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Plan for downtown garage stalls

City balks at approving design contract, launches broader conversation about parking management

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Palo Alto voted on Feb. 11, 2019, not to move ahead with a new downtown garage just yet. Rendering courtesy city of Palo Alto.

Palo Alto's multiyear effort to build a new downtown garage took an unexpected turn Monday night, when the City Council backed away from its earlier plan to construct the six-story structure on a Hamilton Avenue parking lot.

Spurred by concerns about high costs and environmental impacts, the council declined to approve a design contract that would have allowed the project to advance. Instead, by a unanimous vote, the council directed its Policy and Services Committee to delve deeper into downtown's parking issues before determining whether the structure is really necessary.

The council's decision is a sharp departure for a project that has been on the city's priority list since 2014, when the council put together its infrastructure plan and asked the voters to support a hotel-tax increase to fund these projects. The council followed suit with another hotel-tax increase in 2018, at which point it once again expressed its intention to spend the funding on its infrastructure plan, which includes the downtown garage.

Even so, the project has seen plenty of detractors, both on the council and in the wider community. Vice Mayor Adrian Fine has consistently opposed the new structure, arguing that parking is a valuable asset that the city should not be subsidizing through garage construction. But while he has traditionally been in the minority on this subject, that appeared to change Monday, when one colleague after another joined him in voicing either skepticism or outright opposition to the new garage.

Councilwoman Liz Kniss cited the council's recent adoption of "climate change" as a top priority and stressed the environmental impacts of building a facility that encourages driving. Council members Lydia Kou and Greg Tanaka both talked about the need to better prioritize its infrastructure priority. Councilwoman Alison Cormack said she didn't find enough evidence in the environmental analysis to support the need for the garage.

Fine led the charge Monday by making the motion to pursue a broader parking-management study, rejecting a staff proposal to approve a design contract and to consider a broader parking-management strategy.

"I really haven't seen the studies about existing supply and demand that support a new structure in this area," Fine said. "I really don't think we're going to manage our parking well as long as we give it away for free. And we're giving it away for free on street and off street."

Kniss, who on Feb. 2 led the push to adopt climate change as a 2019 priority, said her biggest concern is not money but environmental impacts. Times have changed, Kniss said, since the council agreed to include the downtown garage on its priority list.

"Money is one thing, but we would find the money. ... But the climate and our commitment now to climate change, to sustainability, is very real," Kniss said.

The six-story structure was being planned for a city-owned lot at 375 Hamilton Ave., near Waverley Street. It would have include 324 spaces, raising the lot's capacity by 238 spaces.

For Mayor Eric Filseth, who supported the downtown garage in the past, the key issue was neighborhood feedback. When the council first embarked on the project, its goal was to address concerns from the Professorville neighborhood about commuter vehicles taking up all the parking spots on residential blocks. Since then, the city had implemented a downtown Residential Preferential Parking program that addressed some of these concerns. On Monday, some of the residents who participated in the creation of that program addressed the council and made the case against the garage.

Downtown resident Neilson Buchanan was among them. Rather than spending the money on a new garage, the council should pursue a "coordinated area plan" for the downtown area and pursue other efforts to reduce traffic.

"The priority you've set years ago is out of date," Buchanan said.

L. David Baron, an advocate for housing, lauded the council for finally considering a dense building downtown. He lamented, however, that the council is dedicating the building to parking.

"I'd like to see zoning allow building of this size since people think a building of this size is reasonable," said L. David Baron. "But I'd like to see buildings of this size built as homes for people and not cars."

Not everyone was thrilled about the change in directions. Judy Kleinberg, CEO of the Palo Alto Chamber of Commerce, urged the council to stay the course. The garage, she said, is badly needed to address downtown's parking problems.

"There is a significant parking deficit downtown," Kleinberg said. "All the studies the city has done prove that's the case. It can only be solved with additional capacity."

