No Parking Zone

UC's Hastings College of the Law proposes a huge Tenderloin garage; most everyone else gags

For years, denizens of the academic world -- planners, architects, and ecologists; physicians, engineers, and sociologists -- have disparaged urban parking garages. Every added parking space draws dozens of additional car-trips into pedestrian-friendly urban centers, these experts have said in academic journals and classroom lectures. Reliance on cars in urban centers -- a reliance encouraged by new parking garages -- harms the environment, the vitality of our local economies, our sense of community, our political intelligence, our children; it worsens homelessness and endangers public health, these tweedy academics have repeatedly proclaimed. But like so many obsessions of the university, the doctrine of pedestrian-friendly urban design was largely ignored by the civilian world.

As cars filled the streets of San Francisco, newspaper pundits spoke of a downtown "parking shortage." The mayor and the Board of Supervisors (a previous version, not the current one) approved more and more parking garages, adding hundreds of spaces downtown, in South of Market, in North Beach, and beyond. San Francisco streets became increasingly clogged with cars, and our conversations clogged with talk of parking. Amidst all this, our citizenry seemed oblivious to the notion -- long ago accepted as fact in the academic planning world -- that parking spaces attract cars, which in turn push out other, perhaps more desirable, forms of urban life.

But something unusual began the Wednesday after Election Day. Then, an impromptu assembly of neighborhood groups, anti-poverty charities, business leaders, environmental organizations, local politicians, Planning Department representatives, church groups, transit activists, bicycle activists, student groups, and state planning activists gathered at an environmental hearing to oppose a parking garage. But it wasn't just any garage: This 885-space monster, slated for Golden Gate and Larkin streets, would create great streams of new traffic, members of these groups testified. The additional cars would result in ever more pedestrian deaths in the Tenderloin, activists said. Using scarce land for parking, rather than housing, would push more people onto the streets, they complained. The garage, they testified, would make the Tenderloin, home to the city's least fortunate citizens, an even lousier place to live.

"After that hearing, they ought to realize that if they go ahead, they're going to get into a humongous fight with every interest group in San Francisco," says Randy Shaw, director of the Tenderloin Housing Clinic, a nonprofit group.

In San Francisco's Tenderloin, in fact, the ideological parking gap -- the distance between ivory tower academics and Main Street -- may be closing. There, activists are taking up the anti-parking cause against, of all things, a university.

It's Thursday, and David Seward, chief financial officer of the University of California's Hastings College of the Law, is ending his day on a sour note. His job isn't the sort that ordinarily entails speaking with reporters. He's spent this afternoon speaking to three, back to back. It's a task he clearly doesn't enjoy. "Every campus of the UC and CSU system has a parking operation," Seward says, unenthusiastically. "Parking is integral to higher education in California. It's a question of access."

Actually, the garage Hastings has planned for the southwest corner of Golden Gate and Larkin streets does not seem to have all that much to do with accessing law school. At least in part, the project appears to be a method of transferring millions in tax dollars from the state's General Services Agency to Hastings, so it can refurbish and earthquake retrofit a building at 100 McAllister St., turning it into 80 student apartments and activity rooms. Income from the nearby garage -- the state government has promised to pay rent on 300 of the spaces, and the structure would include commercial space on its bottom story -- would be enough to pay for bonds covering the cost of the garage and the dorm retrofit, according to Hastings documents. The garage itself would be managed by a private parking concern.

As with many a proposal of dubious merit, the Hastings project has an environmental impact report full of wild, illogical assertions. Among other howlers, the report says the 885-space garage will result in no increased traffic in the area. The report also supports the questionable notion that the construction of a gigantic parking garage on an empty lot in the Tenderloin would be consistent with the school's mission, with the odd contention that building housing there would somehow violate that educational mission.

Seward offers one justification for the project that, considering his vocation as a law school accountant, is delightfully fanciful. "In the long run, it's because you have greater flexibility," Seward says, presumably explaining why Hastings should be in the parking business. "Once you provide housing, it's dedicated to that use. With a garage, in 50 to 100 years, one can use that for something else. We might not even be driving cars then."

But right now, of the places in the Western Hemisphere where there should not be a parking garage, Golden Gate and Larkin streets may rank right up there with Grand Central Station in New York. The Tenderloin site of the proposed Hastings garage is served by more forms of mass transit than any spot in the western United States.

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