As Palo Alto considers new taxes to address a $76-million backlog in its infrastructure plan, some residents and council members are wondering whether it's time to reconsider the city's plans for two new garages.
The council's infrastructure plan calls for two garages, each of which would be constructed on a city-owned lot. One new garage would go up on Sherman Avenue in conjunction with the city's new public-safety building -- a project that the City Council is scheduled to approve on Monday night, June 11. The other garage is eyed for a lot on Hamilton Avenue, near Waverley Street.
Both proposed garages had already been vetted by the council at numerous public hearings stretching back to 2014. But as the hot construction climate continues to add to the price tag of the two facilities and as Palo Alto accelerates its efforts to discourage driving, some are questioning whether the parking facilities are truly needed.
For David Coale and Bret Andersen, the answer is clearly no. Both are members of the citizens group Carbon Free Palo Alto. Both believe the city is making a mistake in its move by pushing ahead with the new facilities, which have projected combined cost of about $70 million, according to the city's estimates.
Shortly before the council voted Monday night, June 4, to move ahead with placing a hotel-tax increase on the November ballot, Coale beseeched members to reconsider their infrastructure priorities. One questions the Coale believes the city should consider is: Does the city really need to spend tens of millions of dollars to solve what he calls "a two-hour parking problem" on California Avenue?
"Understand where your tax dollars are going," Coale said. "They are going to garages that we don't need."
If recent discussions are any indication, the council is unlikely to change course on the new California garage, which merchants have long been clamoring for. In January, the council considered a rejected a proposal from staff to save money by somewhat reducing the garage. Instead, the council agreed to "go big" and to approve a six-story garage with two underground levels. The new garage is slated to have 636 parking stalls, considerably more than the 430 stalls officials were considering in 2013, when they were putting the infrastructure plan together.
For Andersen and others, the council is pivoting in the wrong direction. At a time when the city continues to invest funds into a new Transportation Management Association (a nonprofit charged with reducing solo driving) and promote "car-light" developments that offer transit amenities to their occupants, the move toward new garages is misguided, critics say. Andersen told the council Monday that his group believes the situation has changed since 2013 and that the council would be wise to save money by rethinking the new garages.
While Councilman Adrian Fine, who voted against the enlargement of the California Avenue garage, indicated Monday night that he supports reducing the facility to save costs, his colleagues generally steered clear of the topic. But things were different when it came to the downtown garage, which the council plans to consider later this year.
Councilwoman Karen Holman said Monday reconsidering some projects on the city's infrastructure list would be a practical move, given the rising costs. She said she would support putting the downtown garage "on the back burner."
"I'd be perfectly fine putting the downtown parking garage on hold and revisiting it," Holman said. "We have downtown parking garages that are still not fully occupied."
Councilwoman Cory Wolbach, who often disagrees with Holman on land use policies, this time concurred with his colleague's views on the new garages. The downtown garage, he said, is something that the council should reconsider, he said. He also said he has some reservations about California Avenue garage.
"The question I'm asking myself is, 'If we're not 100 percent sure that we really need both of these garages at the scale that we're considering them, is it really necessary to require that taxpayers fund them?'" Wolbach said.
So far, at least, this is a minority position. In voting on Monday night to move ahead with a hotel-tax increase, council members generally embraced the idea of moving ahead with the list of projects in the 2014 plan, which also include a new bike bridge over U.S. Highway 101, two rebuilt fire stations, the completion of the Charleston-Arastradero streetscape project and various bike projects. Councilman Greg Scharff said he believes it would be hard for the council to back away from these projects.
Some, however, believe that's exactly what the council should do. Neilson Buchanan, a Downtown North resident who has been at the forefront of the city's recent effort to address downtown's parking woes, is among them. Buchanan had served on the stakeholder group that helped establish the downtown Residential Preferential Parking program and has consistently lobbied the city to improve the area's parking situation. He too believes the downtown garage is a bad idea.
The council, he argued in a March 20 memo, is not fully informed about improvements in the utilization of the Bryant and Cowper/Webster garage, including the additional capacity that will come from valet programs. The new downtown garage, Buchanan said, "can be deferred for three to seven years to preserve options for the city-owned surface lot."
"The concept of the garage is obsolete," Buchanan wrote.
Gladwyn d'Souza, chair of the Transportation Committee at the Loma Prieta Chapter of Sierra Club, argued in a letter to the council that rather than spending the $65 million on two garages, the city should commit $4.8 million to the TMA, which currently serves only downtown commuters but which the city ultimately hopes to expand to California Avenue.
The early success of the TMA, combined with increasing use of ride-sharing programs and Caltrain's electrification and new bike-share programs, will reduce the number of people who will want to own cars.
This success combined with the increasing use of ride-sharing programs, the electrification of CalTrain, the bike share program (free to the city), and the eventual introduction of autonomous vehicles along with changing demographics where people will not want to even own cars, means that the reductions of solo-car use/trips would be sustained and encouraged even with the increasing growth in the California Avenue and downtown areas.
By scrapping the garages and committing more funds to traffic-reduction efforts, the city could save $60.2 million with a solution that would reduce congestion, d'Souza wrote.