Contact Lloyd Alaban at or follow @lloydalaban on Twitter.

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