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Aparkalypse Now 

Bedlam reigns as a great development boom besets the warehouse district south of downtown. Blood boiling, drivers late to work search in vain for parking. Are we doomed?

Wednesday, May 24 2000
Bedlam reigns as a great development boom besets the warehouse district south of downtown San Francisco. Blood boiling, drivers late to work search in vain for parking. Metered spaces are full, the lots expensive and filling fast. Tempers rise. Motorists become impatient, rude. Are we doomed?

The city's glorious economy, its glorious job market, its glorious building spree have spawned a gloriously wretched dilemma: With so many new people working so many new jobs, how will they get to work, to shop, to play? Will the city choke on its own success?

The answer is reflected in our cars.

Cranes have sprouted over the city like a giant flock of earthbound birds as San Francisco becomes the must-have location of the dot-com revolution.

Almost everywhere South of Market -- and spilling into the Financial District, Jackson Square, Potrero Hill, the Mission, and mid-Market -- is evidence of the more than 700 new technology companies that now call the city home. They vie for space in the same epicenter, adding high-tech workers, most of whom own cars.

Each I-beam, office cubicle, and new desk for a new high-tech employee generates potential demand for a new parking space. Yet building skyscrapers often means filling in parking lots. Can this last?

Employers don't seem to care. The whole of the city's southern side, a warehouse district just months ago, is suddenly becoming a vast urban village. Around 3 million square feet of new commercial space is proposed for these parts, with much more to come.

Worse, some South of Market parking spaces will be temporarily lost while the Bay Bridge receives an earthquake retrofit. Around 4,000 parking spaces will be cordoned off, a couple hundred at a time, as Caltrans undertakes the massive job. Even more parking will be lost as office buildings fill empty SOMA lots created when the freeway ramps connecting the Bay Bridge to the old Embarcadero Freeway were torn down.

At Mission Bay, a 303-acre development to be built south of the new ballpark along the flanks of the China Basin Channel, the Catellus Corp. plans 6,000 new apartments, 1.5 million square feet of retail space, a new UCSF campus, and a 5 million-square-foot campus of biotech office buildings.

With fewer and fewer parking spaces for more and more workers, South of Market is on the brink of a parking meltdown.

So upset are San Francisco building owners that they recently held a luncheon to discuss the PARKING EMERGENCY, and berate city officials for ignoring their cries for relief. Building owners want 10,000 new parking spaces, and they want them NOW.

"As development continues, cars are going to come in. It can't be stopped," says David Collins, vice president of Ampco Parking and a director of the Building Owners and Managers Association. "Without places for the cars to park, we're going to have increased congestion and a strangling of the growth."

Marc Intermaggio, BOMA's executive vice president, believes that "unless the city allows the construction of more new parking lots, we will lose jobs to places where people can access them better."

Even the San Francisco Chronicle has joined in the hand-wringing, with news stories, and columnist Ken Garcia, beating the drum for more parking.

Without more parking, these doomsayers argue, the glow will fade from San Francisco's once-beautiful shores. Technology companies will flee for plentiful parking beyond. Economic recession? No more dot-com boom? San Francisco a no-parking ghost town?

When thus adrift, San Francisco often turns its lonely eyes eastward, toward the offices of Allan Jacobs, the guru, the all-knowing-all-being-master, of San Francisco planning. Director of city planning from 1967 through 1974, Jacobs now chairs UC Berkeley's department of city and regional planning. His books on urban design are considered bibles within his trade, and his students populate key positions in planning departments around the world.

And here's what the guru says: In parking, as with the rest of life, the best path is sophisticated, yet simple.

San Francisco should do nothing.

Fretting over parking is a waste of time and energy, Jacobs says. "If you don't pay attention to it, it goes away, and that's good because places that plan and build lots and lots of parking are usually lousy. And people will find ways other than driving to get to places they want to be if no parking is available," according to Jacobs. "Cities that are obsessed with the movement of cars, and spend a lot of time and money trying to avoid or solve traffic problems, are invariably less livable than cities that don't."

"So don't worry about parking. It's really not a problem."

Simple. Even simpler than it seems, actually. Because the alternative is horribly, disastrously, hideously complex. Building the thousands of new parking spaces that some desire will create worse problems than it solves.

Every added parking space draws another car, further clogging downtown streets, impeding buses, pedestrians, and other cars.

San Francisco's supervisors, newspaper columnists, parking lot managers, and even the mayor may deny the validity of this logic. But those whose job it is to understand how cities work say the relationship between added parking spaces and added urban congestion is not a matter of opinion. It's fact.

Adding thousands of parking spaces will undermine every other form of transit. Already, one-third of San Francisco's commuters enjoy free parking -- in the sense that someone else pays for it. That creates a preference for cars at the expense of mass transit, bicycles, walking -- the modes of getting around that make this a special city.

Increased traffic inevitably fuels a growing demand for wider streets, narrower sidewalks, and fewer places for people to work, shop, play, and gather. San Francisco, the most beautiful place in the world, could become more and more like its parking-friendly western cousins: Houston, Phoenix, San Jose -- not cities really, but developed areas.

About The Author

Matt Smith


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