Palo Alto Weekly

News - March 26, 2010

Downtown merchants baffled by parking problem

For drivers, downtown parking lots and garages are the city's best-kept secret

by Gennady Sheyner

What good is free and abundant downtown parking when visitors don't know it's there?

That's one of the questions Palo Alto's downtown-business leaders wrestled with Wednesday morning at a brainstorming session on downtown's future. The event, sponsored by the Palo Alto Downtown Business and Professional Association, focused on ways to make University Avenue and surrounding streets more attractive for pedestrians, bicyclists and drivers.

Downtown business owners and city officials split on some of the more radical (and costly) ideas that emerged during the discussion — including the perennial proposal to turn University Avenue into a pedestrian mall and a suggestion to make Hamilton and Lytton avenues one-way streets. But just about everyone in the room agreed that a few extra signs and some maps directing visitors to parking structures would help.

Attendees at Wednesday's discussion acknowledged that Palo Alto has significant advantages over other downtowns when it comes to parking, including a scattering of surface lots and multi-story parking structures on High Street, Cowper Street and Hamilton Avenue. The fact that all that parking is free also helps.

But too few out-of-towners are aware of these parking structures, which are subsidized by downtown business owners. As a result, too many cars creep along University Avenue throughout the day, making life less pleasant for pedestrians, bicyclists and other drivers.

"Our customers think there's no parking in downtown Palo Alto," said Cornelia Pendleton, chief financial officer of University Art on Hamilton Avenue. "You go to any garage and there are floors of parking spaces, but there's a perception that there's no parking and that it's hard to get into downtown Palo Alto.

"We should invest in signage."

Downtown business owners long ago identified parking as a top priority. Businesses currently participate in a parking-assessment district that pays for new lots and garages and for maintenance of the current facilities. But even with 18 lots and garages over the roughly 30-square-block area, masses of drivers wander through downtown every day looking for a spot, business owners complained.

Jeff Selzer, general manager of Palo Alto Bicycles, said the noise from trucks and cars on University Avenue often makes it impossible for him to speak on the phone inside his business. The city should do more to limit the number of trucks on the prominent thoroughfare, Selzer said.

Business owners encouraged city officials to put up signs directing people toward parking and to print more maps identifying downtown lots and garages.

"There is such an investment in parking in this city," said Sherry Bijan, president of the Downtown Business and Professional Association. "It's the information that's not coming through."

Bijan also encouraged local architects and urban designers to bring forth new concepts and design ideas for improving downtown Palo Alto.

City planners and community volunteers put together a University Avenue "concept plan" in 1993, but the plan has largely fallen by the wayside. The plan recommended, among other things, one-way traffic flow near University Circle, new bicycle connections and underground tunnels for railroad tracks.

Curtis Williams, the city's planning director and facilitator of Wednesday's discussion, said more signs directing people toward parking structures could be a relatively low-cost way to improve traffic conditions downtown. But some of the bolder proposals coming out of the group — including banning cars on University Avenue altogether — were met with opposition and skepticism by other attendees.

Claude Ezran, member of the city's Human Relations Commission and coordinator of last year's World Music Day in downtown Palo Alto, resurrected the "pedestrian mall" idea and argued that closing a portion of University Avenue to traffic would bring more foot-traffic and, hence, more business to local stores.

The idea to create a pedestrian mall on University Avenue has been popping up just about every year in Palo Alto. Last year, a group of Stanford University graduate students led a drive to promote the idea and received an endorsement from a scattering of local businesses and city officials.

Ezran said cities all over Europe have pedestrian malls featuring music, entertainment and crowds of people walking the streets. And when people walk, retailers benefit, he said.

"To enter the store, you can't do it from your car, you have to be walking," Ezran said.

But America is not Europe, countered architect Tony Carrasco, who has worked on several pedestrian-mall projects in other parts of the country. Malls require a steady flow of slow-moving cars for sustenance, he said, citing two pedestrian malls in Kansas that failed and had to be reopened to traffic.

"As long as you have cars that drive 5 or 10 mph — cars are what cause the mall to survive and thrive," Carrasco said.

Staff Writer Gennady Sheyner can be e-mailed at gsheyner@paweekly.com.

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