Public Comment

Commentary: Mayor May Be Swing Vote on Right to Pave

By Robert Lauriston
Tuesday May 09, 2006

How un-Berkeley can you be? Mayor Tom Bates and City Councilmembers Darryl Moore, Laurie Capitelli and Gordon Wozniak offered one possible answer to that question last Tuesday when they indicated support for a proposal to allow developers to convert landscaped rear yards into parking lots with no public notice, no public hearing, and no possibility of appeal by neighbors. 

Up for a vote were two contending proposals, a bad one from the Planning Commission and an even worse one from Planning Department staff, to amend the Zoning Ordinance to relax or eliminate the current general prohibition (to which there are numerous exceptions) on locating parking spaces in required rear and side yards. On most lots, that’s 15 feet across the back and four feet along each side. (You can park anywhere you like in the non-required portion of a yard.) 

The Zoning Ordinance currently defines a yard as being “unoccupied and unobstructed from the ground upward by any portion of a building or structure, or by the presence of a parking space. . . .” Both proposals would strike the phrase “or by the presence of a parking space,” thereby eliminating the prohibition on parking in required yards which has been in effect for decades. 

The Planning Commission’s proposal would add language requiring an administrative use permit (AUP) to locate any required parking space in a required yard in a residential district. An AUP can be approved by planning staff, but public notice is required and unhappy neighbors can appeal it to the Zoning Adjustments Board. 

Planning staff’s alternative proposal would require an AUP only for front-yard parking, allowing parking in rear and side yards “by right,” that is, with no public notice, as if a developer converting a yard into a parking lot were as innocuous and private a matter as a homeowner converting a closet into a bathroom. 

Enacting either proposal would effectively eliminate the 15-foot rear-yard requirement in the South Area Commercial district (Shattuck Avenue south of Durant, MLK from Ashby south, Sacramento from Oregon south, and all of Adeline Street), and the 10-foot rear-yard requirement for commercial lots adjacent to residential lots. 

We don’t have to guess what effects those changes would have. In 2002, planning staff mistakenly approved a by-right conversion of 3045 Shattuck (aka the “flying bungalow”) from a 1,250-square-foot single-family home into a 4,999-square-foot, three-unit building, and conversion of its rear yard into a three-space parking lot (see Figure 1). If the council passes either proposal, we’ll see similar projects on corner lots all over south and west Berkeley. 

In mid-2003, while justifying the approval of the 3045 Shattuck project, planner Mark Rhoades told the City Council that it was staff’s practice to allow parking in required rear yards, and that off the top of his head he could name 20 examples of similar projects. (Contrary to that claim, staff has yet to come up with an example of a project prior to 3045 Shattuck that located new parking spaces in a required yard, except after a public hearing by the ZAB and as allowed by one of the aforementioned exceptions.) For the next two years, staff ignored the law and allowed parking in required yards; in May 2005, staff returned to enforcing the law. 

Figure 2 shows plans my next-door neighbor had drawn up during that period. His goal was to bring the uninhabited ground-floor second unit flat up to code. Planning staff told him that to get a permit he would have to add a second off-street parking space, and that the only place he could put it was in the rear yard. Note carefully: this was staff's recommendation; my neighbor thought turning the rear yard into a parking lot was a horrible idea. (Staff eventually tracked down some old documents showing that the building was legally two units, so the parking situation was grandfathered in, and he was able to keep his yard.) 

If the City Council approves staff’s proposal, we’ll see projects like that “by right” all over Berkeley. The Planning Commission’s version would allow them by right for residences in commercial districts; in residential districts an AUP would be required. No sound policy argument is offered for eliminating the current prohibition; staff dismisses concerns with the fiction that such parking was always allowed by right. 

The council deadlocked 4-4 (Max Anderson was absent) on Moore’s motion to approve staff’s proposal, so the matter will be back on the May 16 agenda. Spring and Worthington opposed both proposals, Olds seemed to be leaning that way, Maio favored the Planning Commission’s version, and Bates, Capitelli, and Wozniak sided with Moore, though toward the end of the discussion the mayor seemed to be leaning toward changing his mind. If you’d like to see the yard-parking prohibition maintained, please let Bates, Maio, and your district’s City Council representative know right away. For their phone numbers and e-mail addresses, visit or call 981-CITY. 


Robert Lauriston is a South Berkeley  

pro-democracy activist.?