Market-Octavia / Hayes Valley, Parking, Project Proposals, San Francisco, Zoning

555 Fulton: When Parking By-Right Just Isn’t Enough

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?

555 Fulton - Stanley Saitowitz

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.



14 thoughts on “555 Fulton: When Parking By-Right Just Isn’t Enough

  1. Its great when blogs shine light on this important issue. Hopefully this will embolden Planning Dept staff, and especially the Commission, to resist pressure from developers whining about how their project “is not viable” if it isn’t overloaded with parking.

    Posted by Mister | 12 March 2010, 11:11 am
  2. I hate to admit it but I’m conflicted. On one hand, I wish that all new development would be “transit-first” in design, incorporating as little off-street parking as possible. On the other hand, given the deplorable and bankrupt state of our transit system I don’t blame people for wanting to go about their business in a car instead of dealing with MUNI. Perhaps if we had a much better mass transit system in place, the desire (and need) to own a car would be a moot point.

    Posted by Mark | 12 March 2010, 11:18 am
  3. Keep introducing more cars onto the roads, and that system will break down too. Traffic will be even worse, and parking at the destination isn’t going to magically appear either. We need to fix Muni, but adding more cars to the mix is not going to make that easier.

    Posted by Alexei | 12 March 2010, 11:37 am
  4. “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?”

    This is an important question, and one I hope the Planning staff who worked so hard to craft a good plan take to heart.

    Mark’s argument above is understandable, but fallacious. He may imagine that people frustrated with Muni will avoid low-parking-ratio buildings, but the evidence doesn’t support that conclusion. As you point out, Eric, older areas with low parking neighborhood-wide are among the most sought after by residents.

    We should absolutely improve Muni to make is a more obvious choice for more riders, and one principal way to do that is to avoid generating new auto trips.

    Posted by Pedestrianist | 12 March 2010, 1:19 pm
  5. Some people take transit every day AND want to have a car. That will continue, until public transit reaches Mount Tam, Squaw Valley, all the wineries in Napa, Monterey, etc etc etc.

    Isn’t it possible to utilize transit every day for your life, but still keep a car to explore the things that make many of us wish to live in Northern California? Why should that be bad?

    If you want to reduce traffic, impose a congestion charge. Fight the problem at its source. Don’t try to stop driving by limiting parking. After all, a car parked in an underground garage does not create traffic congestion.

    Posted by Realist | 12 March 2010, 6:48 pm
  6. i have much more of a problem with the enormous repetitive single tone look of this complex… completely lacks scale with the rest of the neighborhood made up of smaller buildings each with a different facade.

    Posted by jon | 12 March 2010, 7:07 pm
  7. Realist, other than note the obvious points (e.g. use of car rentals for occasional out-of-city trips, etc.), the question here isn’t about eliminating all parking. If the developer had included just 68 off-street residential parking stalls, the project could be built without any conditional use for parking. The policy decision regarding parking was already made when the Market/Octavia Plan was adopted.

    jon, this Curbed link describes some of the push and pull over that design issue. To be honest, I don’t know if the more fine-grained alternative design is better than the original, although I generally agree that the issue you’ve raised is an important consideration. Renderings can be misleading, but either way you cut it, this design will look different from other buildings in the neighborhood. Also, even though there are many smaller buildings with different facades, that’s not universally true — for example, it’s not true of the homes directly across the street from the 555 Fulton site. (Not that that is necessarily a design to emulate…)

    Posted by Eric | 12 March 2010, 7:25 pm
  8. I think you’re letting the developer off a little easy here with regards to the 16 units of affordable housing–12% is pretty pathetic. I’m guessing the 25% threshold doesn’t apply here for whatever reason. Nevertheless, that figure could definitely go up if less parking was included (not to mention the added price to each regular housing unit with such high parking ratios).

    Posted by Daniel | 12 March 2010, 8:50 pm
  9. There’s no colorable basis on which to challenge the number of affordable units included, so whether or not I’ve let the developer off easy is basically irrelevant.

    Posted by Eric | 13 March 2010, 9:11 am
  10. they need a new architect

    Posted by jon | 14 March 2010, 3:04 pm
  11. I do find it irritating that developers are gifted with additional parking merely by claiming a project is not viable without it, when such a statement is provably false. There are plenty of condos with no parking, even some single families with no parking that have no difficulty in selling.

    Posted by lyqwyd | 15 March 2010, 3:05 pm
  12. Where is the proof that those who occupy units without parking usually don’t bring a car. They do bring thier cars and they, at best, park them on the street. As any S.F. citizen will tell you, there is already a shortage of parking. The parking reductions in new mixed-use projects will just add to that shortage. Also, with a transit system that is so disfunctional, it can hardly be considered as much of an alternative.

    Posted by Drake Gardner | 30 April 2010, 3:50 pm
  13. I think that having lots of off street parking, while it may enable/encourage people to “bring” their cars, it may also let them use them less. When I didn’t have off street parking, I drove more because I had to move my car from parking spot to parking spot to avoid tickets, so I’d end up driving places just because I was going to have to move my car eventually… etc. etc. I agree with Realist–having a car doesn’t necessarily mean not using transit when/where it’s available!

    Posted by t-dawg | 29 June 2010, 9:31 am
  14. Doesn’t some of the parking service the grocery?

    Posted by sfamiright | 16 April 2012, 1:40 pm

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