Update: Yesterday the leadership of the California Chapter of the American Planning Association decided to oppose the current draft of Assembly Bill 904, which seeks to lower parking minimums in transit-oriented areas. Here is the APA's letter (.doc) to bill sponsor Nancy Skinner.  

Ever since the 2005 publication of UCLA professor Don Shoup's book, The High Cost of Free Parking, the relaxation of parking minimums has been seen by many planners as the next best thing to manufacturing new land. Yet, the introduction of a bill that would enact a modest page from the Shoup playbook has roused opposition from a surprising source: the American Planning Association. 

Last week Assemblymember Nancy Skinner (D-Oakland) introduced Assembly Bill 904, which would require cities to impose reduced parking requirements in transit-oriented areas. The goal of the bill, which has been promoted primarily by the Infill Builders Federation (formerly Infill Builders Assoc.), is to promote the development of housing by reducing parking requirements and therefore making development less expensive in areas well served by public transit. 

Among other provisions, the bill would prohibit cities from imposing minimum parking requirements of more than one space per residential unit or 1,000 square feet of commercial space in "transit-intensive areas"�defined, with certain qualifiers, as areas within a half-mile of a major transit stop.  

Described by supporters as a modest but important reform�especially as cities are trying to comply with Sustainable Communities Strategies�AB 904 is characterized by others as giving the state too much influence over local land use policies. 

"The primary issue is that it's a one-size fits all statewide standard," said APA California Vice President for Policy and Legislation David Snow. "While APA supports the concept that this bill puts forward�.from APA's perspective, a uniform standard from the state that doesn't take into account local considerations isn't the appropriate way forward." 

APA California also contends that, by imposing lower parking requirements, cities would be less inclined to support transit and to support higher, denser infill development. APA California acknowledges that many cities want to "grow up and not out" and calls such a strategy "responsible."  In that sense, the APA and Infill Builders Association would typically be considered natural allies. 

"The APA's best-selling book is The High Cost of Free Parking," said Mott Smith, a founding board member of the Infill Builders Association. "It's a bit weird that they would have this reaction." Shoup himself has publicly expressed his support for the bill. 

Though Snow contends that the bill may be unduly limiting, Shoup's thesis�shared by many of AB 904's supporters�is that many existing parking standards are arbitrary and inefficient, and therefore are limiting in their own right. 

"It's a relaxation of restrictions, not an imposition of restrictions," said Smith. 

A similar bill, AB 710 (also sponsored by Skinner), met its demise last year when the League of California Cities and some nonprofit housing developers raised two major objections: the bill would impose improper uniform standards statewide, and it could undermine the parking bonus provision of SB 1818, which promotes affordable housing. 

Supporters say that this year's version (introduced as a gut-and-amend bill) is far more flexible than last year's. It enables cities to opt out of the law if circumstances on the ground meet any of four criteria. Supporters also say that, on balance, it will promote affordable housing by making the production of both market-rate and low/moderate-income housing easier. In other words, the benefits of not having to provide what supporters consider excessive parking will more than outweigh any provisions in SB 1818 that might be undermined. 

Cal APA has yet to take an official position on the bill, but an email to members dated June 13 expresses serious concerns, calling the bill "restrictive" and calling the matter "urgent." Cal APA executive director Sande George followed that email up with a detailed memo criticizing the bill. 

The ensuing struggle inspired a nearly instant, and unusually spirited, debate among land use professionals once Cal APA's email alert went out. Few bills in recent memory have created such debate among planners who consider themselves progressive. 

"The recent decision by Cal APA to oppose progressive transformation may actually hint at a larger chasm that is emerging between two distinct schools of thought," said Will Wright, director of government & public affairs for the Los Angeles chapter of the American Institute of Architects. Wright characterized the debate as a "lively" one of "classic old school sensibility versus progressive thinkers." 

In its mailing last week, APA leadership issued a warning about AB 904 and asked members for input, but the group has not yet taken a position. Any opposition, however, surprises AB 904's supporters

Smith called APA's recent concerns "out of left field," in part, he said, because he and other supporters have been trying to address concerns of AB 701's opponents. 

California APA did not oppose last year's more restrictive AB 710. Though many groups that did officially oppose the bill, the APA does not appear in the bill's list of official opponents, dated August 26, 2011. Snow claims that California APA was involved with last year's discussions. 

"We had conversations with the bill's authors," said Snow. 

The League of California Cities opposed AB 710, and has indicated that it will reprise its opposition this year. A recent League newsletter contends that AB 904, "fails to address the League's concerns from last year's AB 710." 

Snow said that California APA had not been privy to the language of AB 904 had not been able "to work in a thoughtful and productive manner to resolve issues with the infill proposal given the shortened period with which to work on the proposal."

Smith said the bill's supporters still welcome input from all parties. 

"We've been working with for the better part of the year to try to accommodate (opponents') concerns," said Smith.  "Anybody who's got constructive suggestions...we want to talk to."

Smith said that the result of discussions thus far has been this a more flexible version than last year's  bill and that it includes provisions that were specifically designed to respond to concerns voiced last year. To opt out, cities would have to demonstrate one (or more) of the following in a transit-intensive area: insufficient walkability, insufficient transit, conflicts with existing parking standards designed to promote transit oriented development, conflicts with existing station-area plans that seek to reduce off-street parking. 

Snow said that he had not thoroughly read through the provisions of the bill that would exempt cities, but he maintained that the bill's uniform treatment of cities throughout the state amounted to an undue imposition. Notably, California APA's email of June 13 incorrectly claims that cities would have to meet all four criteria in order to opt-out � rather than any one of the four. 

"These certainly provide flexibility," said Snow. "I don't think they get us over the hurdle of having a statewide standard and imposing the burden."

In particular, Snow noted that cities would have to expend money and manpower in order to present findings and comply with the bill's Jan. 1, 2014 deadline. 

"I think that this is shifting a burden to local governments at this point that this isn't necessarily the right time for that with all the other difficulties and issues that local governments are facing," said Snow.

Smith said, however, that AB 904 required nothing like a full environmental review and that findings could be made with "a few hours" of work, because the bill intentionally sets a relatively low bar for opting out and supports local control. He countered that under current conditions, cities that do want to reduce their parking requirements often have to go to great lengths to do so. 

"Countless cities throughout California would like to have more infill-friendly parking standards," said Smith. "This bill gives cities basically a gift certificate to accept relaxed parking standards if they want them." 

The bill's supporters have since responded with a document that outlines "myths versus facts" about AB 904, on the premise that much of the opposition is based on misunderstandings about how the law would actually operate. That document stresses that the Infill Builders is in accord with APA on the issue of local control. 

"We don't want people to opt out of this capriciously," said Smith. "But at the same time we made the findings broad and inclusive so any city that legitimately wants to opt out."

Snow said that APA did not have an alternative proposal for issuing parking reforms. He said that he encourages parking reform but that, without the passage of AB 904, "it would mean that cities need to figure it out one-by-one."

Smith, however, says that a piecemeal approach will not help individual cities, nor will it contribute to the statewide effort to reduce vehicle miles travelled in major metro areas.