Berkeley overhauls off-street parking with an eye toward greener future

“I know this is scary for people,” said Councilmember Kate Harrison. “It’s a change. But it’s a change I feel we have to make.”

Berkeley says the new rules will reduce the amount of unneeded off-street parking in the city. Photo: John Matychuk on Unsplash

Most new housing projects in Berkeley will no longer have to build off-street parking, a move the city hopes will “more aggressively promote” alternative modes of transportation, such as walking and biking, and advance the city’s climate goals.

Berkeley officials voted unanimously Tuesday night to eliminate the city’s age-old parking requirements which, in many areas of town, required the creation of one off-street parking spot for each new housing unit.

Developers who want to build off-street parking will still be able to do so under the new rules, but the city did put limits in place about how much parking they can build in transit-rich areas without requesting special permission from the city. A recent staff analysis found that nearly 50% of the existing off-street parking spots in housing projects around the city sit empty, meaning that much more parking has been built in Berkeley than the city actually needs.

“We’re not banning parking,” said Councilmember Lori Droste, who initially asked the city to study the subject of parking reform in 2015. “We’re just trying to not require people to build parking if they don’t need it.”

Staff said the city’s existing rules produce too many parking spaces, increase housing costs, reduce opportunities for more housing and conflict with the city’s climate and public safety goals.

Officials, staff and members of the public alike spoke strongly in support of the reform package, which also puts new requirements in place for transit-related amenities, such as transit passes and off-street bike parking.

“I know this is scary for people,” said Councilmember Kate Harrison. “It’s a change. But it’s a change I feel we have to make.”

More than 100 people signed onto Tuesday night’s Zoom and most said the city should act now to approve recommendations put forward by the city’s Planning Commission last year. City staff had suggested focusing off-street parking reforms on housing projects with 10 or more units, while the commission said the overhaul should apply to new housing across the board.

The Berkeley City Council on Zoom, Jan. 26, 2021. Image: Berkeleyside

A handful of people who spoke during public comment urged the city to slow down and study the issue more closely before making such sweeping changes. But ultimately officials decided they had the information they needed to act.

The fourth part of the proposal approved Tuesday night will prohibit tenants of new buildings in Berkeley from securing residential parking permits — to allow them to park on the street — until the city can study the issue further and consider more sweeping reforms of its permit parking program. That analysis will take time, however, and is slated to come back to the Berkeley City Council at a later date.

Council members did agree to carve out from the new rules two neighborhoods in the Berkeley Hills that are more at-risk for fire danger and have streets narrower than 26 feet. They asked staff to take a closer look, however, at whether several blocks in those areas that are near the UC Berkeley campus would actually benefit from the reforms and promote the creation of much-needed student housing.

Supporters said the new legislation once again puts Berkeley at the forefront of nationwide efforts to prioritize climate goals over cars. With 60% of Berkeley’s greenhouse gases resulting from transportation, staff and elected officials said, the city must embrace bold policies designed to change behavior and city infrastructure if it hopes to see real change.

“This is climate policy. It’s about disincentivizing fossil-fuel infrastructure,” said Councilmember Rigel Robinson. The new rules will create “housing that enables green and walkable lifestyles,” he added: It’s “fundamental for our long-term planning.”

Emilie Raguso is Berkeleyside’s senior editor of news. Email: emilie@berkeleyside.org. Twitter: emraguso. Phone: 510-459-8325.