Gutting Bills and Parking Spaces

A Lot of Parking
A Lot of Parking | Public Access Source


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.

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.