City Council Considers Adding a Garage Downtown

On Monday night, the City Council examined options for building a new garage in the downtown area to be situated on existing city-owned parking lots. The Council reviewed a couple of private-public partnership responses to a Request for Information which would allow the city to get private financing for the garage. The Council also reviewed staff’s prioritization of the 16 existing surface parking lots and garages in the downtown area as candidates for the  new garage.

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Staff named Lot E/G (Gilman St), Lot G, and Lot D (Hamilton/Waverly) as the best candidates for a new parking garage mainly based on the impact to surrounding businesses during construction as well as current site usage. Many on the Council noted that Lot E/G is currently the site of the farmer’s market and didn’t wish to displace it; staff noted that Lot G alone, along with Lot D, would then still remain top contenders. A big part of the discussion with regard to lots focused on the fact that these lots were selected based on notions of a traditional parking garage and did not have stacking technology in mind, but looking at the Parking Structure Feasibility Study’s lot selection mechanism, it appears that even if stacking technology were taken into account, the same lots would still be at the top of the list.

The private-public partnership responses presented to Council included:

1) Lot A (Lytton Ave & Emerson St)

  • a combination of ground floor retail, 18 dwelling units, and 237 free underground parking spaces accessed via a fully automated elevator-like docking station

  • Free parking

  • Net gain of 75 parking spots (68 existing)

  • Lease period to be negotiated (40-50 years) with profit sharing of rental/lease revenue

2) Lot D (Hamilton Ave & Waverly St.)

  • a combination of ground floor retail and 283 parking spaces

  • Based on an assumption that parking would cost $17.50 a day with no annual permits for employees AND that all surrounding parking would become paid parking

  • Net gain of 168 parking spaces (86 existing)

  • 20 year lease

For context, staff has estimated that with both underground levels and stacking technology, if Lot D were strictly a garage, then Lot D could potentially hold 445 parking spaces.  This data doesn’t exist for Lot A as it was originally not examined because it is so small.

Some on the Council (including Pat Burt, Larry Klein, Karen Holman, and Nancy Shepherd) and in the audience were skeptical of a private-public partnership as a matter of principle. They expressed discomfort with giving private entities control over public land and long leases that were somewhat risky if part of the revenue/rental share from the retail and residential parts of the projects were to fall through. Others were interested in at least seeing other private-public proposals. This seemed like a prudent response because staff didn’t really have concrete numbers to offer Council on what the cost savings from such a partnership would actually look like. In some ways, this discussion was somewhat premature without the figures since it’s certainly possible that a big enough cost savings would outweigh the associated risks of such an endeavor and allow the Council to direct funds to other sorely needed infrastructure projects.

More telling was the Council’s response to the idea of paid parking. Several Councilmembers, including Greg Scharff, Liz Kniss, and Larry Klein were strongly opposed to the idea of paid parking “in a sea of free parking” - Bob Moss’s statement that it’s “beyond idiotic” and that “no one would come downtown” certainly set a tone! But others including Greg Schmid, Marc Berman, and Gail Price were open to discussing the idea. Gail Price echoed Adina Levin’s statement that lots of downtowns including San Francisco and Redwood City have implemented paid parking with no evidence of it harming local businesses. From my perspective, though, paid parking need not be an all or nothing affair: the same segment of the population that is willing to fly first class would also be willing to pay for parking that was easy to find, close to University, and always reliable even if other garages were free. The same is also true of anyone running late to a meeting downtown!

The Council also discussed the issue of expediency. Bob Moss urged the Council not to make any decisions until the residential parking permit program (RPPP) went into effect and others noted that it would be prudent to see if Measure B, which would provide an influx of cash for infrastructure projects, would get passed on November 4. Greg Schmid responded that we already know that we have at least a 2000 parking space deficit and that RPPP could only increase the demand for garages and Larry Klein, as well as Greg Scharff, pointed out that the Council had already committed to building the parking garage, regardless of the outcome of Measure B; Gail Price and Marc Berman also agreed that now was the time to move ahead.

Almost everyone on the Council agreed that a new garage should include retail space! As Greg Scharff put it, a garage is a “dead space that destroys our [city’s] vitality.” Whether or not the garage should also include residential space had both its supporters and detractors. On the one hand, the community’s strong desire for more parking is a strong incentive to build a garage with as many spaces as possible right now. But on the other hand, how many garages can be added to the downtown area without it becoming more garage than downtown?

To that end, Nancy Shepherd suggested that the city could also explore the option of renting parking spaces from underused parking lots. She also suggested the possibility of a different type of partnership, wherein the city might build a garage on top of an existing private parking lot such as the Whole Foods lot. 

Interestingly, Gail Price pointed out that some cities are starting to build parking garages so that they can later be converted to residential uses. That kind of forethought could do us a lot of good if the city’s transportation demand management strategies pan out and especially if Caltrain, VTA, and shuttle services expand as we hope (and let’s not forget the dream of self-driving cars, which may well be a reality within the 50+ year lifespan of a garage). If, as in San Francisco, we get to a third of the population not owning a car anymore, we will have a cheap and environmentally-friendly way to convert unused space into much-needed housing. Do you have other creative solutions for dealing with the city’s parking? Leave a comment below!     

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