Will Oakland Embrace Car-Free Living?

Patrick Kennedy says he can create lots of middle-class housing next to West Oakland BART — but only if he doesn’t have to build parking.


Photo by Lance Yamamoto

Patrick Kennedy wants to build housing for the middle-class — for teachers and firefighters and for others whose income is too high to qualify for publicly subsidized housing and not high enough to afford market rate. During the past several years, middle-income workers have increasingly been priced out of the region. They’ve been forced to leave the Bay Area all together or navigate mind-numbing commutes from the outer suburbs.

A main driver of the problem is the rising costs of construction. Developers now estimate that it costs up to $700,000 to build a single, 1,000-square-foot unit of housing in the Bay Area. Such high costs translate to high rents for apartments and high sales prices for condos. Opponents of market-rate housing now often derisively refer to it as “luxury,” when there’s often nothing luxurious about it other than the price.

Some builders have attempted to cut costs by turning to modular construction, which is cheaper because it allows for assembly-line construction (see “Housing Goes Modular,” February). But that requires establishing a modular plant somewhere — and securing enough business to sustain it.

Kennedy’s alternative solution is two-fold: He saves on costs by building identical units with smaller footprints, and he constructs housing next to mass transit so he doesn’t have to build parking.

Urban planners and developers have long known that parking is one of the biggest costs in new housing construction. A single parking space can increase the price of a unit by 10 to 15 percent. And Kennedy estimates that building smaller units with no parking can reduce costs by nearly one-third. That means a $4,000-a-month two-bedroom can suddenly rent for less than $3,000.

“We’re trying to build middle-class housing without a public subsidy,” Kennedy said during a recent interview at his downtown San Francisco office, which is on the ground floor of an apartment building he built with no parking. “We’re trying to build for people who don’t want or need cars. And we can do it for about 30 percent less than the market-rate price.”

Kennedy, who began his career building housing in downtown Berkeley, wants to bring his middle-class housing concept to Oakland — to a vacant lot he owns next to the West Oakland BART station. And he wants to go big: 1,032 units in three towers, including one that would be 23 stories tall. It would be the first high-rise in West Oakland, and a two-bedroom would rent for about $2,950 a month. His company, Panoramic Interests, also plans to build 85 units for very low-income residents. All of the units, which will be two- and four-bedrooms, will be small to save on costs, ranging in size from about 400 to 900 square feet. The units feel bigger, however, because they include high ceilings and floor-to-ceiling windows.

But Kennedy is already running into opposition — not because of the high-rise, but because it would include no parking.

Oakland’s planning staff, in fact, has raised serious concerns about Kennedy’s proposal, saying he needs to add about 360 parking spaces to conform to city law. Kennedy said that would add $40 million to $50 million to the cost of the project at 500 Kirkham St.

Kennedy said he’s surprised by the city’s response, given that millennials have increasingly gravitated in recent years toward car-free living. In addition, Oakland has recently recognized the barriers that parking puts on new housing construction — and the environmental benefits of encouraging car-free lifestyles. In 2016, the city adopted new regulations that eliminate parking requirements for new housing in downtown.

But not in other parts of the city. Next to West Oakland BART, housing developers have to build 0.35 parking spaces per unit. “Downtown is denser,” explained Oakland city planner Mike Rivera, in an interview. Rivera is the lead planner on Kennedy’s project, which is a about a three-minute BART ride from downtown Oakland. “The city may change in the future, but it hasn’t yet eliminated parking requirements next to BART stations.”

Some West Oakland residents and activists are also worried about building that much housing with no parking, because the area around the BART station is already inundated each morning by BART riders who park on surrounding streets, leaving no room for people who live there to park. “People drive to the West Oakland station, park, and then go to San Francisco,” said Brian Beveridge of the nonprofit West Oakland Environmental Indicators Project. “It’s a significant issue.”

As a mitigation measure, Kennedy has proposed including in all of the lease agreements of his housing development a provision that bars tenants from obtaining street-parking permits from the city.

Beveridge responded that this proposal will only be effective if city parking enforcement tickets cars with no parking permit stickers. “They’re not enforced at night, and they’re not enforced on weekends,” he said of local parking rules.

But Kennedy says if he has to spend $50 million on a big parking garage, the housing will no longer pencil out for middle-class people. “There is a lot of pent up demand for housing. And there is no justification for adding $50 million to the cost of this project in a transit-rich area.

“This would be the fourth project we’ve done without parking,” he continued. “If it can work in San Francisco, it can work in this location.”

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