Downtown Mountain View has more free public parking than anywhere else in the city, with spaces for more than 2,400 vehicles at the city's garages, lots and curbsides. And on any given weekday, almost all of those spaces are packed, according to city staff. This is especially true around lunchtime and dinnertime, when most of the city garages are filled to capacity and about nine out of 10 parking stalls are occupied on average.
The parking woes are expected to get much worse in the near future. By next year, two public parking lots along Hope Street will be closed in order to be rebuilt into a luxury hotel and office project. Meanwhile, the city is also planning to redevelop the downtown transit station and its large parking area. Both these projects will eventually provide new underground garages, but they will deplete the available parking in the short term.
Mountain View city staff say bringing in paid parking would be a way to increase vehicle turnover and free up the best parking spots located closest to Castro Street. But the idea has always been controversial. Mountain View had previously tested out the idea when Levi's Stadium opened in 2014, based on estimates that hundreds of vehicles would be parking downtown on game days in order to take VTA light rail. The city later scuttled the program due to dismal turnout and frustrations among nearby residents.
In particular, downtown business owners have long been skeptical that any attempt to charge for parking could mean their customers go elsewhere. But that concern appears to be subsiding. In a survey with downtown merchants, nearly 75 percent believed customers were being driven away due to parking challenges. Similarly, half of respondents in an online public survey indicated they were willing to pay if it meant finding a parking space more easily. Last month the city's Downtown Committee members, which include several business representatives, indicated they were willing to give paid parking a try as long as it was implemented slowly and carefully.
Some elected officials who were previously uneasy with paid parking are now signaling a new interest in the option. During the discussion March 19, Councilman Chris Clark touted the possibilities of using smart meters to gather better data on driver patterns, and possibly using demand pricing to keep parking available across the downtown area. The technology allows a paid-parking system to be fine-tuned to meet the city's needs, he said.
"For me, the goal is to shift demand without any severe unintended consequences such as causing people to be more reluctant to come downtown," Clark said. "As long as you spend money up front, this gives you a significant amount of options in the long run."
In her staff report, City Business Development Specialist Tiffany Chew noted that plenty of things need to be analyzed before any paid-parking program would be ready for launch. For example, city officials would need to decide between installing single-space meters or pay stations on roughly every downtown block. She estimated it would cost up to about $1 million for the equipment, and about $470,000 in annual operating expenses. If the council wanted to fully recover those costs, they would need to charge $1.50 per hour to park, she said.
If council members wanted, they could stagger prices according to different zones of downtown, Chew said. In that case, the city would charge more to park in the high-demand areas.
A majority of the council members said they wanted to investigate the idea further. On the opposing side, Councilman John McAlister said he preferred a different system, such as parking validation.
"I've never been a fan of paid parking because I see it as a detriment," McAlister said. "We are competitive with other areas (because) Palo Alto and Sunnyvale don't have it."
Council members Alison Hicks and Margaret Abe-Koga recused themselves from the discussion because they own property in the downtown area.
In their discussion, City Council members indicated any switch to a paid parking system needed to be just one piece of a larger strategy on downtown parking. In particular, several highlighted a study finding that 81 percent of downtown employees were driving and taking up parking spots. One solution that was widely supported by the council would be to establish some kind of downtown transportation-management association, which would have employers pool their resources to provide incentives for workers to use transit or carpools.
City officials also said they wanted to revisit a system for parking permits in residential neighborhoods in order to prevent cars parking downtown from spilling over onto nearby neighborhood streets.
City staffers say they will return with a work plan, budget and timeline to prepare paid parking in the next few months.
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