Councilman Tom DuBois was the strongest proponent of staying the course. He noted that the council has promised the project to the voters on numerous occasions.

"We voted multiple times on this project and I think we made promises to the community when we raised the transient tax," DuBois said. "And most of us committed to supporting this plan when we supported that tax."

Despite his desire to see the project move forward, DuBois ultimately joined the rest of his colleagues in supporting Fine's motion. Filseth, a downtown resident, also voted with the majority and pointed to both the project's high costs and the neighborhood's changing demands.

"I think we ought to look at if there are other ways to spend $25 million or $29 million or $34 million to reduce car trips by 238 per day," Filseth said. "If we can't find a better way to do it, maybe we ought to come back and do the garage."


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28 people like this
Posted by resident
a resident of Downtown North
on Feb 11, 2019 at 9:34 pm

We agree with the city council. The city really needs to look at ways to reduce the number of cars coming into the city. Fewer incoming cars need fewer parking spaces. Making parking cheaper and easier will just increase the number of single-occupancy cars driving clogging our streets.

How about a regional shuttle bus system that connected Stanford, HP, Facebook, and Google with stops in the residential areas between those big destinations?

40 people like this
Posted by Resident
a resident of Community Center
on Feb 11, 2019 at 9:59 pm

Liz Kniss is just about the worst elected official there is (now that Wolbach is gone). Her judgment is terrible - seriously, she's suddenly gotten climate change religion? It makes me sad that she is effective at political scheming, and clueless about how to think about policy. She terms out soon, right??

18 people like this
Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Feb 11, 2019 at 10:18 pm

The truth is that public transportation is not going to be able to take up the slack without a complete overhaul, Bay Area regionwide. People coming in from Half Moon Bay, Cupertino, Union City, Milpitas, etc. etc. are not coming in by public transport because it doesn't exist.

The City Council can go on and on about climate change, about reducing solo driving commuters, about bikes, but unless there are affordable, efficient alternatives to solo driving from where the workers live, then it is not going to make one iota of difference.

14 people like this
Posted by anon
a resident of Evergreen Park
on Feb 12, 2019 at 8:47 am

There is a deficit of parking downtown.

That deficit was (partially ) solved by increasing the supply and encouraging commuters and single driver commuters, by turning our neighborhood streets into parking lots, and increasing Green House gasses congestion and traffic and the parking woes.

Small neighborhood businesses are being driven out of the downtown and Cal Ave by tech companies they can't compete with on rents, increasing green house gasses, congestion traffic and parking woes.

so, no garage, more office/tech development , more commuters, more raising rents less VTA service
( recent cuts again proppsed for north county by VTA )

Seriously what problems are they solving and what needs are they addressing?????

14 people like this
Posted by white elephant
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Feb 12, 2019 at 9:36 am

Glad the council saw the writing on the wall that spending tens of million on a concrete parking structure is a bad idea. In 10 years we won't need the same type of parking, and so it's better to take a wait and see kind of approach.

12 people like this
Posted by J Guislin
a resident of Crescent Park
on Feb 12, 2019 at 10:57 am

Right decision, even if with dubious rationale.

Traffic is a much bigger problem, impacting more residents more seriously (safety), than parking. A new supply of parking would incent new demand, i.e. more cars.
Constructing a big, ugly box in the heart of downtown to address demand for parking created by poorly controlled business growth was a dumb plan from the beginning.
Let's repurpose those funds to reduce overall traffic by building an effective shuttle system, improving the TMA and at the same time stop approving any under-parked development.

8 people like this
Posted by Good first step.
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Feb 12, 2019 at 11:22 am

Good first step. is a registered user.

The amount of money slated for parking garages on Cal. Ave and downtown is astronomical--a poor use of resources. It will only aggravate traffic problems. "If you build it, they will come."

Induced traffic is real. Adding capacity for cars draws more cars. We know this. We need to get serious about regional solutions. Big tech (and Stanford) need to mitigate more.

