News - March 17, 2010

Menlo Park weighs changes to downtown parking

by Sean Howell

Menlo Park has plenty of parking spaces in its downtown area, but many business owners and customers say they're frustrated at how hard it is to find an empty one. Others feel they're not allowed to stay long enough once they do come across two white lines with only asphalt in between.

Those were two of the issues presented to some 35 attendees, mostly business and property owners, of a city-sponsored meeting on the downtown parking situation March 11. The meeting was the second in a standard three-meeting, consultant-led cycle, which will presumably result in changes to parking rules downtown.

Two representatives from Wilbur Smith Associates outlined two possible approaches. One involved restricting parking limits to one hour on and around Santa Cruz Avenue and providing spaces with a three-hour limit in some parking plazas, to accommodate shoppers. Most plazas would retain the current two-hour limit.

A second approach, aimed at freeing up spaces in central downtown plazas, would keep the current two-hour limit in the parking plazas, but allow people to pay in order to stay longer. That might dissuade employees from snagging three-hour spaces meant for customers, the consultants said, though paid parking would also allow people to sit in the same space for a longer period of time.

The people who attended the meeting peppered the consultants with questions throughout. A few voiced suspicion or outright objections about the data collected in the survey, the consultants' methods, or the fact that the city is undertaking a parking study at all. These speakers exhibited what appears to be a longstanding general mistrust of consultants in Menlo Park, plus the residue of years of frustration over what some perceive as the city's inability to crack the downtown parking conundrum.

A survey of 150 downtown business owners yielded surprising results. Half the respondents said they were "satisfied" with the parking situation as is, with only 37 percent saying they were "dissatisfied." Contrary to conventional wisdom, the survey suggests that business owners view the difficulty of finding a parking space as a bigger problem than the short interval of time in which people are allowed to occupy a space, by a wide margin, though that distinction was less apparent when consultants asked the question in a different way.

Other factoids that may be of interest: Downtown streets and plazas are most full between 1 and 2 p.m., both on weekdays and weekends; 65 percent of people who park downtown stay for only one hour; half the employees who work downtown re-park their cars every two hours, rather than buy a permit; 12 percent of customers move their cars to avoid getting cited; at any given time, cars occupy no more than four-fifths of the total spaces downtown. This is all according to the survey.


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