The row of parking spaces in front of the Ralphs supermarket may be labeled "compact," but except for Sandra Fields' Toyota Corolla, most of the vehicles are anything but small.
There is a Chevy Suburban squeezed on her right side and a Ford Ranger jammed on her left. "It's so irritating," Fields, an Irvine medical technician, said as she squeezed by the Suburban and wiggled through her half-opened door. "Mine is the only compact car parked here. . . . This is a joke."
Local governments are beginning to agree. Faced with the growing popularity of sport-utility vehicles and pickups, and the fact that people ignore "compact" designations anyway, planners are reconsidering the need for compact spaces at shopping centers and offices.
Several Orange County cities, including Los Alamitos and Westminster, recently have banned compact spaces in new developments, joining a growing list of California communities that say the stalls are obsolete throwbacks to the 1970s energy crisis. Irvine and Brea will consider their own changes next month.
"People just don't respect compact stalls," said Jeff Sinn, city engineer for Fountain Valley, which banned the spaces several years ago. "Having a big truck and parking there is not a vehicle code violation. So they don't get ticketed. You are dealing with common courtesy--and that doesn't always work."
The changes are winning praise from motorists tired of having their doors dinged and losing out to hulking trucks that take up two spaces. But shopping center developers are wary because the larger spaces will require them to reserve more land for parking and less for buildings. The width of compact spaces ranges from 7.5 to 8 feet, compared with 8.5 to 9 feet for standard spaces. Some builders are pushing cities that eliminate compact stalls to allow "one size fits all" stalls of about 8.5 feet.
"You have a hard time fighting against [eliminating compact spaces], given the size of the cars and trucks today," said Marty Staradtman of the Orange County chapter of the National Assn. of Industrial and Office Parks. "The concern is that when you increase the size of the space, that reduces the size of the buildings and cuts the economic benefits of the project."
The move to eliminate the compact stalls is being driven not only by motorists' complaints but also by the recognition that compact cars have lost their popularity.
Small, fuel-efficient cars became top sellers during the energy crisis of the mid-1970s. But by the early 1990s, compact car sales had plummeted as buyers' tastes turned to trucks and sport-utility vehicles such as the Ford Ranger and Jeep Cherokee.
The average size of a car in 1980 was 7.8 square meters, compared with 8.4 square meters in 1992, according to Walker Parking Consultants of Costa Mesa. Trucks and sport-utility vehicles accounted for three of the five top-selling vehicles in 1997. A decade earlier, no trucks made the top-five list.
"Times have changed. You just have to go to the grocery store and see the Ford Expeditions parked in the compact stalls," said Los Alamitos City Manager Robert Dominguez, whose city eliminated the spaces last week.
Los Alamitos joins other cities, including San Juan Capistrano, Mission Viejo, San Clemente and Fountain Valley, that have banned compact spaces in new developments.
Irvine officials said they reconsidered the need for the stalls after several planning commissioners complained about the problem.
Jen Lee can relate. A few months ago, the Costa Mesa accountant parked her Honda Accord in a compact stall at South Coast Plaza with plenty of room on both sides. But when she returned, a GMC Yukon was parked less than a foot from her driver's side door.
"I had to put all my bags in on the passenger's side," Lee complained. The Yukon "totally blocked my view. I couldn't see anything as I was backing up."
Despite such complaints, many cities--including Costa Mesa, Huntington Beach and Fullerton--continue to permit 15% to 40% of the stalls in retail parking lots to be undersized. Officials in those cities say they have received little public demand for changes and believe the two-size system works.
Most Los Angeles County cities, including Los Angeles, also allow the spaces, though a few smaller communities, such as Lawndale, have enacted bans.
Some cities, such as Seal Beach, require that compact spaces be at the back of parking lots, on the assumption that fewer people will use them. Orange and Anaheim have adopted the one-size-fits-all approach: stalls about 8.5 feet wide for all cars.
About 85% of vehicles today are 8 feet wide or less when a front door is fully opened, said Rick Choate, vice president of Walker Parking Consultants.
"So you can figure that an 8-foot-6 space meets most of the needs," Choate said. "The concern, though, is that if you mandate just one size, you reduce the flexibility of the designer. It hurts our ability to be creative in designing parking lots."
The difference of 10 to 12 inches per parking space might not seem like a lot. But multiply it by 300 to 400 stalls, and the costs are significant.
While developers worry about costs, owners of sport-utility vehicles said their main concern is finding roomy spaces close to stores and businesses.
Loading his Jeep Cherokee with groceries at a Costa Mesa shopping center, resident Mike Andrews said a one-size-fits-all space makes sense.
"I honestly don't pay much attention whether it's compact or not," he said, after noticing the word "compact" was stenciled on the blacktop underneath his car.
"I look to see if I will fit into the space. I don't think there are strict rules about it. It's not like a handicapped space."
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About 85% of all vehicles are 8 feet wide or less when one of the doors is open. So some parking experts say an 8.6-by-18-foot parking stall is a reasonable standard size--a compromise between the current compact (7 by 15 feet) and normal (9 by 19 feet) sizes used in Costa Mesa, for example.
The changing face of best-selling vehicles complicates parking lot planning. In 1987, the five best-selling vehicles in the U.S. were all standard or smaller models. Last year, three of the five were big trucks/sport-utility vehicles:
1. Ford Escort
2. Ford Taurus
3. Honda Accord
4. Chevrolet Cavalier
5. Chevrolet Celebrity
1. Ford F-series truck
2. Chevrolet C/K pickup
3. Toyota Camry
4. Honda Accord
5. Ford Explorer
Sources: City of Costa Mesa, Walker Parking Consultants, Consumer Reports, Autodata Inc.