Affordable Housing, Parking, San Francisco, Streetscape

Chipping Away at the Garage Problem

Take a stroll around North Beach or Chinatown in San Francisco, and you’ll see many of the characteristics you would expect to see in two of the densest urban districts in America’s second densest city — well-traveled sidewalks, mixed-use structures with ground-floor retail, buildings built to the sidewalk and property lines, a streetscape activated by continuous street walls, and a minimum of dead space.  But you’ll also see something that you might not necessarily expect to find — garages.  Not just a few garages, but many garages, bespeckling residential buildings in every direction like a chicken pox.  Garages are conspicuously absent from the even denser terrain located about 15 blocks to the south.  But in the northeastern corner of San Francisco’s 3rd supervisorial District, garages — pockets of space that have, over the years, been carved out after-the-fact for automobiles, in a neighborhood with scant space to house them — are perhaps surprisingly prevalent.

Board of Supervisors President David Chiu has introduced, and the Board has subsequently discussed, legislation concerning garages in certain parts of Chiu’s home District 3.  The legislation does not address existing garages, but rather, future garages that have yet to be proposed and installed.  The need for this legislation is perhaps epitomized by the Ellis Act eviction sought against low-income seniors at the building on Jasper Place, in which one tenant committed suicide, and the advertisement for the property boasted of the property’s “potential for parking” — a cold swap of human being for automobile.  But Jasper Place is just one case study of the more prevalent issue in parts of District 3, as well as other locations around the city: Ellis Act evictions, followed shortly by applications for garages to be carved out of the newly-vacated space.  Examining Department of Building Inspection and Rent Board records more closely, it was determined that of at least 166 Ellis Act evictions carried out in recent years that were followed by garage applications, roughly half of them were located within District 3.  And that is the problem that inspired this legislation.

At its February 9, 2010 meeting, the Board of Supervisors passed the ordinance on its first reading, with 7 ayes (Campos, Chiu, Daly, Dufty, Mar, Maxwell, Mirkarimi) and 2 noes (Chu, Elsbernd).  The ordinance is expected to be finally passed at the Board’s February 23 meeting.

So what exactly does this legislation do?  The first thing to remember is that it is limited to specific sections within Chiu’s District 3.  Generally speaking, the legislation aims to address the problem of evictions that result in new garages — at once protecting affordable housing supply, while encouraging a livable city and supporting sound urban design principles.  At the same time, it eliminates minimum off-street parking requirements in various parts of District 3.  Here are the highlights:

1. Requires a conditional use authorization to install a garage in an existing building. This is really the centerpiece of the legislation.  Someone seeking to install a garage in an existing building will have to seek a conditional use authorization in order to do so, and the conditional use then becomes the mechanism to ensure that the big policy goals are met.  Section 303 of the Planning Code sets out criteria that apply to conditional uses generally.  However, in addition to Section 303, this legislation imposes an additional list of hurdles that garage proposals must meet in order to be authorized.  Garage proposals may not displace a residential unit, and there must be a record of no no-fault evictions for the past ten years.  Curb cuts should be oriented to minimize the loss of on-street parking, and the new garage shall not take more than two on-street parking spots.  The sidewalk must remain inviting for pedestrians and cannot deteriorate on account of the garage; specifically, it must be at least 6 feet wide, and may not introduce a slope greater than 2%.  Sidewalks on transit preferential streets and neighborhood commercial streets may never be narrowed.  The garage must also comply with other historic resources and design requirements, as applicable.

The legislation requires Planning to consult DPW and MTA (the other city agencies implicated in the garage approval process) about specifics of the garage proposal and ensure there are no glaring problems with it before the Planning Commission grants any conditional use authorization.  Finally, please note that this more exacting conditional use process for garages only applies to certain areas: the North Beach NCD, the Broadway NCD, parts of Chinatown, and a new special use district also defined in this legislation (see #2 below).

2. Creates a Telegraph Hill-North Beach Residential Special Use District for the purposes of requiring a garage conditional use authorization (see #1 above), as well as to eliminate minimum off-street parking requirements (see #3 below).

3. Eliminates minimum off-street parking requirements and revises parking controls in Chinatown, the North Beach NCD, the Broadway NCD, and the new residential special use district (see #2 above).  In Chinatown, the North Beach NCD, and the Broadway NCD, up to 0.5 parking spaces per unit is permitted by right, and up to 0.75 is allowed with conditional use.  In the residential special use district, the controls are more relaxed: up to 0.75 is permitted by right, while up to 1.0 is allowed with conditional use.

4. Prohibits driveways altogether on important commercial and pedestrian street frontages: Columbus Avenue (between Washington/Montgomery and North Point), Broadway (between Mason and The Embarcadero), as well as alleys in Chinatown.