Join the VTA online conversation about local bus cuts TODAY at noon online. Sign up here Web Link

17 people like this
Posted by commonsense
a resident of Professorville
on Feb 12, 2019 at 11:28 am

commonsense is a registered user.

What a great place for affordable housing. As the city owns the land, it could be dedicated to city and school employees. Include enough public and resident parking, scrap the 50' height limit and build 200 units. This would reduce car trips, save the environment, give some good folks a place to live...and it will never happen. Too bad

10 people like this
Posted by Online Name
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Feb 12, 2019 at 11:28 am

How does wanting fewer cars square with removing the commercial development cap which will only result in more commuters and other traffic? Such hypocrisy.

10 people like this
Posted by NeilsonBuchanan
a resident of Downtown North
on Feb 12, 2019 at 11:43 am

NeilsonBuchanan is a registered user.

I am pleased to see that the Council recognized the negative impact from years of uncoordinated planning. Now the Council can show its leadership by expediting their recently promised Downtown Coordinated Area Plan (CAP). The initial rational of the Council was to address the northern section of the Caltrain rail crossings.

However, rail crossing options just one small part of the puzzle. Speaking for residents who live adjacent to the University Ave Core, now is the time for us to rally around the CAP and demand that it commence more deliberately than the vague effort to scope it for two years and then undertake a multi-year planning process.

Last night I praised the planning process for Cubberley Community Center and North Ventura. The next few months will be a test for Mayor Filseith and new City Manager Shikawa to make things happen for Downtown. Vague promises are no longer sufficient. Cubberley and Ventura planning will wind down soon. City staff vacancies are being filled slowly. Funds have been saved by deferring the garage. Let's get going this summer with definite commitments.

7 people like this
Posted by Mountain View Resident
a resident of Mountain View
on Feb 12, 2019 at 11:53 am

Mountain View Resident is a registered user.

Over and over, the same tired comments about increasing public transportation and bicycle lanes instead of building well-designed, unobtrusive parking structures. There is a HUGE lack of handicapped parking spaces in downtown Palo Alto, as in downtown Menlo Park and downtown Mountain View. Those of us who need these spaces cannot take public transportation. And I do mean "cannot". You try taking a bus if you are wheelchair bound. Or temporarily sidelined on crutches with a knee or foot injury. Our area has been good about complying with the ADA re sidewalk ramps at almost every intersection. But the lack of marked handicapped spaces is deplorable. Garages are the only way to provide these crucial spaces.

11 people like this
Posted by Claire
a resident of Downtown North
on Feb 12, 2019 at 12:19 pm

Agreed, induced demand is VERY real (and wasn't everyone just LAST WEEK complaining about traffic on University). Building a garage is not a solution, it only induces more people to drive downtown. I have lived near downtown for ten years and can count on one hand the number of times I have driven downtown. I walk or ride my bike because I cannot deal with parking a car. You've seen the Whole Foods parking lot, it gives me anxiety.

Do not even get me started on the cost
or the changes in parking demand and driving behavior that are leaving garages empty from NYC, to SF, to Chicago. This is a 1988 solution that is irrelevant and antiquated.

Downtown is for people, not cars. To save businesses and retail downtown, we need residents. Put 5 stories of small unit housing with unbundled parking on that lot. Reduced trips, stronger retail, more customers, and fewer GHGs. Also, a darn fun place to be!

10 people like this
Posted by Biking is easier than you think
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Feb 12, 2019 at 12:48 pm

Biking is easier than you think is a registered user.

From the southernmost border of Palo Alto, it takes 22 minutes to bike downtown at a leisurely pace. It's flat. There's a bike boulevard that is lovely. It's safe and easy.

Try it. You might like it. If you have physical limitations that prevent you from bike, no guilt. But if you can, don't miss this really great bike ride!

11 people like this
Posted by yes we can reduce (not eliminate) dependence on driving
a resident of Escondido School
on Feb 12, 2019 at 1:06 pm

yes we can reduce (not eliminate) dependence on driving is a registered user.

