With Palo Alto's commuters and residents battling over parking spots on downtown's increasingly congested residential streets, the city has stepped forward with a new proposal aimed at lessening the tension -- a pair of new garages that together would bring close to 500 new spots to the busy area.
The plan, which the City Council will consider Monday night, identifies two locations that may be suitable for new garages -- a lot on Gilman Avenue, directly behind the downtown post office, and a property on Urban Lane that could be geared toward Caltrain riders and developed as part of an expansion of the existing transit mall.
After persistent complaints from downtown residents about their once quiet streets turning into parking lots, the city has pushed forward with a slew of new initiatives to address the problem, including a recently unveiled "residential parking permit program" that would create new parking restrictions for drivers without permits. Under the proposed framework for such a program, neighborhoods would have to power to petition the city for a permit program if a supermajority of residents supports the change. The neighborhood would also have to meet a threshold for parking congestion.
At the same time, city planners are preparing to unveil a range of "transportation demand management" initiatives geared at getting downtown commuters to switch from cars to other modes of transportation. The strategies, which staff plans to present on Feb. 24, are expected to include an expansion of the city's shuttle program, incentives for city workers to use Caltrain and establishments of business districts that would collect assessments from properties that use the funds for traffic-reduction programs.
But as the garage proposals indicate, the city is just as enthusiastic about supply-side solutions as it is about reducing demand. The proposed garage on Gilman Street would occupy what is known as Lot G, one of six sites that the city had considered in a 2013 study. The lot currently has 53 spaces, a number that would go up to 166 spaces under the most modest structure proposal. If the city pursues a more expensive option and includes a lower parking level and a "stack" option, which involves a parking attendant and which utilizes garage aisles, the number could rise to 240.
If the council approves staff's recommendation, the city would commence an environmental analysis for this parking garage, a study that is expected to cost about $1.5 million. The funds would be drawn from the city's "parking in-lieu fee program," which collects contributions from developers. The fund is expected to reach $4.5 million this year, largely on the strength of a $3.8 million contribution from new developments such as the Lytton Gateway project at 101 Lytton Ave.
In addition, staff is proposing a bigger and potentially more complex project on Urban Lane, which lies just west of the Caltrain tracks, between the Palo Alto Medical Foundation and University Avenue. The site is owned by Stanford University and leased to Caltrain, which uses it as a surface parking lot. This means that any proposed parking garage here would require cooperation with both entities, particularly if the project goes beyond rail improvements.
On the plus side, an Urban Lane project that supports rail operations could qualify for grant funds. Based on the city's garage study, an expansion of the transit mall and a new structure on Urban Lane could support up to 478 parking spaces. Currently, the surface parking lot includes 164 spaces.
Given the complexity and potential high cost of the structure, staff is proposing reaching out to private developers for help. If the council approves the staff recommendation, the city would solicit statements of qualifications from developers willing to help the city increase parking supply.
A possibly cheaper alternative that staff also plans to introduce on Monday would take advantage of the underused Baylands Athletic Parking Lot parking lot on Geng Road, just east of U.S. Highway 101. This alternative would create a satellite parking lot in this area and would concurrently expand an existing shuttle program to help ferry passengers to downtown and California Avenue. The Embarcadero Shuttle is currently operated by Caltrain, which provides the service only during peak commute hours. If the city pursues the satellite parking approach, the city would take over management of the shuttle program and expand its services, according to a staff report.
One potentially thorny aspect of this proposal, however, is a reduction of lanes on Embarcadero Road. According to the staff report, the road would be restriped from four lanes to two lanes to accommodate 90-degree diagonal parking on the north side of the road. The plan also calls for widened bike lanes and speed bumps to reduce vehicle speed. The "satellite parking concept" would allow for up to 200 satellite spaces, the report states.
The idea of building new parking structures downtown has been gathering steam over the past year, fueled by new commercial developments and rising frustrations over inadequate parking. Last fall, the council responded to the swell of community criticism by eliminating numerous exemptions in the zoning code that had allowed developers to "under-park" their new projects. Residents from neighborhoods such as Downtown North and University South have long complained that an intrusion of cars from downtown's business core has turned their streets into parking lots and created a safety hazard. In response, the council has identified parking in downtown and around California Avenue as a one of its top priorities in both 2013 and 2014.
On Jan. 29, members of the council's Infrastructure Committee discussed the concept of new parking garages and expressed a range of opinions on the topic. While Councilman Pat Burt supported building one garage but seeing how the city's "transportation demand management" program is doing before going any further, Councilman Greg Scharff supported new structures for both downtown and California Avenue. The city, Scharff said, has "allowed it to become a crisis situation downtown."
"I do think it's really important that we build at least that fist parking garage downtown," Scharff said. "I think we'll probably need to build a second garage sooner rather than later."