Plan to let many San Diego businesses eliminate parking spots clears key hurdle

People boarded and left a trolley in San Ysidro in July. Businesses near such stops could eliminate parking spots.
People boarded and left a trolley in San Ysidro in July. Businesses near trolley stops like this one could eliminate parking spots under a new San Diego proposal.
(Alejandro Tamayo/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Businesses near transit could transform their parking spots into outdoor dining, extra retail space


San Diego’s proposal to allow many businesses to eliminate their parking spots passed a key test recently when a City Council committee voted 3-1 to support the change after a contentious hearing.

The June 16 vote, with only Councilmember Marni von Wilpert opposed, makes it likely the proposal will get support from at least five members of the full nine-member council this month.

Existing businesses could immediately transform their parking spots into outdoor dining, extra retail space

June 5, 2021

Supporters say it makes sense to give businesses latitude to decide how many parking spots they need, especially with more San Diego residents commuting by transit, bicycles and ride-booking services like Uber and Lyft.

They also say fewer parking spots at businesses would encourage more people to commute and get to shopping areas by mass transit, bicycle or by walking, which would help the city meet the goals of its legally binding climate action plan.

“This is the next big lift for our city in meeting our climate action plans goals,” Councilmember Joe LaCava said before approving the change at the meeting of the council’s Active Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.

Critics say San Diego’s mass transit system is not nearly expansive or convenient enough to adopt policies that typically only work in major metropolises like New York and San Francisco.

They also say the changes would worsen parking scarcity in many neighborhoods and business districts, frustrating residents there and discouraging people from other areas of the city from visiting those business districts.

“The concern I’m getting from my residents is that they are going to be isolated and not be able to get downtown or park anywhere,” said von Wilpert, who represents transit-poor neighborhoods like Rancho Bernardo and Scripps Ranch.

Other critics hail the policy, but say the city is making a mistake by excluding the city’s coastal areas from the change. They say that will put businesses on the coast at an unfair disadvantage compared to businesses located more inland.

The proposal would eliminate parking requirements for businesses located near mass transit or in small plazas near dense residential areas.

New businesses in those areas would no longer have to provide any parking spaces for customers or staff. And existing businesses could immediately transform their parking spots into outdoor dining or extra retail space.

The policy wouldn’t increase the maximum square footage for a business or soften rules on how far structures can be from the property line, so many businesses would not be able to expand under the new rule.

But Alyssa Muto, director of the city’s new Mobility Department, said many businesses are far below the maximum square footage allowed on their property, so the new policy would allow them to expand.

LaCava views the new policy as an interim step toward a more aggressive city policy that would prohibit businesses from providing parking. He said a “cultural shift” toward using transit and biking would be needed for that prohibition.

Jacob Mandel, advocacy manager for the San Diego County Bicycle Coalition, said San Diego needs to be more ambitious.

“Now is the time to act like the big city we really are,” he said.

The new policy would build on San Diego’s elimination two years ago of parking requirements for new condominium and apartment complexes near mass transit. City officials say it’s too early to tell whether that policy has worked.

Both policies apply to areas near transit hubs, which are defined as areas located within half a mile of a trolley line, a bus rapid transit station or two high-frequency bus routes. The nearby transit service must be operating or scheduled to begin operating within five years.

The business policy also would apply to areas designated “neighborhood commercial,” which are smaller plazas and business districts that serve adjacent residents.

Wally Wulfeck, leader of an umbrella organization for the city’s 52 neighborhood groups, said mass transit in San Diego is too weak for such a big change to parking requirements. He noted that most residents who want to use public transit must drive to a stop and that parking lots at stops are often too small.

“Most residents can’t take transit even if they want to,” he said.

Von Wilpert said San Diego should complete its new mobility action plan before making the parking change.

“It seems a little bit out of order to me to be eliminating parking when we don’t have the mobility action plan in place,” she said.

LaCava was joined in support of the measure by council members Sean Elo-Rivera and Monica Montgomery Steppe.