New developments in Alameda — whether they be residential or commercial — are not required to include new off-street public parking. It's up to the developer, the business, or the resident planning the project to decide to put their budget toward housing vehicles. New residential developments are nominally constrained to building no more than 1.5 building spots per housing units — so a residential development of 10 units requesting to build 20 total units of off-street parking would need to request a permission from the city's Planning Board to do so.

When those very numbers came up at the Planning Board recently, board members members identified some the deleterious side-effects effects of approving so much off-street parking... but no one seemed to notice or comment on the parking itself.

All the parking sure is visible in this site plan submitted by the developer:

from project plans for Sherman Street and Clement Avenue - Del Monte Townhomes

This is the final phase of the Del Monte Warehouse project: a sliver of land at the intersection of Sherman/Clement/Atlantic, where the developers have proposed to build 10 townhouses — with 20 parking interior parking spaces.

Also visible on the map above is the original lane striping for the "smart" new intersection at Sherman/Clement/Atlantic. It was supposed to be Alameda's mini version of the Shibuya Crossing... a "scramble" for pedestrians and cyclists to cross at a diagonal, while all autos are given red lights. But instead it's a sad failure. EMBUD and the City of Alameda recently repaved and restriped the intersection, which has removed the worst parts. Still, it's a few million dollars wasted on an overly complex set of signals and also at least one cyclist seriously injured on the "bump" that is visible on that map but now removed. A topic for another blog post — and ideally a topic that city staff are internally trying to learn from and not repeat.
Prior phases built a subsidized affordable housing building called Little John Commons and converted the Del Monte Warehouse itself into a mixed-use building with rental housing, now on the market as Alta Star Harbor. All phases are governed by the Del Monte Warehouse Master Plan, adopted by City Council in 2014. So technically speaking, the townhouses are not being held to the city's 2021 Update [of] Citywide Off-Street Parking and Loading Space Regulations, which set the soft cap of 1.5 off-street parking spots per new dwelling unit. The townhouses are also not being held to the city's 2017 Universal Residential Design requirements, which requires some portion of new multi-family units be accessible to residents and visitors in wheelchairs.

Don't get me wrong: Building 10 new residential units is a net-benefit.

It's also a positive that the overall Del Monte site will have a range of types of housing: These proposed townhouses will be for-sale to buyers. In contrast, the Del Monte Warehouse is market-rate apartments, and Little John Commons is public housing managed by the Alameda Housing Authority specifically for seniors over age 62. A wide range of housing formats, sizes, price points, and ownership/rental/subsidy models helps to welcome and house a wide range of residents.

But these townhouses... meh. And all that asphalt.... ugg. Right next to the opportunity of the Cross Alameda Trail... oof.

I previously blogged about the downsides of the "modern" townhouse format with a garage on every single ground floor:

  • The value of interior square footage in Alameda is hundreds of dollars per square foot. For some neighborhoods in of Alameda, that figure can go over $1,000/sqft. Run the numbers for the monetary value of a two-car garage — that's a lot of money... assuming the potential buyer even has it to begin with. Less parking means marginally more affordable housing, and every dollar does matter.
  • Having a garage on every ground floor moves living space upstairs — and means it's almost impossible to design a "universally accessible" housing unit, which can be lived in or visited by someone using a wheelchair.
  • All those garages necessitate pavement... lots of it, to access each and every garage door.

Just have a look at all that pavement:

The above diagram plots out how a garbage truck will be able to navigate through a maze of parking to the new access road behind the new townhouses. I wonder why the townhouse residents couldn't be offered the option of purchasing a parking spot in that adjoining surface lot. That would "unbundle" the parking from the housing, making it easier for residents to decide if they wanted to save the extra money or actually require one or more parking spots. (My understanding is that Alta Star Harbor sells parking spots as an unbundled add-on to its rental residents.) But these types of questions didn't come up...

Planning Board members did comment on the amount of asphalt. Planning Board members did ask if the garages could be moved to open onto Sherman Street (strongly discouraged under the city's design standards — and I imagine that would be vetoed immediately by the traffic engineers). Planning Board members also did ask about how residents will be responsible for maintaining that shared access road (more on this in a minute). But the Planning Board members never did ask the developer the question of "why?" Why, in the first place, do these plans propose to build 2.0 off-street parking spots within the interiors of each of these townhouses?

In this Planning Board meeting, members sometimes referred to them as "rowhouses." If you've ever walked around Center City Philadelphia and the nearby residential neighborhoods, you'll agree that a rowhouse typically doesn't have a two-car garage.

It's almost as if parking is a "dark matter" whose effects can be seen everywhere — as it expands out our buildings, our land, and our budgets — but that cannot be observed directly.

One of these effects that the Planning Board did consider is that the residents of these 10 townhouses will somehow need to collectively use and own the access road. Should the developer create an HOA (homeowners association) and pass it on to these residents with all of that administrative overhead? Or should the developer draft a "maintenance agreement" that will get inserted into the CC&Rs (codes, covenants, and restrictions) that the new residents sign? In any case, the residents will be proud co-owners of undivided interests in a parcel that exists purely to provide the pavement that they can drive to and from their garages on.

Yes, I know parking is useful. But is it more important than housing affordability, wheelchair accessibility, and landscaping?

The Planning Board and city staff can only do so much — they can only review the projects that the private sector brings to them. I've been slight unfair to the Planning Board in this blog post when the real problem is that developers and the banks that finance them want to build townhouses.

Still, even if it's out of the city's direct control, let me suggest that the Planning Board, the City Council, and housing advocates be broken records about this topic. Enough with all these two-living-stories-over-two-parking-spot-garage townhouses. Alameda needs more multi-family housing that minimizes or skips interior parking, can be accessible to wheelchairs, and comes in a wider range of shapes and sizes.

Parking is still the "dark matter" of new housing in Alameda