The San Francisco Planning Department has prepared an environmental document (mitigated negative declaration) for 555 Fulton (link to off-site 2.3 MB PDF). 555 Fulton is a five-story mixed-use residential and commercial project to be constructed on Fulton between Octavia and Laguna, in Hayes Valley. In terms of zones, the project site is in the Hayes-Gough NCT (neighborhood commercial transit district), within the Market-Octavia Area Plan. The project architect is Stanley Saitowitz.
Let’s run through the specs. Cool, modern, glassy Saitowitz design in Hayes Valley? Check. (More or less: Curbed has been tracking this issue here and here.) Replace underutilized space, including 70 surface parking spots, with higher density uses? Check. A decent mix of units? Check. (There would be 32 studio + 48 one-bedroom + 45 two-bedroom = 136 total units, with 16 units [12%] affordable.) Mixed-use project, with ground floor retail to activate the street environment? Check. Planned supermarket space to increase neighborhood livability, walkability, and self-sufficiency? Check. 102 residential parking spots, plus two car-share spots and 91 spots for the grocery store — summing to a grand total of 195 new parking spots?
Rendering of 555 Fulton Street, courtesy of Stanley Saitowitz.
195 parking spots. That can’t be all that “transit-first” — can it? In the Hayes-Gough NCT, no off-street residential parking is required whatsoever, and a ratio of 0.5 parking spots per residential unit is allowed by-right. No more than 0.75 spots per unit may be built, and then only with a conditional use authorization. For a 136-unit development, the 0.75 ratio yields exactly 102 parking spots. 555 Fulton, then, is applying for the maximum amount of residential parking permissible under the code. Moreover, that parking would be provided in a full two-level below-grade garage. While it is preferable to have the parking located below-grade, the project sponsor has not proposed to use mechanical stackers for any of the parking, including the 34 residential spaces provided above and beyond the 0.5 threshold.
555 Fulton is an upcoming example of an emerging trend. On the one hand, Planning acknowledges the need to integrate good parking policy into the process of approving new developments. Indeed, San Francisco’s General Plan demands it:
Transportation Element, Policy 34.1: Regulate off-street parking in new housing so as to guarantee needed spaces without requiring excesses and to encourage low auto ownership in neighborhoods that are well served by transit and are convenient to neighborhood shopping.
Transportation Element, Policy 34.3: Permit minimal or reduced off-street parking supply for new buildings in residential and commercial areas adjacent to transit centers and along transit preferential streets. (*)
On the other hand, this principle is sometimes given lip service and then essentially discarded in practice. There have been, for example, increases in parking approved by the Planning Commission and provided as part of larger residential projects located South of Market. Another project of interest last year was 299 Valencia, whose conditional use was appealed to, but not overturned by, the Board of Supervisors. The outcome of that case raised the question of whether a precedent — not a legally binding precedent, but a de facto precedent, nonetheless — had been set, in which the 0.5 NCT parking ratio limit had been replaced, practically speaking, by a 0.75 ratio. But 299 Valencia is just a single project, and 555 Fulton will add a new data point. Yet another data point is 200 Dolores, which may cut the opposite direction. In that case, the Planning Commission has initially denied a conditional use to construct thirteen parking spaces (for thirteen units, a 1:1 ratio). But the item was continued, and even that motion passed narrowly (4-3), with Commissioners Antonini, Lee, and Miguel dissenting.
In concept, the 555 Fulton project deserves support. Well-designed, elegantly dense urban infill projects that add homes and neighborhood-serving retail near transit and employment is the exact flavor of development that we should be building everywhere that is appropriate, including throughout San Francisco. But as more and more project sponsors are authorized to build more parking than the amount permitted by-right, a nagging concern is what the cumulative effect on air quality, neighborhood livability, street safety, and transit performance will be over time.
Some San Francisco neighborhoods are comprised primarily of older, relatively large apartment buildings that provide little to no parking. And yet, these buildings still have no difficulty attracting residents. In fact, they teach us a valuable lesson about parking: If you don’t build it, they still come, but most will come without cars.
Suppose that the Planning Commission decides to sign off on many future conditional use authorizations begging for more parking, but without sufficiently scrutinizing them — perhaps justifying them on the speculative ground that the parking allowed by-right is insufficient to encourage families to live in San Francisco. Suppose also that on appeal, the Board of Supervisors either agrees with the Planning Commission, or fails to collect the votes needed to overturn the Planning Commission. If that is the pattern for how things play out, then at what point can the General Plan’s good parking policy — even if genuinely applied to projects by Planning staff — enter this deliberative process successfully, with sufficient force to persuade decision-makers?
More generally, why did we bother spending the better part of a decade crafting the Market-Octavia Plan, only to ultimately betray the spirit of that planning effort on a case-by-case basis? We hope that the Planning Commission will take these considerations to heart when it considers 555 Fulton and all future projects in the pipeline.
(*) Strictly speaking, Policy 34.3 does not apply to 555 Fulton, because the relevant segment of Fulton Street is not a TPS, nor is the project site directly adjacent to a designated transit center. However, both provisions summarize the City’s stance on developing new residential parking. Also, even Policy 34.1 taken by itself supports the notion that additional parking merits additional scrutiny.