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New city policy removing minimum parking requirements for many businesses won’t immediately impact La Jolla

Commercial parking lot on Herschel Avenue in La Jolla
San Diego’s new policy for commercial parking lots, like this one on Herschel Avenue in La Jolla, won’t take effect in the coastal zone until the California Coastal Commission approves it.
(Elisabeth Frausto)

A new policy adopted by the San Diego City Council that aims to eliminate parking requirements for businesses in many neighborhoods has some La Jolla leaders dubious of its local impact as others call for merchants to “be more thoughtful” about employee parking.

A city statement said the municipal code change, which the council approved unanimously Nov. 16, removes the minimum parking space requirements for many businesses, allowing “commercial tenants and building owners in transit priority areas and commercial neighborhoods citywide [to] have the option to either provide as much parking as their customers need or use those spaces for other needs, like outdoor dining or creating outdoor spaces.”

The change becomes effective Jan. 1 but will not take effect in the city’s coastal zone — loosely defined as neighborhoods west of Interstate 5, including La Jolla — until the California Coastal Commission approves it.

Coastal Commission public information officer Noaki Schwartz told the La Jolla Light that the commission likely won’t hear the policy amendment until “later in 2022.”

“While the commission has historically approved the city’s parking reductions within transit priority areas and supported the interim COVID measures to allow commercial use of parking areas, each Local Coastal Plan amendment needs to be reviewed on its own merits,” Schwartz said. “Staff has expressed concern about the pacing of transit measures and amenities being out of sync with parking reductions, especially in visitor nodes or prime coastal access areas.”

The city statement said that “previously, businesses ... were required to provide a certain number of parking spaces, which adds significant costs — up to $25,000 for installation and maintenance per parking stall — and can lead to an oversupply of parking spaces in the city.”

“Minimum parking regulations also made it harder for businesses to adapt to changing transportation and economic trends and encouraged more driving, further contributing to climate pollution,” according to the statement.

Brian Earley, chairman of the La Jolla Traffic & Transportation Board, noted the parking policy change coincides with implementation of the city’s “Spaces as Places” program.

Spaces as Places will allow restaurant owners (for a fee beginning in July) to use adjacent sidewalks and parking spaces as a permanent extension of outdoor dining programs begun as a response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I don’t see the new city parking policy as having a big impact in the La Jolla area initially because most of our parking is city-built,” Earley said.

The policy “would certainly help businesses in downtown and in east city areas provide more space,” he said. “But for our coastal areas, particularly La Jolla, we do not have an oversupply of parking spaces.”

Earley said “the people who come to La Jolla predominantly to shop drive here, and this will add to a smaller supply of parking spaces, albeit that number is unknown at the moment.”

Diane Kane, president of the La Jolla Community Planning Association, said she doesn’t “imagine any noticeable changes in the short term” locally, as the change isn’t yet approved for the coastal zone.

“Clearly, under this new policy, some businesses stand to gain more space while the overall parking supply shrinks,” Kane said. “It will be interesting to see how the local, city and state objectives play out in the future.”

She said “removing parking seems to be a huge no-no in the coastal zone because it impedes access to the coast.”

Parking spaces on Girard Avenue in La Jolla
Natalie Aguirre of the La Jolla Traffic & Transportation and La Jolla Village Merchants Association boards says she hopes local merchants will “be more thoughtful about where their employees are parking.”
(Elisabeth Frausto)

Natalie Aguirre, a board member of both Traffic & Transportation and the La Jolla Village Merchants Association, said the new policy is “a little confusing. We haven’t had enough time to delve into it.”

But she added that “anything that affects available parking to merchants is very important.”

She said it’s important for merchants to “take advantage of parking offers that [LJVMA] puts forward,” such as parklajolla.com, which has offers for both merchant and visitor parking, and a collaboration with parking companies ACE and LAZ for monthly deals aimed at business owners and employees.

If employees take street parking spots intended for shoppers, “customers are not able to park there. That loses business for all of us,” Aguirre said. “I would like to see merchants be more thoughtful about where their employees are parking.”

Supporters of the new parking policy, including many business and environmental leaders citywide, said the change will start a slow and incremental shift in San Diego away from reliance on cars.

Transportation accounts for more than 50 percent of area greenhouse gas emissions, policy supporters said, making such changes crucial to San Diego’s efforts to meet the goals of its legally binding Climate Action Plan.

Backers emphasized that the city isn’t mandating that businesses eliminate parking, just allowing businesses the discretion to determine how much parking they need and how best to use the space available to them.

Critics said San Diego’s transit system isn’t nearly comprehensive enough for such a step.

They emphasized that senior citizens and disabled people can’t easily take transit, bike or walk places.

They also said many residents live in suburban neighborhoods where they must lead car-reliant lifestyles.

A group of neighborhood leaders across the city voted 21-3 against the proposed change when it was first unveiled last spring.

City Council President Jennifer Campbell, whose District 2 includes coastal communities south of La Jolla, voiced concern about how the new policy will affect older residents and the disabled.

“More than 25 percent of San Diegans are over the age of 55,” she said.

Campbell successfully lobbied her colleagues to require more disabled spots at businesses that make the choice under the new policy to have parking lots.

The new policy builds on San Diego’s action two years ago eliminating parking requirements for new condominium and apartment complexes near mass transit.

But unlike that proposal, which applied only to future projects, the policy change for businesses is retroactive. That’s why businesses can immediately transform parking spots into other uses. ◆