Chronically Overparked

What stands in the way of creating affordable housing, equitable urban spaces, and an architecture resonant with our climate-sensitive times? Parking policy.

In 2019, not long after I started working in the Los Angeles mayor’s office as the city’s chief design officer, I went to see the architect Eric Owen Moss. His firm was designing a sizable apartment complex, funded in part by an affordable-housing bond, at the northern end of the canals in Venice, a neighborhood known for fashionable restaurants and a graying brand of counterculture politics. The project was to include 141 affordable units, most of them in the form of permanent-supportive housing for the recently homeless, plus retail and community space. The site was a 2.5-acre, city-owned surface parking lot two blocks from the beach.

By Moss’s standards, the architecture was tame: a boxy and low-slung three-story design wrapped in tan-colored stucco, with canted walls facing the canals. The project, however, had already become controversial for reasons that included aesthetics but certainly weren’t limited to them. The most aggressive opponents appeared particularly horrified that the apartment building, and others like it, would make the residents of nearby homeless encampments their permanent neighbors. “If we don’t stand up for ourselves and our families, there will be no going back,” a group called Fight Back, Venice! announced on its website. “We can still save our community, but we have to man the barricades now.”

One thing they couldn’t complain about was a lack of parking. As Moss and a colleague clicked through a slideshow about the project, it became clear that this was less an apartment building than a delivery mechanism for parking spaces wrapped in a thin veneer of housing. The design called for 120 parking spaces for future residents, although very few of them would likely own cars, and another thirty-five for retail tenants; it also rebuilt every one of the 295 spaces from the surface lot the apartment complex was, ostensibly, replacing. The result was a planned 450 parking spaces in a building with 141 apartments. Each of those parking spaces drove up the cost of the project, which eventually soared past $75 million, or more than $500,000 per unit.

In theory, turning a city-owned surface parking lot into new housing without having to replace the existing spots would seem among the most direct and economical ways for Los Angeles to confront its twin crises of homelessness and housing affordability. Cities rarely have a chance to create affordable apartments without displacing any residents or paying to knock down existing buildings.

Theory, however, doesn’t account for the power and reach of the California Coastal Commission, which was the fly in this particular Venetian ointment. Established by voters in 1972 with a mandate to protect public access to the state’s coastline, it had by the time I arrived in Los Angeles City Hall become an entrenched and highly respected part of the California political firmament. Part of its mission, as its commissioners understood it, was protecting the ability of Californians who lived inland to drive to, and then park near, the beach. Because the Moss project was located within the roughly half-mile band along the coast where the commission has jurisdiction, rebuilding those 295 parking spots became, politically speaking, nonnegotiable. The Coastal Commission uses similar logic to protect existing parking spaces, or lobby for new ones, in cities up and down the state.

Grabar throws cold water on the familiar argument that Americans prefer sprawling suburbanized residential districts with lots of parking, noting that in “virtually every U.S. city, the most expensive neighborhood is a mixed-use, prewar streetcar suburb that would be illegal to build today.”

This kind of lesson was typical of my time in the mayor’s office. Again and again, the most politically effective defenses of LA’s car-culture status quo I encountered came not from gas-station owners or right-leaning NIMBY groups like Fight Back, Venice! but from well-connected environmentalists, public-sector unions, and even librarians—all ready to argue that their need for parking was different, was special, was democratic or ecologically minded, was noble, even, and as a result could not possibly be challenged. What I learned was that the expectation of cheap and easily accessible parking had threaded itself so deeply into the fabric of Los Angeles culture, politics, and law that to try to rip it out inevitably meant tugging on a whole lot of other strands at the same time.

The two affordable-housing developers collaborating on the Venice project, Hollywood Community Housing Corp. and Venice Community Housing, were fighting tooth and nail, against shameless and well-organized opposition, to get it approved. In tense and sometimes heated community meetings, they were using the absurdly large supply of parking to defend the project to skeptical locals. It was only too easy to imagine what the developers’ response would have been had I, or one of my colleagues in the mayor’s office, suggested that the project would be better—cheaper, quicker to build, greener, and so on—without all those parking spaces and, more to the point, that we were ready to tangle with the Coastal Commission, among the most unimpeachable political bodies in the state, to get it redesigned. They would have argued that such an effort would guarantee the death of the project and its 141 subsidized apartments. And they would probably have been right.

Henry Grabar doesn’t mention the Venice project in his lucid, level-headed new book, Paved Paradise: How Parking Explains the World. But he does pause to discuss the Coastal Commission and the way its environmental mission has been perverted to defend the construction of new parking. Even if it falls short of the global reach suggested by its subtitle, the book is nearly encyclopedic in exploring the range of forces that have come together to make parking policy “the organizing principle” of American architecture and city making.

In explaining why so many of our cities “are full of moonscapes for the purpose of storing cars,” Grabar’s narrative goes something like this: after the popularity of the private automobile rose quickly in the 1920s, American cities faced serious congestion in their downtown cores as drivers battled for space with pedestrians, cyclists, streetcars, and even horses—and discovered that there were very few places for them to leave their cars when they wanted to get out of them. As both residential subdivisions and suburban shopping districts began to mushroom on the peripheries of US cities, promising freedom from this congestion, urban politicians responded with a range of policies to enable both the driving and the parking of cars, in a misguided effort to save the American downtown. By midcentury, we’d knocked down so many distinguished older buildings to make room for surface parking lots in urban centers that what was left, to quote the Los Angeles developer Tom Gilmore, “looked like Dresden after the war.”

