Palo Alto's debate over whether the city should build a new downtown garage will resume on Monday night, when the City Council considers approving the environmental analysis for what has become the most divisive project on its list of infrastructure priorities.
If approved, the 324-space garage would go up on a city-owned parking lot at 375 Hamilton Ave., near Waverley Street. The 56-foot-tall structure would add 238 spaces to the downtown area and include retail space on the ground floor.
But while the project aims to address widespread frustrations about downtown parking, some on the council and in the greater community believe it might do more harm than good. Critics contend that at a time when Palo Alto is trying to discourage solo driving and promoting its new nonprofit, the Palo Alto Transportation Management Association (TMA), a new downtown garage sends — at best — a mixed message.
Neilson Buchanan, a downtown resident who was part of a stakeholder group that established the downtown Residential Preferential Parking program, is among the skeptics. In a memo to the council, he argued that the new garage "could be in conflict with the city's intention to reduce traffic/congestion and to increase housing."
"The garage is being built on city property under an "old" presumption that a new garage is highest and best use of city property," Buchanan wrote.
He also noted that with this project, downtown property owners who have not been building enough parking for their developments "may be getting benefit on city finance structure and land."
The $29.1 million that the city plans to spend on the new garage "could be diverted to pressing 2019 needs such as traffic mitigation or pension funding or a properly funded Downtown Coordinated Area Plan," Buchanan wrote.
Resident David Coale is opposing the new parking structure, one of two that the city is now preparing to build (contractors last month began work on the future site of the new garage at 350 Sherman Ave., in the California Avenue business district). For more than a year, he has encouraged the council to drop the project from its 2014 list of nine infrastructure priorities (the list also includes a new police headquarters, two fire stations, a new bike bridge, streetscape improvements on the Charleston-Arastradero corridor and various other bike- and park-related projects). Coale, who has been a proponent for the council's adoption of "climate change" as a 2019 priority, argued that city should instead spend the garage money on expanding the Palo Alto TMA, which offers transit passes and carpooling incentives to downtown workers with incomes under $70,000.
The garage, Coale argued in a Weekly guest opinion piece last month, would "encourage more auto use and likely be underutilized as our transportation modes continue changing."
"Increasingly, the younger demographic is shying away from car ownership, choosing instead to use company buses/shuttles, public transit, ride-sharing services and other modes of transportation," Coale wrote. "Ride-sharing services and self-driving cars will become very important to our aging population as well, enabling safe and reliable mobility as driving becomes more difficult."
The council, for its part, has been split on the project. Greg Scharff, the biggest proponent of the downtown garage, is no longer on the council, having termed out in December. So has Councilwoman Karen Holman, who last year made the case for removing the garage from its priority list. Councilman Cory Wolbach, who concluded his first and only council term last year, also opposed the project.
For the current council, opinions about the new garage range widely. Vice Mayor Adrian Fine has been a persistent opponent of the new garage. Others, including council members Greg Tanaka, Lydia Kou and Alison Cormack, had suggested that the city needs to do a better job prioritizing its infrastructure priorities.
That said, the downtown garage is included on the list of projects that the council presented to the community when it asked residents to support raising the hotel-tax rate in 2014 and in 2018. And in recent discussions, council members have routinely noted downtown's parking problems. In December, the council acknowledged the problem when it abolished for one year an ordinance that allowed commercial developers to pay "in-lieu fees" rather than build parking on-site.
"We have pretty significant parking issues now and we're making it worse," Mayor Eric Filseth said at the Dec. 3 discussion.
The debate will return to the council on Monday, when members will consider certifying the Environmental Impact Report for the project and approving a $352,977 design contract for the new garage with the firm Watry Design Inc.