Could Sacramento’s downtown get by with less parking? Some say yes

By Tony Bizjak

March 09, 2017 07:20 PM

Unusual parking device in downtown Sacramento

See how 'stack parking' at 16 Powerhouse apartments works.
Up Next
See how 'stack parking' at 16 Powerhouse apartments works.

The search for a parking spot downtown can be frustrating. Street parking spots are limited, and garages near state offices are full. If downtown adds another 10,000 apartments and condos in the next decade, as city leaders hope, will Sacramento have a parking crisis on its hands?

Some city officials and developers are beginning to say the opposite may happen.

Sacramento’s downtown, they say, may well need fewer parking spots, at least per capita, in 10 years than it does today, if they can create an environment populated by a new generation of residents who won’t own a car.

Instead, those urbanists will walk or bike to work, use rideshare services nights and weekends, and rent ZipCars for out-of-town trips. Not all of them will be millennials, urban advocates say. Some will be retirees from the suburbs unloading possessions – including multiple family cars – for a simpler life.

Bruce Monighan, the city’s urban design manager, says it’s even possible to imagine autonomous cars acting as taxis, constantly in motion, instead of sitting idle in a downtown garage all day waiting to be retrieved by a single owner.

“It’s a change in mindset,” Monighan says. “We’ve been developing cities that are expressly based on cars. Now, we’re talking about an old lifestyle re-envisioned, where we are not dependent on the car to go to the grocery store, to work, to be entertained. We are able to to use our feet.”

That may reduce car congestion downtown, to a degree. But the real impact is likely economic. With less need to build expensive parking garages, developers can build apartments and condominiums more cheaply, with space for more housing units, and charge lower rents.

Is the concept real or is it the stuff of urban utopian dreams?

Sacramento developer Nikky Mohanna is about to test the theory. She plans to break ground in May on an 11-story apartment building at 19th and J that city officials say could be a trendsetter. The building, called 19J, will offer only 50 parking spots for 175 units.

That’s far less parking than city rules normally require. Officials gave Mohanna the OK because it fits with the city’s efforts to make downtown a more pedestrian-oriented place. Mohanna plans to provide additional bicycle, motorcycle and scooter parking, as well as a bike-sharing program and two ZipCars for rent by the hour. She also will build a three-story mechanical car park lift to limit the space needed for the 50 spots, allowing more space to build rental units.

Mohanna, who is 27 and a principal at Mohanna Development Co., founded by her father, said the project stems from conversations with friends who are on tight budgets who want to live downtown, but can’t afford both monthly rent and car costs.

“That’s the target population,” said Mohanna, who lives in a studio over a downtown coffeehouse. She has a car but says she uses it mainly for business meetings in the suburbs and finds it to be an inconvenience downtown. “That was what really drove me to build this project. What does my generation need?”

The expected rents nevertheless will require a solid income. The least expensive units, studios as small as 350 square feet, would start at less than $1,000 a month, she said.

In an effort to encourage more housing downtown, the city recently reduced the number of parking spots developers are required to build in the central core to one parking spot for every two units. Previously, the ratio was 1-to-1.

Garage construction is very costly, city officials say, often more than $35,000 for each parking space, making it harder for builders to finance housing construction and get a return on their investment.

North State Building Industry Association spokesman Ioannis Kazanis said builders are pleased with the direction the city is going. Cities often require too much parking, he said. His group said cities should just let builders decide how much or little parking they need.

Downtown Councilman Steve Hansen said the city is trying to let builders be more creative. But success will rely on “culture change” downtown that includes more work to make biking and walking safer and more enjoyable, and on better transit. To that end, the city slowly is investing in more on-street bike lanes and pedestrian-friendly intersections, and hopes to build a streetcar line on rails that would run as far east as 16th Street – three blocks from Mohanna’s project. The city doesn’t have funding for the streetcar yet.

But car ownership is not going away for many who will live downtown in the next decade, developers say. In the four-county Sacramento region, about 6 percent of millennial householders (roughly ages 19-35) told the Census Bureau in 2015 they are carless. That was significantly more than older householders, 3 percent of whom did not have a car.

Erika Bjork, 41, an executive with Republic FC soccer team, is among those who don’t own a car by choice. Bjork dumped her car a year ago when it broke down on the way to Lake Tahoe. She owns a home in Oak Park. By walking, biking and ridesharing, she’s cut her transportation costs in half, and uses the money to pay down debt and to enjoy things she otherwise would be less able to afford, like nice restaurants and skiing.

“One of the greatest feelings in the world was calling my car insurance company and canceling my insurance,” she said.

Midtown resident and downtown state worker Louis Mirante, 25, is an advocate for the no-car lifestyle. He chose an apartment that didn’t have any parking spaces, so that parking costs wouldn’t be embedded in his rent. “I lead an easy life,” he said. “All the things I need are at my fingertips, and I never have to wait in traffic to get where I am going.”

Ciarra Trujillo, 24, walks two blocks to work at her job with SkySlope, a downtown tech company. She owns a car but rarely uses it, except for grocery runs because downtown lacks a supermarket. “Downtown parking already is kind of a hassle,” she said. “Most of it is meters. Why would I drive and pay for parking when I’m going a mile away?”

Bay Miry of D&S Development, another cutting-edge downtown developer, said he agrees that fewer grid residents will own cars, but he sees it as evolution, not revolution.

His company opened the upscale 16 Powerhouse apartments at 16th and P streets two years ago for professionals with healthy enough incomes to own nice cars. The project includes what may be Sacramento’s first “stack parking” system, a mechanical two-level lift that doubles parking spaces by putting some cars on elevated platforms.

Miry hopes to begin construction sometime this year at 15th and Q streets on upscale condominiums that will have 98 parking spots for just 75 units, which is considerably more parking than the city’s minimum requirements.

Some city planning commissioners questioned his decision to have that much parking. But Miry pointed out he is marketing to empty-nester suburban dwellers, essentially the parents of the generation Mohanna is targeting, who want to downsize but aren’t quite ready to give up their second car, much less go carless.

“It’ll make it a little more comfortable for them to come live in an urban setting,” Miry said. But that will change, he said. “Once they get here, they are going to start using their car less. It is kind of a transition process.”

Miry said that means he may convert some parking spots in the future into other amenities for residents, as fewer of them own cars. City planners and urban consultants have begun advising developers to consider designing garages and parking areas that can be reconfigured in the future for other uses in case the demand for parking drops.

City planning commissioner Todd Kaufman suggests the city look into allowing parking garage owners to convert the structures into affordable housing or a mix of affordable housing and other uses, if the time comes when those structures aren’t needed for parking.

Meanwhile, Mohanna, who hopes to have her 19J project open in fall 2018, said she believes her project will succeed in part because the location in midtown allows her to build at a feasible cost, and is close to jobs, transit and amenities.

Residents will have smaller living spaces, but they will treat neighborhood restaurants, cafes, clubs and parks as their living rooms, she said. “This project is at the forefront of what we need in the city.”

Bee Reporter Phillip Reese contributed to this report.

Tony Bizjak: 916-321-1059, @TonyBizjak