The city is considering doing away with rules that sometimes block new businesses from opening in vacant storefronts until they can find more parking spaces.

In Long Beach, when a commercial property owner wants to fill a vacancy with a new tenant that’s a different type of business than the previous occupant, additional parking spaces are sometimes required before getting a business license.

That’s because the city’s municipal code lists 48 different specific potential uses in commercially zoned areas, and each use has a unique parking requirement.

Shopping centers, malls, banks, medical offices, restaurants, bars, car washes, and even flea markets or swap meets are required to provide a certain number of parking spaces relative to their operating space, but each one is slightly different. Even arcades, bowling alleys, basketball courts and parks are required by law to have a certain number of parking spaces down to the number of courts, alleys and tees.

A restaurant serving dinner, for example, must allocate 10 parking spaces for every 1,000 square feet of floor area; bars (“taverns” in the zoning code), however, are required to provide 20 parking spaces for every thousand square feet.

This means when a new business wants to move into an old storefront, it could be required to find additional parking spaces to meet the code. That’s what the city’s proposal aims to change—at least for older buildings.

“There is an effort currently underway to change the change-of-use parking requirements so that when a new business wants to locate in an existing building that is more than 10 years old, additional on-site parking will not have to be created in order for a new business to receive a business license to operate in an existing storefront,” Rick de la Torre, a spokesperson for Long Beach’s Development Services Department, said in an email.

The Development Services Department will be asking for feedback on the plan during a virtual meeting scheduled for Wednesday night.

Momentum started building for this proposal in 2019 when the City Council had asked staff for ways to cut down on the number of vacant storefronts across the city, saying in a memo that “ … there are some commercial corridors where certain retail properties have remained vacant for years, resulting in blighted conditions and depressed neighborhood activity.”

After studying the problem, city staff said they found four common reasons buildings were staying vacant for long stretches:

  • Some owners were unaware of the vacancy, with properties often managed by third-party landlords or part of a larger portfolio or trust;
  • Others were unable to fill a vacancy due to financial hardship or other constraints;
  • Some owners wanted to rent out their properties but couldn’t because of requirements such as zoning or environmental restrictions;
  • Others were simply waiting for something, like a zoning change or better market conditions, to fill their vacancies.

Zoning came up again when the Downtown Long Beach Alliance surveyed Downtown businesses and merchants about barriers they faced filling long-term vacancies: 14% of respondents mentioned parking, and another 12% said a potential tenant’s use wasn’t allowed under the current zoning.

Before the pandemic hit and stalled the process, city staff recommended easing some zoning requirements as part of a package of ideas that would incentivize filling storefronts and could penalize owners for vacant ones.

With those changes on hold, though, vacancy rates have remained high.

The city could not provide exact numbers, but third-party data showed the problem was especially acute outside the Downtown area, with the suburban mall vacancy rate in the city hitting “more than 50%” compared to just 8% in Los Angeles, according to de la Torre, the  Development Services spokesperson.

The virtual meeting where you can provide feedback on the proposed changes will be held on Wednesday, May 24 from 6 to 7:30 p.m. Attendees are encouraged to RSVP online here.