Gutting Bills and Parking Spaces

A Lot of Parking
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A piece of legislation appeared recently in Sacramento concerning parking space requirements for new residential and commercial development connected, rather loosely, to public transit. I say appeared, because the legislative process, as historically practiced in the cool, dim halls of the capitol, has a both civics textbook stateliness and a parallel, random aspect, a rabbit out of the hat, sleight of hand aspect that's called, by the practiced and cynical in Sacramento, gut and amend.

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A gutted and amended bill, often written specifically with this purpose in mind, begins as a measure of possible general benefit to the people of California, passes through some or all of the constitutionally prescribed stages of Assembly and Senate review, and then, with the author's concurrence, transforms, like a caterpillar becoming a butterfly, into an entirely new kind of legislation with entirely new and very specific reasons for being.

By the alchemical power of gut and amend the dull lead of a bill benefitting, perhaps, everybody, becomes the pure gold of a bill that benefits only a few, sometimes very few, quite specifically.

On June 12, AB 904 (authored by Assemblymember Nancy Skinner, D-Berkeley) was gutted and amended, leaving behind its bill number (a marker of the bill's authenticity) and the bill's legislative history (as an illusion of progress through the constitutional process).

AB 904 had been a bill about energy policy. Specifically, it would have directed the California Public Utility Commission to conduct "a regulatory proceeding to develop a comprehensive program to achieve greater energy savings in the state's existing residential and nonresidential building stock."

That is, AB 904 before its transformation on June 12 would have directed a state agency to hold meetings to "develop a comprehensive program" to "achieve" energy savings for every building of any sort everywhere in California.

This sort of amorphous ambition is common in Sacramento, as a reminder of a legislator's "vision" that can be retailed to voters back in the district. What is even more common in Sacramento is the sudden and unexplained refinement of a legislator's "vision" to goals that make paying for an election campaign back in the district possible, goals that repay gutting an amending a bill into a butterfly.

Holding meetings to develop a program - always comprehensive - is one of the things California state agencies do all the time, and the PUC probably doesn't need to be told to hold another "proceeding" to do something "comprehensive." Which made AB 904 a good gut-and-amend bill.

The transfigured AB 904, the bill pulled from a hat halfway through the legislative process, the bill that the legislature accepted, like a changeling child in a fairytale, in place of the old AB 904 that would have told the PUC to do something it routinely does, now mandates, if passed by the Senate and signed by the governor, new standards for parking spaces.

The transformational aspect of gut and amend is its most Californian feature. In California, anything can become anything else. A desert can become an orchard. An energy bill can become a parking bill. A scrap metal dealer in Boston can become Louis B. Meyer in Hollywood. A "vision" can become a "deal."

The changed AB 904 "would prohibit cities from imposing minimum parking requirements of more than one space per residential unit or 1,000 square feet of commercial space in 'transit-intensive areas' - defined, with certain qualifiers, as areas within a half-mile of a major transit stop," according to the California Planning & Development Report.

"The bill makes no exceptions for unique parking circumstances or a type of project. ... For example, a city could only require 10 parking spaces for a 10,000 square foot shopping center. For residential projects, the bill also makes no allowance for the size of the project, allowing a maximum of one parking space per residential unit, regardless of the number of bedrooms. Affordable housing projects are limited even further to one-half of one parking spot. This provision apparently assumes that affordable housing residents are somehow less worthy of parking than other residents," according to the League of California Cities, which lobbies for local governments.

According to the American Planning Association of California, "APA California is not opposed to the concept of lower parking requirements near transit when a community decides it is right for them - the issue is that a one-size-fits-all statewide standard is not appropriate."

Something called the California Infill Builders Association, as it's always rather delicately put, "helped author the bill." (Nearly all new legislation is written for members of the Legislature by lobbyists). The California Infill Builders Association, obviously, has an interest in preventing cities from regulating parking requirements because a state-mandated standard will make it easier and cheaper and quicker for its members to build the commercial and residential units that other state laws (SB 397, AB 32) give preference to. Limiting the number of required parking spaces in "transit-oriented' developments to a one-size-fits-all standard is in the association's interest.

Limiting the number of required parking spaces in "transit-oriented' developments makes the particularities of actual places into the kind of abstraction that consoles Sacramento, that empowers by its abstraction many things that are quite specific.

If you could drill down through the layers of illusion in AB 904, you would probably find that the core interest in this gutted bill, amended from energy to parking, is very narrow, is very specific and unabstract. Deep within AB 904, probably, is a handful of infill projects that are currently suspended in the half-life of possibility that all speculative real estate development deals go through, infill projects at the margin that need just a little tinkering to make the impossible possible, projects that need a gutted and amended bill to become what the developer had always intended . . . another "perfect little deal."

D. J. Waldie, author and historian, writes about Los Angeles on KCET's SoCal Focus and 1st and Spring blogs.

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Hi D.J. I really enjoy your blogs and your insights. In this particular case, I think you missed some major points.

You suggest that AB 904 came out of nowhere, but it's actually the evolution of a bill that went unanimously through last year's assembly session and only fell a few votes short of passing the Senate: AB 710. You also suggest that this bill--which would allow developers to build for a less car-oriented market, but not require them to--is narrow and obscure. But I assure you it isn't. According to the U.S. Census, two thirds of renter households in Los Angeles have no car or just one car. But, throughout much of Southern California, developers are required to build two parking spaces for them. Developers do not absorb the cost of those extra parking spaces out of the goodness of their hearts, rather, they pass them along through higher rents.

Moreover parking minimums in most cities force people who want to open a coffee house on a walking street into a two-year, $100,000 approval process that might or might not come out in their favor. The same parking minimums allow those projects who satisfy them, like Taco Bells, liquor stores and auto shops, to get approved over-the-counter.

The need for last year's AB 710, reborn as this year's AB 904, is highlighted by the state's growing investment in transit, which provides highly visible alternatives to the car (despite the fact that millions of Angelenos already take some of their trips every day without cars). But the deeper issue is that parking minimums generally don't do any good at all except to make housing more costly and neighborhoods less walkable. Studies show off-street parking has little or no value in terms of relieving congestion among on-street (i.e., metered) parking spaces. But the politics and cost of changing parking policies makes it nearly impossible for most cities to make these fixes on their own. In Los Angeles, for example, it would cost over $500,000 and take several years to lower parking minimums to more sustainable levels around just one transit station. The city doesn't have the resources for that, let alone all the station areas in the city.

Sometimes, there needs to be a push from Sacramento to get cities out of a rut. AB 904 is just such a push.