Hoping to chip away at its reputation for being a tough place to start a business, Sacramento has embraced a plan that business owners will cheer, but some drivers may jeer.
In December, the city will cut the number of parking spaces new businesses, such as restaurants and stores, are required to build.
The same goes for new urban housing projects.
The idea is to lure businesses that will create jobs downtown and in the city's commercial areas. Another target: developers of urban housing whose residents may not even own cars at all.
"This is a monumental shift in how we approach parking requirements on development projects," said Sacramento City Manager John Shirey. "We need to eliminate the unnecessary roadblocks that sometimes stifle projects."
City planners say existing parking rules cause some would-be business owners to back away. For some apartment complexes and condominiums, parking requirements make up 20 percent of a project's cost. Parking spaces also steal space that could be used for living units.
The City Council this month approved a sweeping set of new business-parking rules, including allowing some higher-density urban apartments to provide less than one parking place per unit.
A small L Street restaurant may be the first business to take advantage of the changes, which go into effect Dec. 31.
St. John's Shelter, which runs the Plates restaurant in south Sacramento, wants to open a small Plates 2 Go lunch outlet downtown.
Under existing city law, the owners would have to build on-site parking if they install even a single seat for customers in the restaurant. But, because there is no room on its property for parking, the business would have been required to apply for a parking waiver and pay a fee of $4,000 to $12,000. That process typically takes months. The owners said they would have trouble affording the fee.
Under the new law, Plates will be allowed to install several tables without having to provide parking or pay the waiver fee.
"We're talking two or three tables," Michele Steeb of Plates said. She figures most customers will be arriving on foot from downtown offices. "We didn't know how we were going to pull this concept off. We're excited the City Council understands how the ordinance is hard on businesses."
The new rules will affect parking spot sizes in future store and supermarket parking lots in the city.
Stores will be allowed to increase the percentage of compact-car parking spots from 40 percent to 50 percent. At the same time, though, the city is expanding the minimum widths for both compact and regular parking spots by 6 inches.
"Right now, they are some of the (skinniest) in the country," said city planner Greg Sandlund. "We want parking spaces to be more functional."
Compact spots will grow to 8 feet in width, and regular spots will be 8 1/2 feet wide.
Those rules apply to any newly constructed parking lots in the city, and older lots if they are redesigned. Some big stores, like Costco, already typically have 9- to 10-foot-wide parking spots, so shoppers can park larger vehicles and load large packages in them.
The parking changes come with a risk, especially in parts of downtown and midtown where street parking is often hard to find. It means there will be more people, but not many more parking spots.
City officials say they think they can manage that risk. The new rules allow businesses to build more parking than required, if they choose to, planners note. And in some commercial and downtown areas, parking officials say they hope to sign agreements with private parking lot owners to allow drivers to park in underused lots during both day and night.
"There are more than 17,000 vacant off-street parking spaces in the central business district alone," said Howard Chan, city parking division manager.
The city also plans to increase street parking on some blocks by restriping parallel spots to turn them into diagonal spots, fitting more per block.
City officials say they also will expand Sacramento's residential permit parking program, to protect against spill-over parkers in neighborhoods near commercial areas, such as midtown, east Sacramento and Land Park.
The idea behind the new rules is to encourage more development that is transit- and pedestrian-friendly, reducing the need for people who live and work downtown to use cars.
Sandlund, the city planner, said officials are particularly interested in seeing whether any local developer will take advantage of the eased rules to build and market an apartment complex aimed at the ultimate urban dwellers people without cars.
"That is a new thing they haven't been able to do before," Sandlund said.
The new zoning also will require all new development to provide bicycle parking.
Ron Vrilakis, an architect and developer who specializes in urban infill projects, welcomed the changes as a belated recognition by the city of what it takes to finance downtown development.
"This just brings code into alignment with reality," he said. "This is recognizing the reality of what it is to build a project in an urban setting in Sacramento."
The new policies have drawn support from builders, lower-income housing advocates, as well as pedestrian and transit advocates.
An advocacy group for disabled rights, however, Disability Rights California, warned the new rules could discriminate if they create parking that's not accessible to wheelchair users.