Both the new obstacles to garages, as well as the elimination of minimum off-street parking, are good moves in Chinatown and North Beach, because they push back and scrutinize attempts to build more storage space for cars.  This is especially critical in dense District 3 neighborhoods, whose already clogged streets can scarcely take the hit to livability brought about by policies that encourage car use and ownership.

In some sense, there is nothing new about the good policy underpinning this legislation.  Numerous provisions of San Francisco’s General Plan, coupled with recent City efforts at comprehensive neighborhood land use planning, have explicitly recognized that garage entrances and exits must be placed carefully, so as to minimize their interference with active neighborhood streets and maximize safety to pedestrians.  But in another sense, this legislation is new — simply because many city neighborhoods do not yet enjoy the protection afforded by this more sensitive treatment of garages, even if they would benefit from such protection.  The City’s approach to garage planning has basically been to not plan them — at least, not in a systematic fashion that reaches citywide.

In regard to that last point, this legislation is no different.  The area of applicability contains a disproportionately high number of Ellis Act evictions that later result in garage production — but geographically, the area is indeed quite small: not even one full supervisorial district, but only parts of one.  It is, as Supervisor Chiu put it, “narrowly tailored” to address a particular problem in a particular place.  But even though the legislation does not take the City’s current piecemeal garage policy and transform it into a unified, coherent, citywide policy, it at least adds a dose of sanity to, and sets a model for, the garage discussion.  My hope is that it will instigate a continued discussion throughout the city, and in the Planning Department, about the value of protecting affordable housing supply and making it difficult to allocate space for automobiles, all in one fell swoop.

While the legislation at issue here aims to block certain conversions of living space into garage space, there is a distinct, but related discussion also worth having, which is the mirror image: the conversion of existing garage space into housing units.  Both discussions are valuable, because both potentially lead to legislative solutions that promise a less auto-dependent, more vibrant city.



8 thoughts on “Chipping Away at the Garage Problem

  1. I couldn’t agree more, and I hope that decision makers are paying close attention to the effects of this, so that it can quickly be expanded after the sky fails to fall.

    Posted by Pedestrianist | 19 February 2010, 12:46 pm
  2. Funny how the sky usually ends up being quite a bit more resilient than politicians and stakeholders give it credit for :)

    Posted by Eric | 19 February 2010, 12:49 pm
  3. Thank you for writing this. I’m on the board of North Beach Neighbors, which voted to oppose the legislation. It’s like talking to a wall (or a garage door) with them sometimes. There are SO MANY garage doors littering our neighborhood it is rediculus. I try to tell them that they have a very very unique opportunity in that they can live car-free. 99% of America does not enjoy that chance, but the push for more cars and more off-street parking is very strong (also stopping any attempts to widen sidewalks at the expense of parking or traffic lanes).

    And this doesn’t even begin to touch the fact that many argue that with no car storage space you’ll drive out the working class family. BUT think of all the extra cost on the residential units from adding off-street parking that is in turn making already expensive housing that much more expensive.

    And yes, I can’t wait for the sky not to fall.

    Posted by mikesonn | 22 February 2010, 9:30 am
  4. Maybe if North Beach (and other dense neighborhoods) had an effective mass transit system in place then people would not be so gung ho on owning a car. My point goes beyond just taking commuters off the road during the week. A real transportation system would enable people to give up their cars permanently. Because SF does not have such a system, the car reigns supreme and you really can’t blame people for wanting it.

    Posted by Mark | 22 February 2010, 11:39 am
  5. A major reason MUNI doesn’t work is because there are so many private autos on the road.

    And it is possible to live car-free. My wife and I do just fine.

    Posted by mikesonn | 22 February 2010, 11:49 am
  6. Beyond the livability benefits of a neighborhood with fewer garage doors, this legislation isn’t about advancing an anti-car agenda.

    The apartments that would be replaced with garages without this legislation are already occupied by people who live in the neighborhood, in many cases car-free. Mike, your neighbors and your fellow board members’ neighbors live in apartments right now that could have been turned into garages had Chiu not passed this.

    Those garages wouldn’t really have been adding parking to the neighborhood, since the accompanying curb cuts take away on-street parking. There was rarely a net gain of parking, only the privatization of parking.

    As Eric mentions above, this legislation still allows for garages to be added, but mandates that they minimize the on-street parking that the neighborhood loses.

    Posted by Pedestrianist | 22 February 2010, 1:25 pm
  7. I see what you are saying and I know that it isn’t about an anti-car agenda. But it does make one pause and look at what we have done to an amazing neighborhood. And to be honest, if you peak into most of these garages you’ll see them full of junk. A lot of the people don’t even use them for parking their vehicle, but pretty much have secured an on street spot in front of their garage. The city should include a major surcharge for any and all curb cuts as it reduces the overall number of parking available.

    Posted by mikesonn | 22 February 2010, 1:56 pm


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