Spurred by impassioned pleas from California Avenue merchants, the City Council agreed on Monday night to dramatically increase the number of spaces that would be included in a new garage that is being planned for the business district.
Despite numerous disagreements about the optimal design for the new facility, the council coalesced around a four-story garage with an additional two underground levels and no retail. The new garage, which would go up on a city-owned lot on Sherman Avenue and Birch Street, would have a total of 636 total parking spaces. Because it would occupy an existing parking lot, the net addition would be 315 spaces -- roughly double the number that was envisioned two years ago.
The council chose this alternative from a menu of seven options. Two of these included a retail component, in keeping with direction that council provided in December 2015. The other five were all devoted exclusively to parking, though they varied by size and the number of underground levels.
If things go as planned, construction would commence next year and be completed by summer 2019. The city would then shift its attention to building a new public-safety building at another city-owned lot, across the street from the new garage.
By agreeing to scrap retail from the garage plan, the council went along with the overwhelming sentiment from California Avenue's business community, where the idea of going not just "big" but "as big as possible" has been gaining traction in recent weeks. Owners of 20 area businesses -- including La Bodeguita del Medio, The Cobblery, The Counter, Molly Stone's, Izzy's Bagels, Sundance the Steakhouse and Zombie Runner -- co-signed a letter to the council this week, urging the council to include as many spaces in the new facility as it can.
Without sufficient parking, the letter states, customers will stop coming and employees will be forced to park in residential zones. The long-term stability of California Avenue, they wrote, requires a parking structure with two levels of underground parking and at least three or four levels above grade.
"Certainly, the cost of the new structure is significant, but this is a one-time opportunity to help alleviate the parking demand, and make a forward-thinking capital investment in the future and continued success of our community and business district," the letter states.
Others made their case in person. Mike Meffert, a real estate agent who owns a building on California Avenue, said he has seen tenants over the years depart from California Avenue because of insufficient parking. Whether the council chooses to build up or down, the goal should be more spaces, he said.
"It's the capacity of parking spaces that we're looking for -- not retail and not nice arcades," Meffert said.
For many, the problem is becoming particularly urgent with the impending rollout of the Residential Preferential Parking program in Evergreen Park, the neighborhood next to California Avenue. Once the program takes effect later this month, employees without parking permits will no longer be able to park on residential streets for longer than two hours. Jennifer Allen, co-owner of PIP Printing, was one of several speakers who urged the council on Monday to pursue a more comprehensive solution to help businesses grapple with the worsening parking problem.
"We business owners have been given slight consideration as to how a lack of parking affects us and, ultimately, our community when businesses leave," Allen said. "Because we will leave."
The Palo Alto Chamber of Commerce also weighed in in support of the larger parking facility. Chamber CEO Judy Kleinberg encouraged the city to pursue the largest parking capacity possible on the Sherman Avenue site and argued that parking should not be sacrificed for things like retail or an arcade. The garage, she argued in a letter, should have two underground levels of parking in a design that not only would go further in addressing California Avenue's biggest problem, but that would also help the city with the bottom line.
"The added permit parking on the subfloors would provide a steady revenue stream for garage maintenance, as well as other City needs," Kleinberg wrote. "This is a far more sustainable strategy to obtain City revenue than a retail space that many believe would not be successful in this location while wasting precious parking space and at the same time requiring over a dozen parking spaces for its own use."
While the vast majority called for maximum parking, not everyone felt that way. Irene Au, a resident of Evergreen Park, encouraged the council to think about design, aesthetics and "quality of life" in moving ahead with the new facility. The garage, she argued, should include things like retail and pedestrian-friendly design.
"More parking spaces in the garage at the expense of ground floor retail and pedestrian-friendly design are not going to solve the parking issue -- there will always be an imbalance between cars and available spaces even if you have 100 more spaces in the garage," Au wrote. "More parking will invite more traffic into the area and does not solve the systemic issue of transit in the area."
Several council members agreed that having some retail on the site would be a benefit to the district. Council members Karen Holman and Lydia Kou both supported exploring a design that would have a small retail component on the building's edge. Their proposal failed, however, to sway the rest of the council.
Despite some quibbles, the council overwhelmingly sided with the merchants and agreed that the new facility should focus on increasing parking capacity, even if it means a higher cost, no retail and fewer pedestrian-oriented design elements. The biggest disagreement was over whether the new facility should have five above-ground stories and one basement level or four stories and two basement levels.
Each had its own benefits and drawbacks. While the four-story option would have a lower visual impact, its $34.8-million price tag is roughly $4 million more than the five-story option because of the high cost of digging basements. However, at 36 feet, this option would be about 11 feet shorter than the five-story version.
Those who supported the four-story garage argued that it's worth spending the extra money to ensure the building won't tower over other structures in California Avenue.
Those who favored the five-story facility pointed to the lower price tag.
Vice Mayor Liz Kniss, who was in the latter camp, called the five-story garage a "middle of the road" alternative in terms of cost (the estimates for the different design ranged from $26.2 million to $34.8 million). She called it a "good compromise solution."
"Even though I'm hearing that these buildings may loom, this is in an area where many buildings are above 40 feet," Kniss said, alluding to the nearby Santa Clara County Courthouse, which is 65 feet, and the new Visa building, which is 45 feet.
Her proposal faltered by a 3-6 vote, with only council members Greg Tanaka and Cory Wolbach joining her. The entire council then voted to support the four-story design with two basement levels, an option that was championed by Mayor Greg Scharff and Councilman Eric Filseth.
"I think we ought to stretch and dig deeper," Filseth said. "Spending an extra $4 million to keep it lower so it doesn't loom over Antonio's Nuthouse -- I think in the long run we'll find that's money we've spent well."