How free parking is impacting the urban landscape in Los Angeles

In April, a video of two drivers having a 40-minute standoff over a parking space on a Koreatown street in Los Angeles went viral to the tune of a few million views. If you’re an Angelino, you know how difficult it can be to find a parking spot. Whether it’s navigating street parking after a long day at the office or attempting to get to and from lunch in 30 minutes or less, convenient parking is a crucial element for a city whose essential mobility is so dependent on cars.


Now, what if someone told you that there was too much parking in Los Angeles? That’s what UCLA Professor Donald Shoup has been saying his entire career. Nationwide, it’s estimated that there are 2 billion parking spaces for 280 million cars, and it’s estimated that those cars  are in park 95% of the time. In L.A., a Journal of American Planning Association report estimates that 14% of land is dedicated to parking—approximately 18.6 million spots for the estimated 5.6 million cars in the County. Valuable real estate is being used to essentially store cars. That means significant consequences to a city whose homeless population grew 12% in 2018, as Shoup indicates in his landmark book The High Cost of Free Parking that “on a typical construction site in Los Angeles, parking requirements reduce the number of units in an apartment building by 13%” Shoup’s take is only becoming more relevant due to continued urbanization and the growing housing crisis.


However, excess parking also impacts commercial real estate as it has significant impact on residents, shoppers, and our office population. As Shoup points out in his book, “Minimum parking requirements increase the cost of constructing a shopping center by up to 67 percent if the parking is in an aboveground parking structure and by up to 93 percent if the parking is underground.” Commercial developers must fold additional parking-related costs into rent and common area expenses to make new developments pencil. The cost related to parking is ultimately imposed on the tenant, which then trickles down to make “free parking” costly for users.


A typical parking requirement in L.A. requires 1 parking stall per 100 square feet for a restaurant, café, or coffee shop. That means that a 2,000 square foot restaurant requires 20 parking stalls, and if the average parking stall requires 330 square feet of land, the parking field is more than three times the size of the restaurant itself. While commercial parking requirements make sense in theory, when examined on a deeper level, can prove to be arbitrary. West Hollywood mandates that laundromats have 0.5 parking stalls per washing machine. Miniature golf courses in Huntington Park must have 3 stalls per hole. Parking requirements are too subjective to provide a clear benefit, limits the utility of valuable real estate, and drives up costs for tenants and users.


Returning to the example of the 2,000 square foot restaurant, the large amount of land dedicated solely to surface-level parking pushes buildings away from each other, which makes it more difficult to walk from building to building and in turn encourages driving. From a retail perspective, oversized parking fields in urban landscapes reduce walkability, which breaks up customer flow and retail synergy. A quick glance at some of L.A.’s most notable retail areas make it clear that pedestrian-friendly districts create a more enjoyable shopping experience for customers and greater foot traffic for retailers.


The most obvious example in L.A. is Santa Monica’s iconic 3rd Street Promenade, a three-block stretch of prime retail real estate closed to thru-traffic. By closing off traffic to the street and activating it with interesting hardscape and kiosks, the Promenade effectively creates a more inviting urban landscape out of open space. The Promenade ultimately works as an anchor for the rest of the Bay Side District and has created a spill-over effect that has attracted retailers and restaurants to the adjacent streets. More recently, the City of Santa Monica has benefited by eliminating parking requirements on new development in the downtown Bay Side District. This creates a more walkable shopping district and provides retailers and restaurants the opportunity to occupy spaces they’d otherwise be unable to due to parking requirements. Furthermore, Santa Monica’s adoption of electric scooters gives visitors increased mobility in a way that does not require parking stalls.


Following suit, Invesco, owners of Runway Playa Vista, plan to close off a portion of the project to vehicular traffic to increase walkability of the project and to further activate their storefronts. In Culver City, Lowe’s transit-oriented Ivy Station project is a master planned mixed-use development located immediately adjacent to a Light Rail stop. While the project will be incredibly dense with over 240,000 square feet of office space, 55,000 square feet of retail and restaurants, 200 apartment units, and a 148 room boutique hotel, the project’s two largest anchors will be the Light Rail platform bringing in Metro passengers, and over 2 acres of open greenspace programed by Biederman that will serve the surrounding community and ultimately benefit the project’s retailers. While the project will have over 1,500 subterranean parking stalls, the project’s transit-oriented designation allowed Lowe to increase the density of the project and reduce the parking requirement up to 30%.


As developers make greater efforts to activate their projects with purposeful open space, more cities are beginning to take notice. The City of Los Angeles Enterprise Zone initiative eases parking requirements to 2 stalls per 1,000 square feet for developers building in specific underserved areas to stimulate business investment and job creation. The City of Pasadena charges market prices for metered street parking and then invests the meter revenue back into the street itself to improve walkability, including sidewalk and street maintenance, trees and landscaping, marketing and advertising for their commercial districts, and increased security, thus generating a positive impact on retailers in an urban environment. Developers and cities recognize the need and value in creating more purposeful space for visitors and residents.


While abundant free parking seems to go hand in hand with L.A.’s deeply rooted car culture, our sense of parking entitlement comes at a high price. Outdated parking codes increase development costs and negatively impacts residents and users, and ultimately give way to neglected public transportation, higher cost of living, irreversible pollution, and housing shortages.  Land dedicated to excess parking is a lost opportunity to build something purposeful, and creates wasted space that could be reclaimed to improve our urban landscapes. Communities have the opportunity to repurpose some of the most valuable underutilized real estate by adapting to our changing culture to keep up with urban real estate challenges.


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