Urban planning

L.A. Finally Lets People Eat In Parking Lots

Los Angeles temporarily eased parking requirements during the pandemic, offering a glimpse of how much a less restrictive zoning code improves urban life.


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Before Los Angeles temporarily eased its zoning requirements and allowed restaurants to expand outdoor seating during the COVID-19 pandemic, the parking lot of The Golden Bull wasn't very "appealing," recalls hospitality consultant Marvin Wells.

Today, it has artificial grass, tiered levels, heat lamps, and a gardener to take care of the landscaping. "It is actually the biggest part of the restaurant that we've had," says Wells. "We're busier than we've ever been."

This change not only unlocked a new world of possibilities for restaurants—entire parts of the city were remade as more pedestrian-friendly.

Will this lead to a permanent loosening of zoning requirements that for decades have constrained the choices that L.A. residents and business owners have been able to make about how they work and live?

"I think the government can comfortably step back from trying to dictate how much parking every single property owner provides on their property," says Michael Manville, an urban planning professor at UCLA. "In stepping back, they will make cities more efficient, more equitable, and more environmentally sustainable."

Produced, shot, and edited by Paul Detrick; graphics by Detrick

Photos: Underwood Archives/UIG Universal Images Group/Newscom; Frank Worth/ZUMA Press/Newscom; JIM RUYMEN/UPI/Newscom; Image of Sport/Newscom; Álex Segura/EFE/Newscom

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  1. I once served on the township’s Planning Commission and can attest to the absurdities of this. The ordinances specified the amount of impermiable surfaces required and the number of parking spaces and width of each required for the square footage of the contemplated structures. So the developer ended up with a smaller apartment complex or office or retail plaza than she originally contemplated. Obviously the rents had to be higher than they normally would be in order to recoup the investment cost of the acreage. And, you’d drive by the place years later and the
    parking lots would be half empty. One bank that got approved had to have 25 parking spaces. I’ve never seen more than 10 cars in the lot, which included the staff’s cars.

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  2. Outdoor dining is especially awesome when homeless people harass you on the sidewalk as they amble by.

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  3. “Los Angeles temporarily eased parking requirements during the pandemic . . .

    As a commercial real estate development guy, I’m here to tell you that this only works during the pandemic. By changing the parking requirements, you are altering the value of people’s property–for the worse. And you’re advocating the government imposing this on people?!

    Generally speaking, industrial warehouse projects require 2 parking spaces for every 1,000 sf of space–because most of the space is used for warehousing something that doesn’t commute and isn’t taking up a parking space. Office space, on the other hand, generally requires 4 parking spaces per 1,000 sf. Retail, because it brings in customers as well as employees, typically requires 8 parking spaces per 1,000 sf of building. Have a use without sufficient parking, and you’re infringing on the property rights of your neighbors, just as sure as if you were dumping garbage on their property. (P.S. There’s a reason a business that sells pitchers of beer during football games need to have a place for their customers to take a piss, too.)

    Let me tell you what happens when the government fails to protect the property rights of property owners by letting someone get away with not providing enough parking to accommodate their use: Their neighbors can’t park anywhere near their own building anymore.

    I once saw a school district, in southern California, set their office buildings up this way in an industrial park. They bought a bunch of warehouses in an industrial park and converted them into office space–because warehouse sells for less (Because office space requires more parking per square foot of building, it requires more land per square foot of building–and that’s expensive).

    Normally, you couldn’t get away with doing what the school district did, but the school district didn’t need to ask the city for an operating permit or anything, so they could just do whatever they wanted. Because it was an industrial park, the buildings were parked at 2 per thousand square feet. When they filled those warehouses with office space, they didn’t have the parking to handle it. So what did they do for parking? They just used all their neighbors’ parking

    When the neighboring businesses complained that they didn’t have anywhere for their workers or customers to park, the district hit ’em with the threat of eminent domain to take their properties away. Most of those businesses were owned by the business owners. They hoped to lease them out one day for retirement income. How do you rent out or sell a building that has no parking and is under constant threat of eminent domain? How do you keep operating your business without parking?

    Not every commercial property owner is the government, but the effects on surrounding businesses are the same. The people who bought or rented the surrounding properties paid good money to make sure they’d be in a location with adequate parking, and you are destroying the value of their property and their business by taking those requirements away. You think you’re protecting the right of businesses to make choices about their own property, but you’re actually doing the opposite.

