Days after they agreed to "go big" and "dig deep" on a new garage near California Avenue, Palo Alto officials are preparing to consider a similar move in the downtown area, where staff is banking on a new five-story structure to help solve the area's dire parking problems.
Just like the earlier proposal, which the council approved on April 3, the new one could pit the City Council's desire to boost parking supply against its commitment to zoning laws and height restrictions. The council is scheduled to weigh in Tuesday on a garage that would occupy what is now a city-owned parking lot on the corner of Hamilton Avenue and Waverley Street. All three of the options proposed by Watry Design, Inc., the city's consultants, call for a five-story structure. Two of the options wouldn't have any basements; the main difference between them is that one would include retail space and the other wouldn't.
The option without retail would have 303 spaces, for a net increase of 217 (the existing lot has 86 spaces). The one with retail would have 291 spaces -- a net increase of 205. This includes, however, the 16 spaces that would be required by law to support the new retail establishment.
The third and most ambitious option would have one underground level and a capacity for 351 spots, for a net increase of 265.
Much like with the California Avenue garage, more spots would necessarily mean more city spending. In this case, the basement option would push the price tag for the new garage to $22.5 million, according to city staff's projections. The other two options carry price tags of $18.4 million (without retail) and $19.3 million (with retail).
No matter which option is selected, the downtown garage would add a bulky, 50-foot-tall structure to one of the city's most bustling and economically vital areas. The garage, like the one planned for the California Avenue area, will exceed "public facility" zoning designations by exceeding requirements for lot coverage, density and setbacks.
But while the council has traditionally opposed development proposals that conflict with the zoning code, the council agreed during its California Avenue garage discussion on Monday night to make an exception for parking structures. There was some debate about the best way to do it, with Council members Tom DuBois and Karen Holman favoring granting exceptions for specific projects and the rest of the council supporting changing the "public facility" zone to accommodate garages on a citywide basis.
Holman argued that changing the zone for a particular project is "a really bad precedent and a really bad concept." DuBois agreed and said the city hadn't evaluated all the "public facility" zones throughout the city and thus does not know the impacts of the change.
"We don't know what we're zoning for," DuBois said.
Mayor Greg Scharff took the opposite view and noted that garage constructions are relatively rare (there hasn't been one on more than a decade). At the same time, the council has often spoke out against granting variances for private developments.
"What we're saying is that we're going to want to zone for what we want -- parking garages," Scharff said, shortly before the council voted 7-2 to revise "public facility" zoning.
One issue that could divide the council on the downtown garage is mechanical lifts, which create more parking spaces by using platforms that stack cars vertically. For the California Avenue facility, staff did not recommend installing lifts, stating that they would add both cost to the project and inconvenience to future users. Vice Mayor Liz Kniss, the council's chief proponent of mechanical lifts, argued that more should have been done to analyze the technology and directed staff to fully study this option for the downtown garage.
A new report from Public Works suggests that adding mechanical lifts may not be the best fit for the downtown garage either. The cost to provide a small incremental parking increase (about 27 extra spots on the ground floor) is high, the report states, and the technology would require training for users.
"Parking demand typically peaks around lunchtime and dinner time and is short term," the report states. "Mechanical parking does not accommodate this type of peak demand very well. Building height restrictions also limit the efficiency of most mechanical and robotic parking concepts."
Both the downtown and California Avenue garages were included on the council's 2014 infrastructure plan, which is largely funded by proceeds from the city's hotel tax.