Grabar rightly singles out for special blame so-called minimum parking requirements: the “step that virtually every U.S. jurisdiction took in the 1950s and ’60s to mandate the provision of parking spaces with every new home, store, school, office, doughnut shop, movie theater, or tennis court.” As he puts it, “Making parking the private and exclusive responsibility of every individual destination had consequences far more destructive than any double-parked car.”

The statistics Grabar has collected are mindboggling. The United States now has almost a billion parking spaces. Des Moines, Iowa, has built twenty spaces for every household. The San Francisco Bay Area now counts fifteen million spots in all, “enough to wrap a parking lane around the planet twice and still have some left over.” So overparked has the nation become that many if not most of these spaces, most of the time, sit empty.

If Paved Paradise has a patron saint, it is the retired UCLA urban-planning professor Donald Shoup, introduced on the second page as “the country’s foremost parking scholar.” Shoup’s 2005 book The High Cost of Free Parking has inspired architects, planners, and developers alike to challenge parking-minimum orthodoxy and push cities to adopt so-called dynamic pricing for curb parking, raising prices “high enough to ensure free spaces on every block” and end the polluting cycle of drivers circling endlessly in search of a spot. It also clarified the dysfunctional relationship between parking policy and American architecture, so clear to see in Moss’s Venice project. As Grabar writes, “The American modernist Louis Sullivan said form follows function; Don Shoup said form follows parking requirements.”

Building on the work of Shoup and other scholars, Grabar is particularly good at linking parking requirements to the high price of housing. “By making parking spots as obligatory as bathrooms” in new apartment buildings, he writes, cities across America “forced housing to bear the costs of driving.” When cities have done the opposite, unbundling parking requirements from, say, accessory dwelling unit construction or—as in LA’s hugely successful Adaptive Reuse Ordinance—the conversion of old office buildings into apartments, housing production has soared. Grabar throws cold water on the familiar argument that Americans prefer sprawling suburbanized residential districts with lots of parking, noting that in “virtually every U.S. city, the most expensive neighborhood is a mixed-use, prewar streetcar suburb that would be illegal to build today.”

The book’s politics, such as they are, are shadowed indirectly by the philosophical outlook of the Congress for a New Urbanism, which has been pitching parking reform for years and whose leading figures, such as Andrés Duany, pop up in Paved Paradise here and there. I would have liked to see Grabar grapple with the implications, beyond parking policy, of CNU’s nostalgic vision for the American city, which can be architecturally retrograde and pro-developer in the extreme. Just because parking “explains the world” doesn’t mean that having an enlightened view on the subject should excuse other relevant sins.

What matters, ultimately, is building a constituency broad and deep enough to redefine the mission of the Coastal Commission and literally hundreds of institutions like it across the country so that they no longer work, directly or indirectly, to prop up a culture of voracious motordom.

A few poetic asides notwithstanding, Grabar’s prose tends to be clear, unruffled, and occasionally workmanlike. His account goes down easily because it’s designed to, because Grabar, a staff writer at Slate, has worked hard to polish its rough edges and make the arguments broadly intelligible. His target audience is not policymakers as much as the American driving, parking, and home-buying public, a group he hopes to persuade rather than demonize. “This book proposes an honest reckoning with the subsidies and externalities of cars,” he writes, “but it is not anticar.” This sentiment is of a piece with Grabar’s all-inclusive subtitle and compellingly defanged rhetoric: this is meant to be a club where everybody’s welcome. “Republicans buy sneakers, too,” Michael Jordan said, by way of explaining his reluctance to take political stances. And drivers buy books.

Already, Paved Paradise has gained a level of attention unusual for a title on planning and urban design, with reviews in the New Yorker, the Los Angeles Times, the New York Times, and The Atlantic, to name a few. And deservedly so. The critique that Shoup and other scholars raise about the price we pay—in architectural, ecological, economic, and other terms—for all that free parking had, by 2010 or so, won numerous converts, including many urban planners. Yet if we hope to see truly consequential parking reforms, Shoup’s ideas still need the kind of persuasive and well-marketed boost that Grabar and his publisher have given them.

What matters, ultimately, is not just illustrating the folly of an affordable-housing complex with 450 parking spaces to go with 141 apartments; it is building a constituency broad and deep enough to redefine the mission of the Coastal Commission and literally hundreds of institutions like it across the country—including city councils, homeowners associations, chambers of commerce, universities, corporations, and foundations—so that they no longer work, directly or indirectly, to prop up a culture of voracious motordom. As I learned all too well in my time in City Hall, the task ahead of us, in Grabar’s phrase, is nothing less than “to turn the page on a century of American city building.”

And the hits keep coming; Grabar could easily fill a sequel with new stories about our parking-addled brains. I worked on the final edits on this book review on a return visit to Los Angeles in June. A couple of days into my stay, Los Angeles Times reporter Doug Smith published a long analysis of the city’s struggles to turn vacant properties into subsidized housing. A pair of city-owned parking lots in the Leimert Park neighborhood, long a center of Black culture, had been considered as a site for new apartments. But a spokesman for Councilmember Heather Hutt, who represents the area, dismissed the idea as a nonstarter.

“Councilwoman Hutt cannot support homeless housing on these parking lots because the community will never support it,” he told Smith. “The residents have demonstrated a strong commitment to preserving the authenticity and character of Leimert Park, and the parking lots serve that authenticity and character.”

Christopher Hawthorne, senior critic at the Yale School of Architecture, is a driver who is anti-car—and wonders if, and how, this contradiction will ever resolve itself. He lives in New Haven.