The Real Problem with the New Little Italy Parking Garage

In the last week or so, there has been a lot of attention devoted to the opening of a new parking garage in Little Italy built by the County of San Diego.  The County Board of Supervisors was really stoked about it, but most people mocked it as the waste of money that it is.  The general story is that the County built a beautiful new waterfront park on former surface parking lots, but spent a lot more money building an ugly new parking garage in the heart of San Diego's most urban neighborhood, Little Italy.  Instead of another excellent restaurant or much-needed housing, we get a building that looks like a jail and serves the sole purpose of storing cars.

On the blog for BikeSD, a wonderful local non-profit organization devoted to bike advocacy, board member John Anderson wrote a great post about what a waste this structure is, costing a little over $56,000 a spot, for a total of $36,000,000.  By way of comparison, the San Diego Bike Master Plan estimates that the cost to build one mile of protected bike lane would be about $450,000.  (Page 125.)  At that price, the County could have chosen to build 80 miles of protected bike lanes, probably enough to cover downtown San Diego.  Parking is great for some, but it's hard to dispute that a complete protected bike lane network downtown would have been worse.

I do, however, have a few quibbles with the BikeSD post.  It's not that I disagree with the sentiment that this structure should never have been built and is a waste of public money.  Instead, it's that the post doesn't really get to the root of the problem.  It's easy to feel outrage, but it's much more productive to identify the real problem so we can try to fix it and avoid future problems.  It turns out that even if the County Board of Supervisors wanted to build bike lanes instead of a parking garage, they probably wouldn't have been allowed to do so.  And here is my usual warning: we're about to get a little wonky and, along with that, I may be wrong on some of the particulars.  If this is your field, please correct my mistakes.

The County Administration Center is right next to San Diego Bay, which means it is subject to the Coastal Act.  The Coastal Commission is charged with administering the Coastal Act, which was created in the 1970s with the noble goal of protecting our coast.  Under the Coastal Act, any person or entity wanting to build along the coast has to get a development permit from the Coastal Commission that complies with the goals of the Coastal Act.  This is how Sea World got stuck with a ban on whale sex.

Back in 2003, when the Waterfront Park was just a gleam in Ron Roberts' eye, the County completed an EIR and sought a development permit from the Coastal Commission.  And this is the root of the problem.  Section 30252 of the Coastal Act requires that new development "maintain and enhance public access to the coast."  Sounds good right?  For example, if you live in Malibu, you can't wall off the beach from the public. But part of section 30252 states that "public access" includes "providing adequate parking facilities."  As applied, this means that the Coastal Commission routinely required projects to provide parking and, if any parking was to be lost, it had to be replaced on a one for one basis.  When the County went to ask the Coastal Commission for a permit, they had to demonstrate that they would replace the surface parking lots with equivalent parking in a nearby area.  In the staff report concerning the approval, there is a huge discussion regarding parking and making sure that the project includes adequate parking for employees and visitors based on the anticipated demand.  Indeed, the Commission imposed a requirement on the permit: the parking garage had to be built before any surface parking lot was eliminated and the County had to promise to open the garage to the public after business hours.  These requirements were later amended slightly, but when the park was planned, this garage was required.

And the other culprit: CEQA.  Although I can't find it online, the 2003 EIR for the Waterfront Park contained a required mitigation measure (basically something that could mitigate the negative effects of the project) requiring replacement parking within two to three blocks of the park.  Indeed, the EIR for the parking garage specifically states that the sole purpose of the garage was to satisfy the mitigation requirements for the park EIR.  The Garage EIR notes that if the garage isn't built, the park can't be built either.  At the time, a loss of parking was considered a significant impact that had to be mitigated.  Luckily, CEQA has changed in this regard.  Despite the change in state law, the City of San Diego often still requires mitigation when the project results in more than a ten percent "deficit" in parking required for the project.  (Page 73.)  The EIR also probably discussed compliance with the Coastal Act, which required the parking replacement.

Thus, when permitted in 2003, the Coastal Act and CEQA mandated that the Waterfront Park could only be built if the parking garage was also built.   It's easy to place the blame on the County Board of Supervisors, but state law had them backed into the corner.  Anyone that has followed development in California knows that you don't pick a fight with the Coastal Commission or risk a CEQA lawsuit.

A side note: it's not really fair to say the parking garage is primarily for use by County employees. Back in 2011, the traffic study for the Garage EIR revealed that only 75 percent of County employees used the parking lots, meaning 25 percent got to work by other means.  Not a huge number, but very impressive for San Diego. At the time, there were over 900 employees working at the County Administration Center, meaning there was a need for about 650 parking spaces in the garage. In 2012, however, the County went back to the Coastal Commission to get some amendments to the permit.  By then, due to shifts in facilities, there were only about 600 employees at the CAC, with further reductions anticipated.  To provide parking for that lesser number of employees at the same ratio, the garage would only need, at most, 450 spaces.  That means it is likely that the parking garage is only partially full all day and could have been downsized.  Despite these changes, the Coastal Commission still wanted the parking garage to ensure public access.

So what does this all mean?  It means that under the implementation of the Coastal Act and CEQA at the time the park was planned, and perhaps even today, the County was locked into maintaining the current amount of parking along the coast that existed before the park was builtAnyone that wants to remove a surface parking lot was forced to create an equivalent number of spots nearby, most likely by building a parking garage.  Although more progressive entities could probably find a more elegant solution, the path of least resistance requires these parking garages.

So that's the problem.  The solution?  Luckily, the Coastal Act has been amended somewhat and the Coastal Commission has begun to focus more on reducing greenhouse gas emissions.  But we could still amend section 30252 to remove the parking requirement.  Allow developers to replace surface lots near the coast with beautiful parks so long as there is transit nearby.  Without the huge cost of parking garages, you would see a lot more of these parks. I am all for maintaining public access to the coast, but it's going to be pretty hard to access the current coast when it is underwater from rising sea levels, regardless of the number of parking lots.

Perhaps, most importantly, we could make it easier for projects to change to reflect current state law and changed circumstances.  Some of the former requirements have disappeared since 2003, but there seems to be no easy way for the County to change the requirements imposed in the EIR and in the Coastal Commission Permit.  Again, a more progressive agency could have likely been able to institute the changes, but the easiest path was to stay the course and not seek amendments and revisions.  Rather than relying on outdated state laws, we could require projects to conform to current law before beginning work.

So go ahead and be outraged by this parking garage, I am too.  But don't just blame only the County Supervisors, blame the state law that made them commit to this wasteful garage.  And ask your state representative to do something about it so it doesn't happen again.