    The legitimate purpose of government is to protect our rights, not to strip the covenants and requirements attached to a property title–that businesses pay a premium for because they’re there to protect their own property rights.

    Maybe think of it this way. By what constitutional authority do you claim the government has the ability to unilaterally strip the conditions off of a business owner’s property title against their will? Do you plan to do this by eminent domain? Or are you completely unaware that plenty of business owners will sue you for stripping conditions off their titles against their will? You seem to be unaware that parking is a serious problem in southern California, that the solution had to do with property rights and conditions being added to titles over the course of decades, or that you’re actually advocating central planning against the private property market solution.

    If this restaurant draws more customers than they can park, after the pandemic, and they end up infringing on the property rights of their neighbors because of it, I hope their neighbors get together and sue the fuck out of them for it. And if the government refuses to protect the property rights of those business owners, who paid a market premium for a property title that protected their right to parking for their own use, it’ll be a huge loss for property rights and a tragedy for libertarian capitalism.

    1. Why couldn’t they put up some signs “Employee and customer parking only, violators will be towed” and then tow the fuckers?

    2. First, let’s correct the record here. Eating outside a restaurant is not the fantastic experience some make it. It is noisy as hell. Your table is rickety because the parking lot is not smooth. That parking lot is also sloped for drainage purposes which transfers to the table. And since you are sitting outside in the muggy LA weather, your condensation-covered water glass is perpetually sliding towards the edge of the table to crash to the ground. The last place I was at, I couldn’t tell if everyone was sweating from the heat, or the concern that the tilting, unstable table would dump a boiling shabu-shabu pot in their laps.

      The only reason these are “success stories” is that some asshole in government told these restaurants that they couldn’t use the perfectly fine, level, sanitary, climate controlled building to serve food.

      All that said, Ken, your analysis doesn’t seem terribly different from the OP’s. We are talking about a bunch of problems caused by the government, where we are trying to fix them with the government.

      The problems with parking being shifted on neighbors can only happen because of the government. Ken’s school example wasn’t caused by the government’s poor parking planning. That problem could have been fixed in numerous ways (carpools, shuttles, renovations, etc). The problem was that the government forced private properties to support their parking overflow.

      I’ve lived in places with poor parking zoning, and as long as private property rights are respected, the neighbors are fine. A laundromat that was near my apartment made great money getting kickbacks from the towing company that sat outside towing idiots that parked there.

      Show me a private actor who is subsidizing the cost of someone else’s parking problems, and I will show you a government regulation that is denying that private actor their rights to control who can go on or off their property. Show me an area where parking is perpetually scarce, and you will likely find that place filled with “Free Public Parking” that encourages far too many to drive into the area without considering alternatives.

      1. “The problems with parking being shifted on neighbors can only happen because of the government”

        This is not so.

        Most of these stipulations are not forced on anyone but the original developer–and even in that case, we may be asking the city for more restrictions rather than less. There may be cases where a city is pushing for more parking than necessary, but developers fighting the city because the developer doesn’t want enough parking for the use he’s developing is a non-problem.

        If you want a restaurant that serves more people but you don’t have enough parking, the solution is to find another location or lease out or buy your neighbor’s location. It’s the market solution that doesn’t require the government to do anything but protect our property rights. The government protecting our titles from abuse is certainly not an example of the government causing a problem.

        Nobody wants to buy a property if they don’t know whether they’re getting the parking with it. So, the developer gets those stipulations attached to the title, covenants and conditions, etc.–because it makes the property valuable. The government enforcing people’s property rights–attached to their title–isn’t a problem caused by government. The government unilaterally altering what people own, to erase what they paid a premium to own after they bought it, would be a problem caused by government.

        1. “This is not so.”

          It is so. That case with the schools only happened because the government denied people their property rights. They forced private owners to allow parking on their sites.

          I do not deny that businesses have an interest in providing adequate parking. But when parking is a problem, it is generally because the government has over crowded an area (such as making street parking free, encouraging residents/businesses to have more cars than they can park (or in california, filling their garage with shit)).

          1. “I do not deny that businesses have an interest in providing adequate parking. But when parking is a problem, it is generally because the government has over crowded an area”

            We’re talking about a commercial real estate developer submitting conditions and attaching them to title–so that the people who buy that property will have those rights protected by the government. And we’re talking about the government unilaterally negating those conditions by fiat. These are like contractual obligations attached to the title–like easements. What you’re imagining is not happening.

