Parking costs money.

But the price tag isn’t relegated to the moment you enter a garage or feed a meter. When a developer provides parking space for a condo building or retail space, those prices are manifested in the form of higher rents, steeper prices and lower wages.

San Diego’s general plan, its citywide outline for future growth, embraces this reality.

“Motorists are accustomed to ‘free’ parking at many destinations, but in reality no parking is without cost,” the general plan reads. “The real cost of parking is paid by all of us through higher rents, lower salaries, higher costs of goods and services, or taxes — regardless of how many cars we own or drive.”

Yet, even as the city acknowledges the real cost of parking, it has done little to change parking regulation policies.

The community level is where residents are left to confront the conflicts of reduced parking. That’s when translating the city’s broad goal to create a market where residents pay for the parking they use into actual policies gets tough.

Doing the Minimum

Developers have to provide a minimum number of parking spaces for each structure they build.

Those minimums are based each property’s existing zoning.

City requirements call for 1.25 spots for a small apartment, two spots for a single-family home, one for every 300 square feet of retail space, up to five spots for 1,000 square feet of office space and up to 15 spaces for every 1,000 square feet of restaurant space.

Suggested rates for sustainable development call for much less parking overall. National standards suggest building one space per residential unit in an urban area, regardless of the size of the unit, and 1.2 spaces in a suburban area. A regional study recommended 1.25 spaces per unit overall for the San Diego region. Those same national standards call for half as much parking for office buildings than the city currently requires.

Current citywide standards mean the parking requirement for a single-family home are the same whether the house is in Golden Hill or Rancho Bernardo, though residents and visitors in those neighborhoods have differing levels of car dependence.

City planners have given nods to the differences between neighborhoods with exceptions. For instance, new developments in areas well-served by public transit have fewer parking requirements.

“Carmel Valley is not North Park — (the) dynamic, mentality and lifestyle for driving is entirely different,” said Roger Lewis, an area developer who sits on the city’s parking board.

But the accessibility of public transit isn’t fixed; it’s dependent on budget decisions made by the Metropolitan Transit System, an independent public agency. So if the city says an urban neighborhood doesn’t have adequate transit options, the neighborhood’s requirements revert to requiring more parking spaces.

Also, the City Council last year approved a measure to reduce parking requirements on affordable housing projects, an attempt to further reduce the cost of those units without requiring government subsidies.

Elyse Lowe, executive director of Move San Diego, a sustainable development advocacy group, said just getting the affordable housing reduction approved took six years, and required an extensive study demonstrating a smaller demand for parking from affordable housing residents.

“We have a long way to go,” she said.

Lowe would prefer a system that imposed a parking maximum.

A recent study confirmed a common-sense notion of the effect of removing parking minimums altogether.

The study from UCLA’s Lewis Center for Regional Policy Studies found when cities get rid of parking requirements, developers build more housing and less parking. Basically: The result of parking minimums is more parking spaces than the market demands, and less housing than developers would otherwise build.

Community Opposition

Overcoming community opposition to parking reductions isn’t as simple as pointing to an academic study saying it’s a good idea.

“Communities want high-quality transit, and want those transit options in place before they make concessions to reduce parking,” Lowe said. “So community members, and rightfully so, don’t want the conflict of reduced parking, and we often can’t afford people the opportunity to live without a car, because the rest of our land use policy doesn’t support it.”

That presents a Catch-22 for planners: Parking scarcity caused by reduced requirements increases the demand for alternative modes of transportation, but communities want those alternatives in place before agreeing to reduce parking.

But even if communities would let planners implement regulations that cut down on automobile reliance, San Diego remains a car-centric city.

Eric Naslund, a local architect and chairman of the San Diego Planning Commission, doesn’t think the gap between the actual market for parking and current requirements is too wide.

“I think in a nutshell we provide too much parking,” he said. “We’ve built a city that’s too focused on automobile transportation. The general plan imagines something much better: an integrated city that provides choices. But presently I think our access to automobiles, and the way we accommodate them, remains the preponderate view here.”

A La Carte Parking

Conversations on parking regulations are quickly turning to the idea of unbundling the price of parking from other services.

“This system of ‘bundling’ parking costs with other goods and services lowers the out-of-pocket expenses of driving and makes other types of travel seem expensive by comparison,” the general plan says.

In a study arguing for policies that would unbundle parking costs, Mike Bullock, of San Diego’s chapter of the Sierra Club, isolated the cost of different types of parking spaces.

On a surface lot zoned for mixed-use development, a single space costs $10,000. In an above-ground parking garage, one space costs between $20,000 and $40,000. The cost of a space in an underground parking garage is estimated at between $60,000 and $90,000.

Those costs are paid up front by developers, who pass the costs to home buyers, renters or tenants.

For office tenants, that means paying increased rent so employees can park. For retail tenants, it means recouping the elevated rent through higher-priced products.

Unbundling the cost of parking could take many forms: renting or selling parking spaces individually, rather than including them in the price of real estate; increasing shared parking, where multiple users take advantage of spaces at different times (say, an office building during the day, and nearby bars at night); or having employers pay non-driving workers the amount it would otherwise cost for the employee to park.

“The whole idea of unbundling parking — so you can still provide it, but people should pay extra for it — is an underutilized idea, and one that makes housing and other things more affordable without the government having to subsidize it,” Lowe said. “That’s the big deal and I think that’ll be the next strategy we see.”

Correction: A previous version of this article stated specific parking restrictions were implemented through community plans. That is incorrect. Parking requirements are handled entirely through the city’s land development code.

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Andrew Keatts

I'm Andrew Keatts, a managing editor for projects and investigations at Voice of San Diego. Please contact me if you'd like at

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