Sunday, February 5, 2012

Mini-dorms, Group Living Accomodations, and Parking

Co-ops and other shared houses tend to have higher population densities than their neighbors, and this can sometimes cause conflict, especially over parking.  At the last City Council meeting, the City of Berkeley heard legislation to add regulations to rooming houses.  The action was prompted by 2133 Parker Street, a 19-bedroom rooming house six blocks south of UC Berkeley.  The building was once a 3 story duplex with a garage on the first floor and two apartments with a total of six bedrooms on the upper floors.  Two years ago, the building was sold and the new owner expanded and renovated the building with the following notable additions:
- Garage converted into a 3rd unit.
- Attic space expanded into a 4th floor with more bedrooms.

2133 Parker is located in a R2-A low/mid density residential area consisting of houses, duplexes, and small apartment buildings.  See map below. 

Not surprisingly, neighbors were unhappy about the expansion - which violated some zoning regulations - and took their case to the City.  A detailed description of some neighbors' reaction to the project, as well as before and after photos of the building, can be found at the 2133 Parker blog

The neighbors' main land use related complaints were:
- Building has too many bedrooms
- Building has insufficient parking, leading to shortage of streetside spaces
- Building is too tall

Once residents moved in, a couple more complaints surfaced:
- Noisy parties
- Recycling and garbage out of control.

 The outcome of the meeting was the following:
  1. The property owner had to make 2133 Parker comply with the zoning code by reducing the number of bedrooms from 19 to the code compliant 7.   The zoning code limits the number of bedrooms a building can have based on the size of the piece of land, in this zone, one per 800 square feet.  
  2. In R-2 multiple family residential zones, buildings adding bedrooms beyond the 5th to a house or apartment would no longer be eligible for residential parking permit (RPPs).  RPPs are permits sold to residents at a nominal $35 a year to park for unlimited amounts of time in 2-hour zones in their neighborhood.
  3. Mini dorms would require an onsite manager to handle noise complaints and deal with recycling.  The city define mini-dorms as follows:
    Section 13.42.020.A. is amended to read:
    “A. “Mini-dorm” means any building in a R-2 or R-2A Zoning District in which any Dwelling Unit in the building contains more than five Bedrooms and the Gross Floor Area of that Dwelling Unit devoted to Bedrooms is more than 60% of the total Gross Floor Area. For purposes of this subdivision, the Gross Floor Area of any room, closet or other ancillary space that can be entered only through a Bedroom shall be considered part of the Gross Floor Area of that Bedroom. Permitted and Legal non-conforming Sororities, Fraternities, and Student Co-ops shall not be considered Mini-Dorms, as long as they have a resident manager.”
Let's take a co-op look at all of this...

 The Parking Issue:
The city's zoning code requires 1 space per 5 residents in R-2 zones.  Experience in the student co-op (which are located mostly in R-3 and R-4 zones closer to campus) has been that about 1 in 10 to 1 in 8 residents will keep a car in Berkeley.  (See the article on Lothlorien)  So 1 in 5 is reasonable.  In fact, at non-student co-ops, which are more likely to be in R-2 zones, car ownership is often 1 in 3 or 1 in 4. 

However, requiring more onsite parking might not be the most effective way of making sure there are enough street spaces to go around.  At $35 a year, the permits are underpriced.  Often in the student co-ops, onsite spaces sit empty because residents would rather pay $35 a year to park on the street instead of $500-700 to park in a lot or garage.  Many of these vehicles are used only a few times a month, and raising the parking cost would probably convince a number of their owners to switch to carshare or other transportation.

It remains to be seen what residents in buildings ineligible for parking permits will do.  My guess is they will register their car at a friend's house - something people already do now to park in an area closer to where they want to be.  

The bedroom density issue:
Closely tied to the parking issue.  However, loopholes abound: this could encourage fewer, larger double bedrooms instead of smaller singles.

The Recycling and Garbage and Resident Manager Issue:
Here the problem was more of a management one: building owners not providing enough trash cans, probably since the city charges for garbage pickup by the number of bins.  In a rooming house, where garbage pickup is included in rent, residents may lack incentive to reduce waste. In any case it is unlikely this part of the ordinance will ever take effect, since for a building to have bedrooms account for 60% of floor area would require some very impressive architectural gymnastics.  Apartment buildings average 10-15%.  The typical large student co-op in Berkeley such as Lothlorien is about 20% bedroom.  Even Pacifico, with its ultra-efficient floor plan, is only around 30-40%.  Stairs, bathrooms, kitchens, hallways - these all take up lots of space.  A building that is 60% bedroom would require nested bedrooms that have to be entered via other bedrooms, have insufficient bathrooms, and have almost no common space. 

The noise issue:
 It's true, the more people live in one place, the more likely it's someone's birthday or some other occasion to party.  However, this is more of a management issue as opposed to an architectural one. 

So at the end of the day, it's about parking, as usual
Competition for street parking is the biggest impact a high-density residence tends to have on its neighborhood.  The city could charge more for this scarce resource, but this tends to anger residents who suddenly have to pay more for the same service.  Then there is the privatization approach, where the street parking spaces in front of a house belong to the owner to do whatever they want with it - keep it for themselves, rent it out, or charge the public to park in.  The city could also encourage more cycling and public transit use, but when self-proclaimed environmentalist communities can only get down to 1 car per 4 residents after they are no longer students, some parking will be required in the near future. 

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