New parking garages may be an urgent priority in Palo Alto, but city officials balked Monday at giving private developers a shot at building the new structures.
Rather, the council reaffirmed by a 7-2 vote its commitment to pursue a publicly financed downtown garage and directed staff to draft a request for design firms to come up with plans for the structure. Members also agreed that the best location for a new garage would be on the corner of Hamilton Avenue and Waverley Street, which is currently occupied by a parking lot.
Vice Mayor Liz Kniss and Councilwoman Gail Price both dissented, but for very different reasons. Kniss said she's not comfortable moving forward with a new garage without first seeing how the city's other major parking-related initiatives turn out. These include a downtown residential parking permit program, which is set to launch early next year, and a "transportation demand management" program that would give downtown employers new incentives to switch from cars to other modes of transportation.
Price, meanwhile, said she was open to further exploring the privately funded proposals that the rest of the council rejected.
"I think we're prematurely limiting parking garage financial alternatives to publicly funded options," Price said.
Her colleagues bore no such reservations, after a lengthy discussion, rejected the two private-sector proposals that staff selected from a field of eight offers for further evaluation. One of these, presented by Ark Studio West, focused on the prominent Hamilton and Waverley lot and included a retail component on the ground floor. Council members loved the location and were generally open to the inclusion of retail. But the proposal, they agreed, suffered from a fatal flaw: a stipulation that the city switch to paid parking in downtown garages.
That proved an impossible sell. While council members generally agreed that paid parking might be a worthwhile idea to explore, the conversation should not be driven by a developer's proposal. Councilman Marc Berman called the proposal, which would net about $17.50 a day per parking spot, a case of the "tail wagging the dog." The need to add parking, he said, shouldn't be driving the conversation over paid parking.
Councilmen Larry Klein and Greg Scharff made similar points, each praising the retail elements of the proposal, but declining to go along with the paid-parking proposal.
"But I think it would be unwise for us to back into a dramatic change in policy just to have a deal," Klein said. "And I don't see that as being a good deal."
Council members found more to like in the second proposal, an offer by developer David Kleiman to build an underground structure with stacked parking spots on a small lot on Lytton Avenue and Emerson Street. That proposal also included a development with 18 residential units and retail. It would add a total of 75 new parking spots by replacing a 68-space lot with a 237-space garage. The new mixed-use development would require 94 spots to be fully parked in accordance with the zoning code.
The idea of installing lifts that automatically stack cars intrigued the council, though Klein argued that it also comes with risks. The garage on the small Downtown North lot would be in close proximity to two other parking facilities the lot next to Aquarius Theater and the garage on Bryant Street. People might very well choose to park in these traditional structures rather than go to a more modern system. If the new lot isn't used much, that would not be a good return on the city's investment, Klein said.
"It might be perfectly appropriate for a private person to take that risk, but I don't see the public taking it," Klein said.
Several council members also made a point that the city doesn't really need a private party to finance the new garage. It is already included in the $125-million list of infrastructure priorities that the council approved in June and the city has already identified funding sources for these projects. These include the city's infrastructure reserve, funds from the Stanford University Medical Center's development agreement and proceeds from the hotel-tax increase that the council hopes voters will approve in November.
"I think it's something we can kind of do ourselves," Berman said. "I don't think it's something that needs a public private partnership. "I don't know, frankly, that there's a desire in the community to have a public private partnership for this king of thing right now."
Greg Schmid said the "private strategy doesn't make a lot of sense for the city." The city is not achieving its goals, he said, by getting just 78 parking spaces in exchange for giving up a piece of city property for the period of a long-term lease.
Resident critics matched the council's skepticism. Bob Moss, a frequent critic of new developers, argued against adding any kind of development, mixed-use or otherwise, to the garage.
"Just build a garage. Don't mix it with commercial, retail or anything else," Moss said. "A garage is for parking. Period. You're risking to create more problems if you try to create retail or office space in the area because it's going to make things worse."
Faith Bell, owner of Bell's Books, said it's hard not to see the developers' proposals as land grabs. She urged the council not to relinquish city-owned lots to private parties in exchange for parking spaces.
"It seems to me the bigger developers just want to get control of public spaces," Bell said. "This property is too valuable to give up."
In requesting that staff prepare a scope of work for a publicly financed garage (which is expected to cost about $13 million), the council cribbed some elements from the private proposals it rejected. The council stipulated that the lot on Hamilton and Waverley be given preference in choosing location for the new garage (the second choice is Lot G on Gilman Street, near the downtown post office).
The council also asked staff to explore smaller lots that would accommodate a heretofore unexplored technology: stacked parking.
While Kniss argued in favor of holding off on the new garages, Scharff spoke for the majority in advocating for imminent action. The city, he said, is about to start selling parking permits for residential streets and even with all the other traffic-reducing measures, people will need new spaces to park their cars.
He also cautioned that a similar need exists in the California Avenue area, where employees also park on the residential streets.
"We need to start on this immediately," Scharff said.