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By Dana Hendrickson

Do NOT Expect A Downtown Parking Garage In Menlo Park During Our Lifetime

Uploaded: Dec 28, 2018

December is the worst time to look for a place to park downtown. As I circled the parking plazas a fourth time on a recent afternoon - competing with dozens of other frustrated holiday shoppers, I imagined them rolling down their windows and screaming, “Come on… why doesn’t Menlo Park have a parking garage?” But I eventually succeeded (and calmed down) and had to admit this was a rare experience for it usually takes me less than a few minutes to find a convenient space.

Menlo Park has floated the idea of building a parking garage downtown for many years but interest has waxed and waned, and no formal project study ever undertaken. Six different plaza locations for potential parking structures are identified in the Menlo Park Downtown/El Camino Specific Plan approved in 2012. And in January, our prior city council made a downtown parking structure one of its top priorities for 2018. What will our new city council do?

I am not convinced Menlo Park needs, can afford, or has the will to build a parking garage. But unfortunately, just this possibility severely limits what our city is willing to do for other street users, especially bicyclists. Selectively reducing on-street parking to free up space for bike lanes would significantly improve safety, comfort and convenience but this will remain politically unacceptable as long as the city believes “lost spaces” could be replaced only with a parking structure.

There are a number of good reasons for my persistent skepticism.

• The “downtown parking problem” is poorly defined because Menlo Park has not developed a trustworthy needs assessment, i.e., it has no idea how many additional parking spaces it needs either now or in the future. Therefore, the perceived “need” is largely opinion-based.

• The prior city council believed a parking garage is the best solution without seriously considering alternatives.

• The prior city council also hoped a new business partner would largely fund a parking structure if the city provided land. This is a pipedream as parking structures are extremely expensive and construction costs are rising rapidly. Palo Alto is now building a parking garage in an existing parking plaza near California Avenue, and the $40M budget means each ADDITIONAL parking space costs $119,000! Also, no developer will foot the bill for sufficient parking for BOTH the city and its own use.

Fortunately, Menlo Park could increase “available downtown” parking without building a
parking garage.

• The current usage mix of daily permit and hourly plaza parking could be changed to favor more hourly parking. Today, permit users can use up to 46% of total designated spaces. Simply set a new limit and sell fewer permits each year until the target is reached.

• Daily parking permit prices could be raised to reduce demand. The current cost is less than $500 a year, or about $2.00 a day. Note: daily parking at the nearby Caltrain station costs $5.50, and five hours of extended parking in the plaza costs $2.50.

• If more hourly AND permit parking is needed then build satellite parking lots for permit holders within a mile of downtown and serve motorists with a convenient shuttle. Also reduce the number of plaza parking permits so more hourly spaces become available. There are many large parking lots unused during weekdays. Why doesn’t the city lease and upgrade them? This parking solution is more flexible and much less costly than a parking garage and can be built much sooner.

If you are expecting Menlo Park to build a parking garage downtown in our lifetime, it’s time to face reality. It’s NOT going to happen. However, once Station 1300 and Middle Plaza are built the demand for free hourly parking will likely increase. Our city needs to encourage new residents to shop In Menlo Park.

And we need to encourage our new city council to study promising parking alternatives in 2019 so more hourly spaces are available BEFORE they are needed. This requires vision and courage!