Best Practices

Los Alamos

The takeaways from this  article are three:  (1) The parking requirements in the new development code appear woefully short of Los Alamos on-the-ground reality, and unsupported by any relevant evidence; (2) The character of many Los Alamos single-family neighborhoods is now vulnerable to an uncontrolled proliferation of Accessory Dwelling Units (ADU); (3) otherwise the new code is pretty good and a long overdue replacement for the previous hodge-podge that was Chapter 16 of the County Code.

 The last year-and-a-half I have met every week or two with a “Steering Committee” of citizens and County staff that reviewed new sections of the code developed by the County’s Consultants Dekker Parrich and Sabatini (DPS). It was a generally pleasant, occasionally intense, collaboration and DPS was broadly open to suggestions and criticisms.  The results were presented to the public, the Planning and Zoning Commission (P&Z) and the Council in three “modules”, underwent a number of revisions, and a ”final” (not really)  draft was presented to the P&Z and Council in three 4-6 hour zoom sessions this week, which I attended with two or three other County-groupies.  

So let me focus on (1) above, the parking requirements. In this kind of endeavor the ordinary citizen is at a disadvantage with respect to the hired experts, especially with regard to language – every profession has its jargon – phrases that develop meaning that is not obvious from the natural meaning of the words.  Through this process DPS would occasionally say some table or dimensional standard was supported by “national best practices,” which I took literally.  To me the phrase conjures an image of the speaker reviewing the literature  and reaching a conclusion that, for example,  a collection of  families in such and such a district would need a certain number of parking spaces based on how many cars and vehicles such families are known to own.  As the 3 day marathon this week wore on I heard this phrase roughly every 10 or 15 minutes to justify more and more  proposals that seemed to diverge from reality as I have experienced it in Los Alamos – especially the proposed parking provisions compared to the number of vehicles Los Alamos people own.  

To take the most egregious example, for the downtown “overlay” district (DTLA, roughly Central and Trinity to Oppenheimer, and LA Canyon to Canyon Road – think of the proposed mixed use high-rise at MariMac) the proposal is one parking space per unit for multi-family apartments regardless of size, and 25% of the amount required elsewhere for other uses such as commercial. A couple of Councilors recognized there may be a problem here, but most, and the P&Z members, swallowed it.  Most people come to live in Los Alamos to work at the Lab, for the schools, and because they love outdoor activities.  Those kind of people have RV’s, motorcycles, trailers, and off-road vehicles in addition to the family SUV.  They’re not people who will live in an apartment with one parking space, or in a house that is restricted to 2.  In the wealthier parts of town you don’t see vehicles parked on the street because they have two car garages and broad driveways.  In the more crowded less affluent parts of town you see all these vehicles on the streets, and in the yards.  

I became suspicious.

So I googled zoning parking best practices.  Wow! The  American Planning Association is the driver for a movement to eliminate all minimum parking requirements.  They are enthralled by a guy named Shoup who has decided cities should save on parking requirements by making it too expensive to own a car.   People who insist on data collection and statistics are operating in their reptilian cortex.  Former reptiles will decide to get bicycles or use public transportation or walk everywhere.  He proposed three parking reforms for cities:  

Remove off-street parking requirements. Developers and businesses can then decide how many parking spaces to provide for their customers.

Charge the right prices for on-street parking. The right prices are the lowest prices that will leave one or two open spaces on each block, so there will be no parking shortages. Prices will balance the demand and supply for on-street space.

Spend the parking revenue to improve public services on the metered streets. If everybody sees their meter money at work, the new public services can make demand-based prices for on-street parking politically popular.

Kumbaya!  This is the magic of economic incentives.  You may or may not believe this would work, cities are apparently doing these things and of course the APA literature is singing their praises.  But somehow DPS gave us only part of the story – we didn’t get the economics message that Shoup tells us will make this work.  What we got was, National Best Practices is to reduce the parking requirements by 50%. So we did.  But Shoup’s economics is a control loop, and ours is missing the feedback leg, the parking meters and revenue to the city that will incentivize this car-free nirvana.  Such a loop is unstable, and in this context instability means that the occupants of such a housing development, in a town that has no public transportation  and riding a bicycle is not only dangerous but not practical if you want to go for a hike say in the Valle Grande,  and where the most attractive features can be reached only by motor vehicles,  will look around the neighborhood for a place to park their surplus vehicles.  So even more streets, especially those neighboring the downtown and already overcrowded, will be crowded even more.  Kumbaya.

The story for ADU’s is similar but I leave that for another day!