In December, a group of downtown business owners and customers submitted a petition asking that the city prioritize building a parking structure downtown, and the council added the project as a top priority for city staff to work on this year.
Currently, at peak hours, 80 percent of the city's downtown parking spots are generally occupied, according to staff. But that rate can create the appearance and perception that all lots are full. And while there may be space at less popular lots, not everyone is comfortable or able to walk several blocks to get to his or her destination, according to Menlo Park Housing and Economic Development Manager Jim Cogan at the April 16 meeting.
One possibility would be to combine other uses with a parking garage, like a movie theater or entertainment venue, market-rate or affordable housing, retail shops, restaurants or open space, staff said at the April 16 meeting.
But such a structure won't come cheap. Cost estimates range from $37,454 to $72,012 per space, which would mean a cost of roughly $9.4 million to $18 million for a 250-space garage, or $24.4 million to $46.8 million for a 650-space garage, according to staff. (The lower range comes from a 2016 mixed-use parking structure in Morgan Hill with three levels and 271 parking spaces, plus retail and event space. The upper range comes from cost estimates on the conceptual plan for a new six-level parking-only structure with 636 parking spots on California Avenue in Palo Alto.)
There's no plan yet for how a Menlo Park parking structure would be paid for, but staff presented three potential funding options: a citywide bond initiative, a facilities district, or a public-private partnership.
Housing or movie theater?
Opinions ranged on if and what other uses, besides a garage, should be included.
Several attendees from a group called SCoPE asked that the project prioritize affordable housing. The group's acronym stands for Stanford Coalition for Planning an Equitable 2035; it was formed to advocate for certain policies in Stanford's general use permit, currently under review and planned to set the university's development agenda between now and 2035.
One attendee, who identified herself as a resident of Dublin, asked why, given the housing crisis, the city should prioritize the creation of housing for cars rather than people?
Menlo Park resident Judy Adams, of the "Save the Guild" group, said she was uncomfortable with high-density housing downtown as it could crowd out the development of other businesses.
Vice Mayor Ray Mueller, at an April 17 council meeting, noted that it may be feasible to get first-run movies at a small theater in a parking garage because the landlords would be the city, and could set rent. He compared the concept to a small movie theater that exists at the Northstar ski resort in Tahoe.
Planning Commissioner John Onken said in public comment he'd prefer to see the structure be just for parking, since many of the smaller projects he sees come through downtown have problems with fitting all the parking the city requires on-site.
Attendees Skip Hilton and Jim Lewis urged the city to consider the aesthetics of a new garage. "I think we could do something as good or better than other cities around," Hilton said.
Another reason to build a parking structure, Cogan said, is that some businesses, like the Black Pepper Restaurant, have faced difficulty in setting up shop because of the city's parking requirement. When the former Menlo Hub site was reconfigured into the Malaysian restaurant, the owner ran into problems with the city's planning department because initial plans to expand the restaurant's kitchen triggered a requirement for more parking. But there is nowhere on site to build that parking, so the restaurant owner had to cut into the planned dining area to expand the kitchen, reducing the number of seats offered. Had there been a garage where businesses could purchase additional downtown parking spots, the restaurant would have had more flexibility, Cogan said.
Another option could be to have a parking structure mainly for downtown business employees that could be less centrally located, Cogan said.
Given ongoing questions about how local car use may change in the future — with the rise of car-sharing, self-driving cars and shifting preferences away from solo driving — one consideration may be to build a garage that can be converted into a building at a future date.
Plus, new technology available in parking garages may be considered, like automated parking. A new seven-story parking garage recently opened in Oakland by an Oakland-based company, CityLift, uses automation to stack cars in a much more compact space than traditional parking garages.
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