Palo Alto officials often liken the city's strategy for dealing with the city's parking crisis to a three-legged stool: reduce the demand for driving, make better use of parking structures and increase the supply of garages.
With 2015 coming to a close, the city can point to plenty of progress on the first two legs of the figurative stool. The third leg, however, is now starting to wobble.
The City Council last week elected not to go forward with a staff proposal to begin design work on a new downtown garage, a facility that was included in the city's 2014 infrastructure plan and that was to go up on a city-owned lot on Hamilton Avenue, near Waverley Street. Public Works Department staff had asked the council to approve the scope of work by which companies would bid on the project. The approval was placed on the council's "consent" calendar, a list of non-controversial items that get approved in bulk and without discussion.
But rather than move along the staff recommendation, the council agreed to hold a hearing on the downtown garage at a future meeting. The decision came after several members of the public questioned the need for the new garage and suggested that it would instead exacerbate the area's parking crunch by encouraging more people to drive.
Among the speakers was downtown resident Sandra Slater, a steering-committee member of Palo Alto Forward (a pro-housing citizens group) and the northern California director of Cool City Challenge, an environmental project. Slater noted that the city is already pursuing numerous measures for discouraging driving, including the new Residential Preferential Parking program (which forces employees to buy passes to park on residential streets beyond the newly established two-hour time limit); and the new Transportation Management Association, a nonprofit with a mission to reduce the number of people driving solo to work.
Slater requested that the council compare the costs of these new programs with that of a new garage. A recent survey by the Transportation Management Association revealed that many downtown workers would be willing to ditch their cars if they had a more reliable and affordable transit option. The Epiphany Hotel, she noted, recently purchased Caltrain passes for its employees, resulting in about 25 percent of them commuting to work by train.
"We should evaluate what the effectiveness is of this and other innovative programs that are in the works so that the council can be spending citizens' money wisely and effectively," Slater said.
Adina Levin, member of the groups Friends of Caltrain, likewise beseeched the council to focus on getting people out of their cars rather than building a new garage. Through the transportation nonprofit and work on the permit program, numerous opportunities to achieve the former objective have been identified, she said.
Neilson Buchanan, one of the architects of downtown's new Residential Preferential Parking Program, went a step further and urged the council to ditch the garage project. Buchanan acknowledged the irony of his opposition to a measure that aims to relieve his Downtown North neighborhood's parking squeeze. Even so, he said, "I don't see the garage as part of the solution for neighborhood quality at all.
"The garage is only going to attract more cars like bees come to honey," Buchanan said.
The council didn't discuss the garage but merely agreed to hold a full hearing on it early next year. But thus far, the council majority has been supportive of a new downtown garage. The $13 million facility is one of several city infrastructure projects to be funded largely by hotel-tax revenues. Palo Alto voters agreed in 2014 to raise the hotel-tax rate from 12 to 14 percent with the understanding that the increase would be used to improve the city's infrastructure.
In that sense, backing away from a downtown garage would come with some political risk for the council. It would also attract opposition from the downtown businesses who see new parking facilities as crucial to relieving congestion.
Business leaders have asserted the importance of a new garage in light of the new downtown parking-permit program, which the city is considering making even more exclusive. During a Dec. 14 council discussion, several business representatives criticized the council's proposal to limit the number of permits that would be sold to employees in the future. Charles "Chop" Keenan, a prominent downtown developer, said setting a cap on employee permits would be "premature." But if the council were to pursue this strategy, he said, it should be done "in concert with more supply."
Chamber of Commerce CEO Judy Kleinberg likewise urged the council to evaluate constructing a new garage for employees, or building more affordable housing, rather than capping the number of employee permits. Consider the negative effects that would have on small businesses, she said.
For Councilman Greg Scharff, abandoning the new facility would be tantamount to betraying the public trust. At a Dec. 9 discussion of the city's infrastructure projects, Scharff lauded the fact that the city is "moving forward on every item that we set forth when we went to the public" to ask for the hotel-tax increase.
"One of the things we've done in Palo Alto over the years, as you look at these things, is that we've always honored our commitments to the public," Scharff said. "I think it's important that we do all of these (projects) and get them done."
According to an evaluation that the council commissioned last year, the lot on Hamilton and Waverley would accommodate 300 spaces and increase downtown's supply by 214 spaces (86 spaces exist on the current lot). In October, the council chose this lot, known as Lot D, over other potential sites and directed staff to also evaluate Lot G, which is located on Gilman Street, behind the downtown post office. Councilwoman Liz Kniss was the only member who voted against the proposal. Kniss argued that the city should first see how the city's permit program and other demand-oriented programs shake out before moving ahead with the parking structure.
In addition to a downtown garage, the city is also looking to build a new structure near California Avenue. That plan advanced last week when the council directed staff to move forward with design work on a new public-safety building on a city-owned lot on Sherman Avenue. As part of that project, the city is also looking to build a parking garage on an adjacent Sherman Avenue lot, between Birch and Ash streets.
The parking structure near California Avenue would include 460 spaces, replacing the two lots that currently offer 300 spaces, according to a report from the Public Works Department. Staff expect to issue a design contract for both the public-safety building and the new California Avenue garage next spring.