But the effort to pre-empt local parking rules at the state level has suggested a much weirder explanation: Planners know parking minimums are bad, but they like that these onerous, counterproductive regulations give them leverage over developers.
That is the argument of the California chapter of the American Planning Association, which has declined to endorse the bill as is. The California APA agrees that parking requirements are bad. But their argument, which APA vice president for policy Eric Phillips explained to me, is that freedom from parking requirements is a crucial carrot that cities offer developers in exchange for building affordable housing. You would think city planners would be a natural ally of parking reform, seeking to undo policies that most of the profession now regards as a mistake. That’s not the case.
Planners know parking minimums are bad, but they like that these onerous, counterproductive regulations give them leverage over developers.
As it turns out, this is not the first time that statewide parking reform in California has foundered on this very point. In 2011, for example, California assemblymember Nancy Skinner tried to cut baseline parking rules in half near transit. The Southern California Association of Non-Profit Housing opposed the bill, which failed. “We have 30 years of history… that recognizes the value of trading a planning concession, whether it be height, density, or parking, for supplying the mix of incomes in a project,” said Lisa Payne, the organization’s policy director. “This bill would have removed that tool.”
In 2017, the planners Michael Manville and Taner Osman coined a term for this practice: “pretextual planning.” Local jurisdictions, they wrote, often “write rules primarily for the purpose of bargaining them away.”
Once you realize this is the way things work, it explains a lot. Why do people think zoning is toothless when it is, in reality, very strict? Why do people think politicians are in the pocket of real estate developers when cities hardly grow at all? Because of pretextual planning. Washington, D.C., may be a place where legislators write laws by day and break them by night, but city councils are places where legislators write the laws one day in order to break them the next. This backtracking-by-design gets a nice, quiet name: “discretion.” It has become an expectation even for suburban developers, according to a 2003 study: More than half of surveyed builders said they needed regulatory relief on at least half their projects.