Thank you to the City Council for challenging the Chamber of Commerce's absurd argument that spending $25 million or more for free housing for 238 additional cars is the only solution to a perceived "lack of capacity". In fact, if the Chamber members got behind a combination of better parking management (it works and is not rocket science) plus supporting the successes of the TMA by expanding incentives for more employees to choose alternatives to solo driving, everyone would benefit, at far less cost.
The real question is: why do CoC spokespeople continue to pretend that the only solution to perceived transportation issues is more of the 1950's one-sided focus of expanding capacity for MORE single occupant vehicles? This is short-sighted and won't solve the problems we actually face.
It's true that not all who work or shop or lunch downtown have good transit options currently, and that many live more than 5 miles away or face other barriers to bicycling. But increasing capacity by reducing demand through incentives for more employees to explore all options to solo driving would easily generate more spaces than this garage would provide at far lower cost -- and faster than a garage could be built. Not to mention that reducing GHG emissions as well as congestion is critical in achieving the goals of the City's Sustainability Plan.

Thank you to those who led the opposition to this outdated "solution" that would continue to subsidize solo driving by building free parking, without any consideration of the high environmental and social costs of doing so. What's most important to know is that we don't need everyone to change their transportation choice every day. But pursuing a broader solution to congestion by encouraging more employees to try options a couple days a week (carpool matching, park and ride options using express buses that already exist, secure bike parking etc), then we'd be making Palo Alto more liveable in both the short and the long term.

9 people like this
Posted by VTA Express Bus Cuts Proposed
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Feb 12, 2019 at 3:50 pm

VTA Express Bus Cuts Proposed is a registered user.

FYI...In their 2019 New Transit Service Plan, VTA proposes cutting Express buses. If you are using one of them, weigh in SOON!

8 people like this
Posted by Pete
a resident of College Terrace
on Feb 12, 2019 at 4:21 pm

Thank god. This was always a terrible idea.

15 people like this
Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Feb 12, 2019 at 4:31 pm

So where will all those coming to work in Palo Alto park?

VTA and Caltrain can't and won't.

We who live in Palo Alto are told to walk or bike everywhere so that those who work here can buy expensive permits because they have no alternative way to get to work.

We who live in Palo Alto will have to abandon downtown because we are obviously not wanted!

When will our City Council do things to serve residents, not those who don't live here?

If we have more workers coming in to fill the higher buildings that are now allowed here, they will need to park somewhere. They can't park in parking lots at the off ramps and come in by shuttle, because those don't exist. Instead they will be fighting residents to find space on residential streets.

This is the fact of life here, nobody can deny it. No amount of telling Palo Alto residents to bike and walk is going to stop those from out of town coming in to work and park.

12 people like this
Posted by Irvin Dawid
a resident of another community
on Feb 12, 2019 at 11:29 pm

Glad to see this development. May I suggest that the City embark on a new kind of parking infrastructure project in its downtown: parking meters, be it pay-stations or actual meters. As long as parking is unpriced, it can't be managed efficiently. Call it a "demand approach" as opposed to a supply approach to the perceived parking shortage.

If Palo Alto is to tackle climate change, it needs to determine how to reduce driving, rather than just accommodating it with more unpriced parking stalls.

9 people like this
Posted by Curmudgeon
a resident of Downtown North
on Feb 14, 2019 at 11:55 am

Why do I suspect that this and the busted limit on downtown office development are related? Who's proposal is city hall considering to build an underparked office building on that site?

5 people like this
Posted by Not Hayes Architects please
a resident of Downtown North
on Feb 26, 2019 at 7:14 pm

Not only is a garage there a bad idea but the architect they chose, Hayes Group Architects, has produced some super-ugly buildings around town.

About a block from the garage project is their design, 636 Waverley St. It is arguably the ugliest building in the area, grey concrete boxes irregularly piled one on top of another.
You really have to see it, not just take my word.

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