Garcia: Would you vote for parking? 

Anyone who has spent even a short weekend in San Francisco knows that when it comes to finding parking, drivers are often driven to distraction.

Downtown, in the Marina, in the Mission or even the Inner Sunset, parking has become as elusive as reasoned political debate. And it’s not an illusion — the California Department of Transportation estimates that San Francisco has lost 10,000 parking spaces in the last seven years.

That will explain why a measure to increase the number of parking spots, particularly in commercial residential areas, is cruising toward the ballot. A coalition of neighborhood groups and small-business organizations are pushing the parking initiative and started gathering the 10,500 signatures this week needed to get the measure qualified.

And as with anything related to cars and parking in San Francisco, the initiative is certain to be controversial — especially since supervisors last year reduced the parking ratio in the downtown area on new developments.City Hall sources said that when Board of Supervisors President Aaron Peskin got wind of the campaign, he went apoplectic, threatening several people with a promise that he would "downzone’’ Mission Bay if the parking measure went forth.

Yet the rancor that may greet the initiative in some quarters will likely be diminished by a practical reality. Residents and business owners list the lack of parking as one of their major complaints in city surveys, and backers of the initiative say early polling indicates that the plan is about as popular as the Care Not Cash welfare reform measure that passed a few years back with 60 percent of the vote.

Jordanna Thigpen, vice president of the Small Business Commission, said the lack of parking has become more like a civic mantra since she joined the panel four years ago.

"I’m a big supporter of reducing energy consumption,’’ said Thigpen, who does not own a car. "But there has to be some orderly retreat from that position and that’s what this measure does.

"The fact is, we still need practical measures to help those people who have cars. I may not own one, but if I had two kids under the age of 5, was a senior or was disabled, I know I would want a car. These are all constituents in The City and some of them need cars.’’

The parking initiative would allow property owners of buildings up to four units to add at least one parking stall and would require developers to construct a minimum of one parking space for each unit they build outside of The City’s downtown area, which is roughly defined as Van Ness Avenue to the Embarcadero. The measure would also allow developers to build a minimum of three parking space for every four housing units in the downtown area.

The measure would also make it easier for homeowners to build garages for their houses as long as their design meets city planning requirements. And it would also encourage the use of hybrid cars andcar-sharing services such as Zip Car by requiring developers to set aside spaces for alternative fuel vehicles.

"You are certainly not going to solve the parking problem with one ballot initiative,’’ said political consultant Jim Ross, who is heading the campaign. "But at least you can try to address some of the issues.

"This doesn’t give developers carte blanche to build an extreme amount of parking, it’s just a common-sense measure to create reasonable parking requirements. People like the idea that they have a place to park their cars, and for businesses, there’s a whole deeper economic goal there.’’

San Francisco’s "transit first’’ policy has been the doctrine driving parking policy in recent years, but Muni’s woes are among the reasons people won’t give up their cars. According to a recent American Community Survey, nearly 90 percent of San Francisco homeowners have cars, and 50 percent of them have two or more cars.

"The reality is that people aren’t giving up their cars despite The City’s transit-first policy,’’ said Jim Maxwell, president of the San Francisco Council of District Merchants Associations. "If we can guarantee minimum levels of parking, it will be better for all of us.’’

Backers of the measure have until mid-July to gather the signatures to qualify it for the ballot. Initial meetings with business owners and neighborhood groups seem to indicate that the proposal has enthusiastic support, but it has yet to face the anti-car groups that drive much of San Francisco’s parking and traffic policies.

In most big cities parking is a practical issue, not a political one, but practicality here is often as scarce as a coveted parking space.

Ken Garcia’s column appears Tuesdays, Thursdays and weekends in The Examiner. E-mail him at kgarcia@examiner.com or call him at (415) 359-2663.

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