A couple months ago, Donald Fisher — founder of the Gap, and a billionaire Republican to boot — announced his plan to unleash upon San Francisco an example of his own peculiar brand of “philanthropy,” this time taking the form of a parking initiative that was initially planned to appear on the ballot this November. This initiative was designed to appeal to San Francisco drivers frustrated by a chronic lack of parking, but it was fully prepared to sacrifice the city’s soul in order to carry out its mission.
There is a lot that is wrong with the Fisher initiative, so I’ll just go for a relatively compact summary. One problem is that by requiring bundled parking, developers are forced to construct parking along with housing units, and the cost of that parking is passed along to buyers, whether or not the buyers actually want the parking. Homes are already prohibitively expensive in San Francisco, and bundling parking will only exacerbate the problem. Another problem is that the initiative pretends to have “green” credentials by paving the way for more parking for “low-emission vehicles”, i.e. those vehicles satisfying a minimum standard of Ultra Low-Emission Vehicle (ULEV) — but this minimum is laughable, as it applies to most cars sold in California.
Perhaps the most serious problem with the initiative is the detrimental effect that this initiative would have on San Francisco neighborhoods and on Muni service. Not only would there be an increase in parking downtown, but it would also have an adverse effect on the neighborhoods, by sacrificing all aspects of the streetscape in order to meet the parking requirements. A common scenario is that public amenities (street trees, bus stops) could be removed in order to install a private amenity (a residential driveway). These changes would apply to all streets, including streets currently designated as pedestrian- or transit-oriented. The problems here are clear. Increasing available parking encourages more automobile use, which, in turn, leads to more pollution and traffic congestion. More traffic congestion will cause the service provided by Muni’s already slow and unreliable buses to deteriorate further, and as Muni becomes an increasingly unreliable way to get around town, this deterioration in service will only further encourage automobile use. (In fact, although transit use has increased nationwide, Muni ridership has actually decreased in recent years, a trend that we must seek to reverse.) So we have a vicious cycle. At the heart of the matter, the Don Fisher initiative constitutes a flagrant abuse of San Francisco’s Transit-First Policy, a doctrine that prioritizes travel by foot, transit, or bicycle over the private automobile.
In order to combat this irresponsible and insidious initiative, the Board of Supervisors voted to place Aaron Peskin’s charter amendment on the November ballot. This amendment (which I’ll probably post about at a later date) is primarily concerned with Muni reform, but it includes language that reaffirms the city’s current policy of restricted parking. Success of this amendment would essentially render the Fisher initiative helpless.
The latest development is that Peskin and the backers of the Fisher plan have agreed on the “Sensible Parking Initiative”, a compromise ordinance that will appear on the February 2008 ballot. The compromise plan guarantees a 1-1 parking-to-housing unit ratio in the western neighborhoods, but it does not require it, as the Fisher initiative would. It also stipulates that a new off-street parking spot (for example, a private parking spot for a single family residence) cannot be installed if the construction requires removal of a street tree or bus stop, or if it has an otherwise detrimental effect on bicycle safety or Muni service. In these respects, the Peskin compromise seems to guard against the most serious violations of the transit-first policy. Unfortunately, though, it rezones an area of South of Market to permit the construction of another very large garage with another couple thousand parking spots.
With this compromise appearing on the Feburary 2008 ballot, Fisher has agreed to stop campaigning for his own highly misguided “Parking for Neighborhoods” initiative. Unfortunately, it looks like this initiative cannot be removed from the November ballot, but it is likely to fail without campaign support. Of course, you can help defeat it, by not voting for it come November. Peskin’s Muni reform amendment (which I hope to discuss more, closer to the election) will remain on the ballot, but unopposed by Fisher’s gang. Although I’d be very unhappy to see the construction of a huge parking garage South of Market, it is nonetheless a relief that the Peskin compromise has neutralized the most dangerous, anti-transit parts of Fisher’s initiative.
A peculiar brand of philanthropy indeed!
Leave it to the found of the Gap to mold the urban landscape into something akin to a shopping mall.
Seriously. Although the compromise still leaves me uneasy, Fisher’s original initiative is downright scary — not only for its destructive ramifications on the streetscape and quality of life, but also for the sneakily positive way (have your own parking spot!) that it can be posited to voters.