|299 Valencia, present and future;
courtesy of www.299valenciastreet.com.
San Francisco is a transit-first city — officially, at least, according to its Charter — which means that actions taken by the city government, where they are related to transportation issues at all, should promote and prioritize public transit above driving. Given this background assumption, one might think that the Planning Commission would be disinclined to approve the inclusion of extra parking (beyond the stipulated limits) in development projects that it reviews. But the opposite is often the case, which forces citizens to step up to the plate and speak to the benefits of structuring planning decisions around people rather than automobiles. This particular defect of the Planning Commission is one that we have discussed here before, in the context of Folsom Street. The latest episode in the parking battle saga was fought yesterday over seven parking spaces at 299 Valencia, a 36-unit mixed use project slated for a surface parking lot at 14th and Valencia Streets. The five-story project provides four BMR units and about 5,000 square feet of ground-floor retail. The project is located on the very edge of the Market/Octavia Plan area, on land zoned NCT-3, and the site carries a maximum parking ratio of 0.5, or one parking stall per two units. 18 residential parking stalls would be allowed as of right, but the proposal contained 27 residential parking stalls so that the units would be more marketable to high-end buyers. The additional parking requires a conditional use (CU) authorization. In November 2008, the Planning Commission did unanimously grant a CU, on the condition that two of the 27 stalls be changed to car share spots, leaving 25 residential stalls. This falls within the 0.75 ratio permitted under the CU scenario. The Hayes Valley Neighborhood Association (HVNA), which was a key player during Market/Octavia planning, has been a voice for limiting parking and promoting walkable neighborhoods. HVNA filed an appeal (joined by a number of individuals and local organizations, including the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition and Livable City) shortly after the CU was granted, and the appeal was finally heard by the new Board of Supervisors and its new President, David Chiu. In the end, the Board failed to collect the eight votes necessary to disapprove the Planning Commission’s conditional use (the vote was 7-4, with Supervisor Maxwell aligning with the six members of the progressive alliance).
We should first observe that 299 Valencia satisfies rudimentary urban design principles and is designed to mitigate the negative effects of the parking included in the project. The scale of the building is compatible with the neighborhood context, the parking is contained in an underground garage accessed via the side street Stevenson, and the ground floor of the building includes retail that would activate and visually enhance the neighborhood, particularly as compared to the surface parking lot that is there now. But the dispute is not about the project as a whole, which the pro-infill appellants actually support. Rather, the controversy concerns the seven additional parking spaces that trigger the conditional use. The project sponsor claimed that due to the expense of building an underground garage, reducing the parking to the 0.5 as-of-right maximum would necessitate an altered design without an underground garage, stripping away all but a fraction of the retail square footage. The argument revolves around two sections of the Planning Code:
- Section 151.1(f), which applies to NCT zones, requires that cars interacting with the project “not unduly impact pedestrian spaces or movement, transit service, bicycle movement, or the overall traffic movement.” The Planning Department believes this condition is satisfied by locating the underground garage access to Stevenson Street, which is the least trafficked of the three streets onto which the project fronts. The appeal, however, correctly pointed out that although egress and ingress is concentrated on Stevenson, those cars will still have to drive on 14th and Valencia. This could negatively impact bicyclists, in particular, because the project is located at the intersection of two major bicycle routes.
- Section 303(c)(1), which is a subjective provision that discusses CU approval, requires such approval if it is the case that “the proposed use or feature, at the size and intensity contemplated and at the proposed location, will provide a development that is necessary or desirable for, and compatible with, the neighborhood or the community.” The appeal emphasized the fact that many buildings in the immediate vicinity comply with the 0.5 ratio, and that 73% of nearby households are carfree, implying that the particular feature of the additional parking would be incompatible with the neighborhood. In addition, the appeal asserts that extra parking is neither necessary for marketability of the units, nor desirable in light of the city’s transit-first policy — and that the CU would fly in the face of several years worth of planning and discussion that went into crafting the Market/Octavia Plan. The Planning Department, on the other hand, emphasized that the extra parking itself need not be necessary or desirable, but rather, that the project as a whole be necessary or desirable — and it concludes that this mixed-use project, which would activate the street and add housing units (including four BMR units), is certainly desirable, and that its scale is compatible with the neighborhood.
We could spend more time spinning our wheels about ambiguities in the code language — about whether or not a project satisfies the subjective requriement of “desirable,” or whether or not its excessive parking outweighs its other desirable features. Even though the conditional use inquiry focuses on a particular project, it is worthwhile for us to consider the greater ramifications. In this sense, we may understandably be concerned about the precedent that the Planning Commission’s CU might set, particularly because the Market/Octavia Plan will guide the development of thousands of new units in its coverage area. The precedent might not be a literally binding one, but it may turn out to be an effective pattern that emerges; the adoption of the Market/Octavia Plan is still too recent yet for us to say. The Planning Department’s argument in favor of the CU authorization for 299 Valencia could apply to many other projects in which neighborhood-compatible mixed-use buildings are proposed for surface parking lots or otherwise vacant/underutilized property, unless other special circumstances detract from the desirability of those projects. Given that developers will often pursue the maximum allowable parking, the success of a parking CU at 299 Valencia could incentivize many other Market/Octavia project sponsors to request a CU for their projects, which could well be deemed just as desirable as 299 Valencia. If the Planning Commission were to grant a CU authorization for those projects, as it did for 299 Valencia, the cumulative result could be that areas zoned “NCT” run the danger of amassing new parking above the 0.5 maximum that the Market/Octavia Plan deemed to be the most appropriate target for NCT neighborhoods — and this undermines the spirit of livability that is central to the Market/Octavia Plan.