Palo Alto Weekly

News - March 15, 2013

Palo Alto looks to build new downtown garage

Parking shortage prompts city to explore range of options

by Gennady Sheyner

With downtown residents up in arms about a shortage of parking that's led to neighborhood streets being clogged with parked cars, Palo Alto officials are considering a slew of solutions, including more spots for permit holders at two city garages, a valet program at another garage, parking restrictions in residential neighborhoods and a new parking structure that would be jointly developed by the city and one of downtown's most prolific developers.

The City Council is scheduled to discuss Monday these proposals for alleviating one of the city's most urgent and puzzling problems. The council underscored the issue's growing profile last month, when it made "future of downtown and California Avenue" one of its three priorities for 2013. The city is also now embarking on a broad study of downtown to gauge how much additional development the area can handle.

The problem has hit a critical point in the last three years, with residents from the Professorville and Downtown North neighborhoods persistently complaining that parking spots in front of their homes are disappearing. Things are expected to get even worse in the coming years as a number of downtown developments proceed through the city's approval process.

Neils Buchanan, a resident of Downtown North, addressed the council last Monday on the topic. "The impact of ever-increasing parking is very obvious to us," he said, and the neighborhood is reaching a "saturation" point when it comes to parking. He urged the city to act expeditiously.

"We hope the City Council will give us a definitive solution, as you did to College Terrace," Buchanan said, referring to a neighborhood next to Stanford University that has a residential parking-permit program.

Ken Alsman, a Professorville resident who has been one of the most outspoken critics of the downtown-parking policies, called his neighborhood the city's "biggest public parking lot" and urged the city not to give developers any concessions when it comes to parking.

"We have been giving multi-million-dollar grants to developers who don't need it or deserve it, and the neighbors are paying for that," Alsman said, referring to exceptions that reduce the number of parking spaces required at new buildings.

One of the ideas that the council is scheduled to consider Monday is a proposal by developer Charles "Chop" Keenan to help the city build a garage near his soon-to-be-constructed office development at 135 Hamilton Ave. The garage would have room for 145 self-parked cars or 194 cars using tandem or stacked parking. Under Keenan's proposal, the office development would use the top two floors of the five-story garage (63 spaces, or 93 if cars are stacked), though they would become available to the public on weekends and after 6 p.m. on weekdays.

Keenan proposes having the city contribute $1 million toward construction of the new garage, with his company taking care of the balance of the project, which he expects to cost about $8 million, according to his proposal.

Keenan's building is one of about a dozen downtown developments that are currently under construction or going through the planning process. These include the Lytton Gateway project at Alma Street and Lytton Avenue, the new hotel slated for the Casa Olga site on Hamilton and Emerson Street, and a four-story project planned for 636 Waverley St. These projects will bring about 95,000 square feet of non-residential development, pushing the downtown area well beyond the threshold for new development that the city approved in 1986. Reaching that 223,000-square-foot limit requires the city to conduct an analysis of downtown and consider whether it can accommodate further development. The city plans to send out requests for proposals for the new study by the end of this month.

The new report from the planning department notes that downtown buildings' vacancy rates are now below 2 percent, and lease rates for offices are in the $6 to $6.50 per square foot range — among the highest in the country.

"Many of the newer office developments, however, have not provided parking to the level required by the zoning code, as exemptions are provided for transferable development rights and other provisions," the report states. "Many approved or upcoming projects have potential to add to the square footage of office space downtown or to impact downtown or nearby parking or traffic."

City staff plans to introduce proposals in the coming months to eliminate some of these parking exemptions. But as an overture to frustrated downtown residents, the city is considering more near-term solutions. One involves selling 174 more parking permits total at the Bryant Street and Cowper Street garages starting at the end of this month, a move that is expected to reduce waiting lists for downtown parking permits. The city also plans to introduce a valet program at the garage on High Street between University and Hamilton avenues. This attendant-parking program is expected to increase capacity at the garage by 20 percent, though it would also drive up permit costs.

Another short-term measure is reducing the number of parking spaces in the City Hall garage allotted to city employees. The city plans to introduce a "transportation-demand management" program that would give workers incentives to take alternative modes of transportation, a move expected to save 50 to 100 spaces.

At the same time, staff and its consultant are evaluating five other downtown locations as possible sites for parking garages. These include lots on Hamilton Avenue and Waverley Street; on Gilman Street and Bryant Street; on Gilman and Waverley Street; on High Street between Hamilton and University avenues; and on Urban Lane. Staff plans to bring an interim report to the council about these sites in May.

Staff Writer Gennady Sheyner can be emailed at gsheyner@paweekly.com.

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