Until recently, I worked in real estate development, doing everything from property acquisition and permit filing to management and sales.
One of the biggest hurdles our small company always faced was paying for the construction of mandated, and usually unnecessary, automobile parking.
For example, there was a project on Colorado Boulevard in Eagle Rock. The property had (and still has) a small home on a little more than 7,000 square feet. That is not a lot of room to work with. The zoning code allowed for multifamily residential and commercial uses on the same property.
We thought we could do something really nice: ground-floor offices topped by four two-story apartments. Our plans fit in perfectly with the gentrifying neighborhood (area-specific plans called for light commercial that was walkable). Our plans also fit nicely with the mixed-use zoning code … until it came to parking.
Car parking requirements forced us to shrink everything – the ground-floor commercial was squeezed into a 400-square-foot space; the building had to have an extra story just so we could stuff a bunch of cars underneath. The cost on paper shot up, meaning that our four one-bedroom apartments turned into four studio condominiums – and once you subdivide a property into condos, you have to go through a whole bunch of planning hoops, bumping up costs even more.
This easy $200,000 construction project turned into a super-risky $1.2 million, four-story fiasco.
To make a profit, we’d have to sell 800-square-foot studio units for nearly $400,000 apiece! Even at the height of the boom, that was insane. So, after months of meetings, research and design sessions, the tiny project was scrapped.
The car parking requirements killed our project, which was precisely the sort of infill development that politicians and neighbors wanted: low density, modest heights, and room for small local businesses to thrive. Plus, we could have made some real money.
So, in real estate development, parking costs a lot. Car parking requirements kill small, profitable and properly scaled projects in favor of larger, out-of-scale, riskier projects that favor chain or auto-based retail and services only.
But is there an alternative to the car in development in Los Angeles?
Taking a seat
I believe there is, in certain neighborhoods – and it is the bicycle, which is daily becoming more and more popular for neighborhood travel in Los Angeles.
In 2009, I stumbled upon LAMC Sections 12.21-A.4(c) and 12.21-A.16. These sections allow for something quite unique – they authorize a building owner to swap out some of the required car parking spaces for covered bicycle parking.
You can fit 12 bikes in one car parking space – 12 customers where only one fit before! (In city after city, when you build it, they do come.) So, swapping car for bike parking could drastically reduce the footprint of a project; small projects like the one we gave up on in (bike-friendly) Eagle Rock would blossom.
But, there are catches:
Your property must be in a C (commercial) or M (manufacturing) zone.
Your property must have 10,000 square feet of active C or M uses – which excludes small properties in historic parts of town.
You can swap only 2 percent of your required car parking for bike parking. You’d need to build 50 car slots to be allowed one space for a bike stall!
But the code is not chiseled in stone. We would need only eight votes on the City Council to make changes to it, such as:
Making the swap available to all zones in the city.
Removing the section requiring 10,000 active square feet. Have no minimum requirement! That way, any project would be able to swap out car parking for quality bike parking – from a 100-square-foot notary public in the historic core to a university campus with thousands of employees.
Increasing the percentage of car parking you can swap out: 50 percent, 66.67 percent or even 100 percent if appropriate.
Now, every small retail space in an older part of Los Angeles, built to service walk-up customers along a streetcar line, could spring to life with a cafe, bookstore, brokerage, cottage industry or what have you. Tiny commercial properties could have a story added to bring in rental income, making money for builders and owners alike. Small lots along arterial highways and transit lines could be revamped, expanded or rebuilt at a profit.
Users would walk, take public transit or ride a bike – which they could securely park in a covered parking stall.
Money would be made – lots of money. And not only cycling but community would increase, to the benefit of all Los Angeles.
Josef Bray-Ali, a longtime bicycle advocate and former real estate developer, recently opened Flying Pigeon L.A., a small shop in the Highland Park area that sells only cargo and commuter bicycles.