Building new parking garages in downtown Menlo Park will cost tens of millions of dollars while clogging streets with more traffic. But that’s what municipal leaders are seriously considering in an attempt to boost business, apparently oblivious to modern parking policies that have paid off for other Peninsula cities.
Last month, the Menlo Park City Council voiced support for building a new five-level parking garage on top of one of the city’s surface parking lots, called “parking plazas.” The project is estimated to cost between $29,000 and $43,000 per parking space — adding up to several million dollars. The council is also considering extending time limits for downtown parking spaces, having concluded that the current time limits on free parking discourage shoppers from visiting businesses on Santa Cruz Avenue.
Menlo Park maintains 1,595 free parking spaces in its downtown core (the area bounded by El Camino Real, University Drive, Oak Grove Avenue, and Menlo Avenue). The current time limits, set in 2011, are 15 minutes, one hour, or two hours, depending on location. In some spaces, drivers can exceed the two-hour limit by paying $1 per hour after it expires. Also available are $10 daily permits and $592 annual permits.
The council proposed doubling the time limits on the 15-minute and one-hour spaces and extending the two-hour spaces to a three hour limit, with the intention of giving customers arriving by car more time to spend at Santa Cruz Avenue businesses.
“We have the foot traffic, and then we take a stick and chase [customers] away as soon as they finish lunch,” said Mayor Catherine Carlton of the current time limits.
“I just want to make it as easy as possible for families and our seniors to patronize our local business and our restaurants downtown,” said Council Member Ray Mueller, who described the current time limits as outdated, based on parking data collected in 2009 during an economic recession.
But what’s really outdated is the idea that giving away more free parking will be good for downtown. Time limits are a blunt and ineffective means to ration access to parking. For years, UCLA professor Donald Shoup, the nation’s leading expert on parking policy, has counseled cities to instead manage parking by pricing it properly, so that some spaces are always available.