Converting Garages in San Francisco

In a city where housing is increasingly scarce and expensive, and where commercial rents are skyrocketing, converting garage spaces to new housing and storefronts can help make space for residents and neighborhood-serving small businesses.

Réveille Coffee, at 4076 18th Street in the Castro, opened in a former garage space. Livable City helped author the ordinance that allowed this garage conversion.

Réveille Coffee, at 4076 18th Street in the Castro, opened in a former garage space. Livable City helped author the ordinance that allowed this garage conversion.

Converting garages can also improve neighborhood livability by restoring features like front gardens, green backyards, front porches, storefronts, building lobbies, street trees, and even on-street parking spaces.

Off-street parking requirements used to be nearly universal in San Francisco, but over the last decade, minimum parking requirements have been removed altogether in about a quarter of the City, including many of the City’s most transit-rich and walkable neighborhoods. In most other zoning districts parking exceptions are allowed under certain conditions. These changes mean that converting garages to other uses is increasingly an option.

Parking requirements were enacted in 1955 for dwellings, and in 1960 for non-residential uses. These requirements were part of the Eisenhower-era project of adapting San Francisco to mass automobility, which also included widening roads, narrowing sidewalks, and slicing freeways through the city. Garages make housing more expensive to build and limit housing supply. Since nearly a third of San Francisco households don’t have a car, one-size-fits-all parking prescription doesn’t address the mobility needs of many San Franciscans. Required garages displace storefronts and front gardens, deaden neighborhood streets and replace active and pedestrian-oriented building fronts with garage doors and blank walls, eliminate on-street parking and loading spaces, and generate conflicts with pedestrians, cyclists, transit, and traffic. Mandatory parking requirements in cities are no longer considered good planning, and San Francisco is one of an increasing number of cities that are reducing or eliminating them.

Will conversion of garages mean more competition for street parking? Recent studies suggest it may not. An exhaustive UCLA study found that only 25% of American garages were used to store a car. Three-quarters of garages were used for storage. A 2007 survey of the Mission District found that adding garages to houses had removed 41% of on-street car parking spaces, but that only half of garages were used to store cars. If curb parking spaces are restored when garages are removed, loss of off-street parking can be offset by new on-street spaces. In commercial districts, driveway cuts will be replaced by the high-turnover metered parking spaces helpful to shoppers and neighborhood businesses.

Some bigger societal shifts are also reducing the need for garages. Americans, in particular younger Americans, are driving less. In recent years, the number and percentage of San Franciscans walking, cycling, using transit or employer shuttles, car-sharing, and ride-sharing has increased. New households in San Francisco are overwhelmingly car-free.

What follows is a simplified guide to the new rules. Most of these rules vary by zoning district. To find the zoning district for your property, consult San Francisco’s online Property Information Map. In addition to the Planning Code requirements outlined here, Building Code requirements also apply, and construction permits may be required.

Converting Garages to Bicycle Parking

Section 150(e) of the Planning Code allows required off-street parking spaces in any zoning district of the City to be reduced and replaced by bicycle parking spaces. Replacing car parking with bike parking can be approved by Planning Department staff over-the-counter (provided that any other elements of the project are can be approved over-the-counter).

Converting Garages to Housing

Recent Planning Code changes have expanded opportunities to convert off-street parking to housing. Accessory Dwelling Units (ADUs) are now permitted in all zoning districts that permit housing. ADUs can be built without parking spaces, and may convert a parking space to a new dwelling unit. Detached garages and carriage houses may also be converted into ADUs.

Garage space can be added to an existing unit. Houses and apartments can expand into ground floor spaces in keeping with the ‘rooms down’ standards. All of the city’s Commercial, Residential-Commercial, Neighborhood Commercial, Mixed Use, and Residential Transit-Oriented (RTO), and Residential-Mixed (RM) districts either don’t require parking, or permit administrative exceptions from off-street parking requirements through the Zoning Administrator-approved exception process described above. Only RH (Residential, House) districts still require off-street parking with no simple exception process. Designated historic buildings in all districts are exempt from off-street parking requirements, as are permanently affordable units and units for seniors and people with disabilities. RH districts have the strictest parking requirements, however exceptions are permitted where certain conditions apply (buildings that front onto a bike or bus lane, for example) and for historic buildings and senior housing.

Housing is permitted in most commercial and mixed-use districts, including all those without parking requirements or that permit exceptions. However, ground-level residential uses are restricted on some commercial streets, as specified in Section 145.4 of the Planning Code.

Converting Garages to Storefronts

garage on Linden Alley became Blue Bottle Coffee

This garage on Linden Alley became Blue Bottle Coffee

In most districts that permit commercial uses, reducing or removing off-street parking is also permitted.

A growing number of zoning districts have no minimum parking requirements for any use. These include the various Neighborhood Commercial Transit-Oriented (NC-T), Downtown Commercial (C-3), Residential-Commercial (RC), Downtown Residential (DTR), South of Market Mixed Use, Eastern Neighborhoods Mixed Use, Chinatown Mixed Use, and Light Manufacturing (M-1) districts, and the Broadway, Excelsior-Outer Mission, and North Beach Neighborhood Commercial districts. In these districts, reducing parking doesn’t require exceptions or special permission, but some replacement uses may; see the Planning Code’s zoning table for the specific zoning district to find out.

In all other Neighborhood Commercial (NC) and Community Business (C-2) districts, the Planning Department’s Zoning Administrator may grant administrative exceptions from parking requirements. An application is available online [PDF version].  This application should be submitted at the counter with the building permit application for the work. The permit and reduction application will need to be routed upstairs for staff review and preparation of a Zoning Administrator Action Memo. As in other districts, the replacement use may require additional review and approval, depending on the specific use proposed and the rules for the zoning district.

Historic buildings in all districts are exempt from minimum parking requirements.

Commercial uses are limited in Residential districts. However, existing commercial uses in Residential districts are grandfathered in, and require no off-street parking. Former storefronts in Residential districts may now be reactivated (Sec. 186), with no required parking. New corner commercial uses are permitted in RTO, RTO-M, RM-3, and RM-4 districts (Sec. 231), and Commercial uses may be conditionally permitted in historic buildings in Residential districts (Sec. 209.9(e)), with no required parking.

All storefronts, existing and new, are subject to the Planning Code’s transparency requirements.

Converting Garages to Community Uses

Community clubhouses, neighborhood centers, and community cultural centers are permitted in most zoning districts, including Residential districts, as are religious institutions, childcare, and other institutional uses. These uses don’t require parking if less than 5000 square feet, and can replace parking in any zoning districts but RH districts.

Reconfiguring Parking

If your zoning district doesn’t permit reducing the number of parking spaces, you may be able to rearrange the existing parking to free up space for other uses. Several years ago Livable City helped relax the Planning Code’s restrictions on space-efficient parking, and tandem parking is now permitted in all districts, as are lifts and stackers.