Viewpoint - September 8, 2010

Editorial: Menlo parking gets a makeover

The Menlo Park City Council's decision last week to make a major change in downtown parking regulations is a step forward, but if the city really wants to provide plenty of free parking for downtown shoppers and restaurant patrons, there is a simpler way to do it.

Either make a major reduction in the number of parking permits issued in downtown plazas, or build a parking garage to house the hundreds of retail employees and office workers who are now taking away valuable parking spaces from customers.

It is no surprise to city officials and parking experts that the city's parking plazas are more than adequate to serve shoppers and restaurant patrons, if up to half the spaces in the plazas were not taken by permit parkers. For example, plazas two and three are at nearly 100 percent capacity from noon until 3-4 p.m. on most weekdays. And it is no surprise that these plazas also have the highest percentage of permit parkers.

The parking plan adopted by the City Council last week goes part way by moving 50 percent of the permits from the popular plaza two off Oak Grove Avenue to other, lesser-used plazas, which will leave more spaces for shoppers. This is a good step, but more needs to be done if retail customers are the highest priority downtown.

There are some other big changes in the new plan: Parking on Santa Cruz Avenue will be reduced to one hour from two, and 15-minute spaces will be added at the corners for quick in-and-out shopping. The parking consultants believe this will provide more options for shoppers to quickly make a purchase at Santa Cruz merchants or run in and out of a drycleaner, for example, when they use the 15-minute spots.

And, for the first time, anyone who wants to park longer in Plaza One will be able to pay for the third and subsequent hours at a slowly escalating rate. This option is designed to help shoppers who need more than two hours to enjoy extended appointments without worrying about parking tickets.

Another way the plan will help stop employees from shuffling their cars among the two-hour lots is to open up 26 all-day street-parking spaces on the downtown periphery in hopes that a short walk will be much more appealing than moving a car every two hours. And in another effort to give shoppers more time, the many one-hour street parking slots on Oak Grove and Menlo Avenue will jump from one to two-hours in January.

These changes came after a $55,000 study commissioned by the city to design a better parking plan. A survey taken by the consultants found what most downtown business owners already know — permit-parkers and employees who move their cars among the two-hour spaces generate the most concerns from local merchants and property owners. Similar studies have shown that overall, downtown parking capacity is more than adequate. But permit and employee parkers change the dynamic by taking away valuable spaces that can freeze shoppers out of parking near their destination.

That is why downtown merchants and property owners need to give serious consideration to the often suggested but never adopted plan to build one or two parking garages downtown. As parking studies clearly show, all-day permit and employee parkers are a problem that could be solved by shifting them to a site away from the most valuable parking plaza spaces. Depending on other improvements adopted for downtown, the new garages could virtually eliminate the downtown parking crunch at all hours of the day and provide longer-term parking.

There are plenty of other reasons to debate whether Menlo Park is ready to accommodate a parking garage — such as aesthetics and cost — but there should be no question that such structures will make it much easier for downtown shoppers and restaurant patrons to find a place to park near their destiniation.


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