    3. Hey, Reason, instead of championing the government destroying businesses by taking their parking away, why not focus on something a little less destructive first?

      Did you know that graffiti artists and taggers are harassed and prosecuted every years–simply for exercising their First Amendment rights on other people’s property? It’s true!

      Someday, if we all try hard enough, maybe we can all live in a free society, where any tagger or graffiti artist can paint whatever they want on anybody’s wall–regardless of who owns the title!

      1. Ron would write an article about how environmentally friendly the new spray can propellants are compared with those from years gone by. And make some statement as you suggest that it good taggers can exercise their 1A rights without destroying the planet (and ignoring the property rights).
        We of course would ask Ron if he would be ok if someone tagged his house. Tony would mention that he has seen graffiti that he likes. And White Mike would do a “both sides” where he saw a Trump campaign poster at a bus stop.

      2. “Taking their parking away.”

        Lol, so them being free to use their parking for what they want is apparently force. Freedom=slavery or what?

        1. In reply to your first sentence, essentially yes. Considering the only reason most businesses want to use parking for seated dining is due to the government imposing inside dining restrictions.

    4. You seem to be pretending that the ‘parking’ issue has nothing at all to do with ‘everyone drives cars everywhere’ issue. The latter is massively subsidized in urban areas and in turn then distorts every related issue .

      I live right next to a small mixed zoning street surrounded by residential. The sort of street that predated cars and where the commercial used to draw customers mainly from the surrounding residential. Markets, gyms, pharmacies, school, churches, doctors. Turn a couple of the residential streets a few blocks into rat runs for thru traffic – and the residential area is cut up and can no longer support those businesses (and begins to lose ability to walk/bike as well). So the street turns into boutiques, restaurants, galleries, etc. Pulling in customers from around the city – and the neighborhood now has traffic and parking problems. Compounded by the fact that the markets, gyms, etc are now only really driving distance – and the increased traffic means kids are being driven to school.

      The changes made in the early part of the pandemic were freaking great. Less traffic and some streets that completely closed to thru traffic. People were biking everywhere. Kids were playing in the streets. But yeah – once the restaurants moved back into their street, they just forced traffic onto neighboring streets and instead of rethinking all this, the city just stuck 2 hr parking signs on residential streets forcing us now to get ticketed or get residential parking permits (free for now but you know not for long). The people who work at those jobs for the city all work in the suburbs – so the last thing they want is to reduce the car subsidy and rethink the grid system.

      What it made me realize is how many basic things are path-dependent. And how little libertarians understand that precisely because they have avoided the dirty work of being involved in government decisions.

      1. We’re talking about business accommodating cars for themselves and their customers on private property.

        The idea that private parties shouldn’t be free to do that because the government builds roads is almost as dumb as you are.

      2. “…You seem to be pretending that the ‘parking’ issue has nothing at all to do with ‘everyone drives cars everywhere’ issue…”

        Fuck off, slaver; I’ll drive where I please regardless of your assholishness.

      3. A solution would be no street parking. And your property accommodates your parking.
        Pruit Igoe was a government decision.

        1. That is certainly a major part of a rethink. 20%+ of public urban land is set aside for streets. If the use is intended to be mobility/access, then there’s many ways of figuring out what works. The second some of it starts to be used for storage, that particular type will take over everything.

          1. Older urban areas and some suburban were not conceived for 2 car households much less those with even more and/or much longer vehicles. And a few with trailers. You then end up with as you mentioned, parking permits. And nobody is happy.

          2. “That is certainly a major part of a rethink. 20%+ of public urban land is set aside for streets. If the use is intended to be mobility/access, then there’s many ways of figuring out what works. The second some of it starts to be used for storage, that particular type will take over everything.”

            Which is, of course, none of your business, cowardly piece of lefty shit.

  4. Get carry out from someplace decent and take your food to a more aesthetically pleasing place to eat your meal.

    1. THIS.

      I don’t eat in parking lots for the same reason I don’t patronize food trucks or eat in a bug-infested park (aka a “picnic”). I want to eat in climate-controlled sound-moderated comfort. If I wanted to eat in a parking lot I’d just quit my job and become homeless.

    2. Or just sit down on the curb with your sonic burger and fries.

      Actually we just do door dash or grub hub. Lots of great choices around here and good delivery service.

  5. So some entrepreneurs in LA take parking lots and put up a paradise, and a big yellow Uber comes and takes away potential victims of OUI police extortion and asset forfeiture. Does selfish greed know any bounds?

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