The problem with parking: My note to the Arts District HCNC

Last night when we were discussing the Arts District Development Plan, Mark said something that really stood out to me. He said that if we do this right, which we absolutely should, the Arts District could serve as a model for development in the rest of the city. I completely agree, and that’s everything I ever wanted for this neighborhood. But if being a role model for the future of Los Angeles is indeed our goal, rewriting that plan is not going to be enough, because at every single one of these meetings I’ve attended, we’re entirely overlooked the one thing that is going to rip our neighborhood apart at the seams: the parking.

Without sounding like a broken record, the way we’re treating parking in this neighborhood is naive. Every developer that rolls through proposes building a parking garage that’s essentially the same size as the development itself, and though we do push back a little on height and location, it’s mainly on the grounds that such structures are ugly. I’m happy that there’s any pushback at all, but in this day and age, there is so much available research documenting the detrimental effects of parking on communities that the aesthetics of a garage are the least of my concerns.

I was blown away when at the first ADC meeting I attended several months ago, our residents were asking developers for assurance that their new developments would provide enough parking so as not to impact the current parking situation in the neighborhood. Parking does not work that way. Providing additional parking does nothing more than encourage people to drive into the neighborhood, because the easier it is to park, the more likely people are to drive. Then, when everyone chooses to drive, the parking fills up, and it’s once-again a problem. Then we’re stuck with this situation where we have twice as much parking disrupting the fabric of the neighborhood, but just as much of a parking problem as before. Is that what we want?

This phenomenon has a name, and I recently wrote an article about it. Counterproductive as it may seem, the best thing you can do to keep the parking problem from getting worse is to allow for as little parking as possible when these new developments come in. That ensures that that the people moving into them are people who are planning on walking, biking, and using transit, not relying on their car. Smart cities have recognized this, and have abolished the concept of parking minimums for developers. Of course, developers aren’t going to be happy with that idea since it interferes with their ability to shower potential tenants in amenities, but these developers also have no incentive to maintain the integrity of the neighborhood, so why are we cutting them so much slack? Remember, the people who are moving into the neighborhood in 2014 are the people who can afford it, and often times, those people just aren’t a good fit. They drive in and drive out, contributing nothing to the sense of community here. There’s one guy who lives in the Savoy building whom I’ve never met, nor have I even seen his face, but I know him because he’s nearly run me over in his Porsche on several occasions blindly entering and leaving his parking garage. That guy takes from the community, and he offers nothing in return. If we keep building all this parking, those are the kinds of people we will continue to get. But we can fix that problem. If we were to build buildings that instead of having 150% parking capacity had only 50% capacity, that would not only enable the developers to dramatically cut the costs of the project itself, allowing for lower rents that artists can afford, but it would also keep the toxic people out by refusing to grant them access to the amenities they can’t live without. Artists are far more likely to live without a car than than others, especially in Los Angeles.

For all the same reasons as above, it’s extremely frustrating to hear talk of “parking relief.” There is no such thing as parking relief. There will never be such a thing. We need to face the facts: the Arts District has become a desirable neighborhood, and all the development we’re doing in it is only making it more desirable. There is no desirable neighborhood in the world that has ever solved the parking problem, because solving the parking problem would mean that every single person that wants to park in the neighborhood has a spot when they want it. Can you imagine what that would look like? That’s an insane number of cars. How could we fix that many cars in one place without it looking like LAX? And yes, there are places out there that do not have parking problems, but they’re places like Burbank, where parking is provided at the expense of any sense of community or authenticity. Burbank is not desirable. It’s not a destination. That’s why they don’t have a parking problem. It’s also the reason I don’t live in Burbank. 

The Arts District of 15 years ago wasn’t a desirable location for most people, and that is in fact the only reason there was no parking problem. Those days are gone. We have to stop talking about them as if they’re coming back, because we sound like those people who talk about the original days of the freeway in Los Angeles, where the was never a traffic problem. There will never be parking relief in the Arts District, and if you think otherwise, you’re fooling yourself. It’s like a drug addition; The only relief we’ll get will eventually just be responsible for making the problem even worse. Let’s move past it. Let’s build the best community we can in acceptance of that fact.

The thing is though, all of the above pales in comparison to the most important point: We talk about being a roll model for the future of LA, but that vision can only come to fruition if we actually plan for the future. We’re not currently doing that. Look at the revolution we’ve seen in transportation over the last couple years. Über and Lyft have gone from nothing to commonplace in our lives. Google’s self driving cars are so close to ready that we can expect to see them carrying passengers within five years. There are excellent case studies out there documenting the impact that such technology will have on the future of transportation, and all of them point to a future where car ownership is in massive decline. One such study estimated that self driving cars would reduce the number of cars on the street by a factor of eleven. This is due to the fact that instead of being parked when you’re not using it, the car you just got out of will then head somewhere else to pick up the next guy. That being the case, what is our neighborhood going to look like years down the line when we’ve sacrificed so much land that could have been used for people to instead cater to the cars that are no longer there? It’s not like a parking garage is a temporary structure—these things are going to be around 50 years from now, even if the cars aren’t. That needs to be a consideration in making these decisions.

Guys, the thing that makes the Arts District so wonderful is the community. I know we all believe in that community. It’s why we do what we do. But we’re not being smart enough about preserving it. We’re putting personal interests ahead of our collective interests. We’re making decisions based on gut instead of facts, and we’re making mistakes that are really going to hurt us down the line. All the space we’re devoting to cars is space that we’re not using for people. It’s space that can’t be used to roast coffee. It’s space that can’t be used to make art. It’s space where you can’t walk your dog. It’s space that 20 years from now might be considered nothing more than blight.

I’m not proposing that we do away with parking altogether. Obviously cars are a necessary part of live for a lot of people and will be for the foreseeable future. But while I do see a need for them, I don’t see the need to encourage them. We should be smart about the way we offer infrastructure to cars, and free parking for all is not the way to do it.

In Tokyo, the interiors all their city blocks have parks, restaurants, and public art. Every block there is a community unto itself, open to both the residents of that block and the people simply wandering past. It’s amazing. We can have that here. We can be a role model for livability. We can turn Los Angeles on its head. We can do it all, if only we set our priorities straight. 

Please, let’s stop the parking.

Thanks for listening,

Stephen

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