About 50 people, from bus riders to business people, weighed in for and against the parking policy recommendations in a Draft General Plan for the city Wednesday.
The Planning Commission met at the North Berkeley Senior Center to consider last minute changes in the language of the housing and transportation elements of the plan before submitting it to the City Council for approval next month.
By discouraging the construction of any new parking downtown in the next five years the Draft General Plan would diminish the area’s appeal to visitors and jeopardize years of economic expansion, representatives from downtown businesses and cultural institutions told the commission in public comments.
Many said their own patrons have complained of the lack of affordable or easily accessible parking in downtown Berkeley already.
“People tell me they can only come at certain times because there is no parking,” said Fran Gallati of the Berkeley YMCA, adding that he is afraid the club’s membership could decline if the parking situation fails to improve.
Susie Medak, managing director of the recently enlarged Berkeley Repertory Theatre on Addison Street, said the General Plan amounts to a “moratorium” on new parking spaces downtown at a time when cars are already overflowing into residential neighborhood streets because of a downtown parking shortage.
Kathy Eyre, board president for the Habitot Children’s
Museum, located on the 2000 block of Kittridge downtown, said the lack of affordable parking was the number one reason people opted to discontinue their museum memberships this year.
Habitot Children’s Museum draws 70,000 visitors a year from throughout the East Bay and beyond, according to Executive Director Gina Moreland. Since its clientele are young parents with small children, it’s critical that they have access affordable parking as close to the museum as possible, Moreland said.
But nearly as many people spoke out in favor of the Draft General Plan’s parking recommendations as against Wednesday.
The downtown business people are promoting “a not very sensible parking or nothing theory,” said Berkeley resident Becky O’Malley, who has spoken out before at Planning Commission meetings about the problems of noise and air pollution caused by excessive auto traffic in Berkeley.
Dave Campbell, of the Bicycle Friendly Berkeley Coalition, said he supports a moratorium on parking “until you get good data on the real need” for parking downtown.
And City Councilmember Kriss Worthington said if there really was a need for more parking in downtown Berkeley, private companies would be building parking structures today.
“It makes no economic sense at all to build parking (in downtown Berkeley),” Worthington said. “If it did people would invest the money and they would make millions of dollars.”
Worthington said Thursday that the city actually has to subsidize some existing lots to keep them in business. The city is spending “hundreds of thousands of dollars” to put new elevators in the Sather Gate parking facility, he said.
People perceive a parking shortage in Berkeley only because they’re unwilling to park in garages and then walk to their destination, Worthington said. Instead, they expect to park as close to the business or institution they’re visiting as possible, he added.
There are thousands of parking spaces “sitting there vacant right this minute and every night this week,” Worthington told the Planning Commission Wednesday, referring to a recent city and UC Berkeley sponsored study that found that parking facilities near downtown, like the Tang Center garage on Bancroft Way, are never completely full and have numerous vacancies in the evening hours.
Worthington said the city “needs to look at a bunch of practical ideas” for making better use of existing parking before building new facilities.
Planning Commissioner Zelda Bronstein said Thursday that the Draft General Plan’s parking recommendations are not so much a “moratorium” on new parking downtown as an effort to encourage the city to try alternative ways of dealing with the parking issue before investing in new parking structures that may not be needed.
“If you build more parking garages you’re going to encourage more people to drive downtown,” Bronstein said. “Maybe that’s what we have to do, but that’s a last resort, not a first resort.”
Specifically, the current language in the draft General Plan says “The City will not consider expanding any existing city-owned public parking lots or structures, and will not consider building additional parking lots or structures in the Southside or Downtown” until it has attempted to reduce the demand for downtown parking spaces in other ways.
The plan recommends that the city encourage the use of public transit by giving people who work downtown an “Eco Pass” so they can ride buses for free, promoting housing around public transit centers, charging higher rates for all day parking, and creating various other incentive for people to drive less.
The plan recommends that the city find ways to manage existing parking facilities so they better meet the needs of visitors to the city. For example, UC Berkeley has opened its parking facilities near downtown to the general public, but Worthington said there still aren’t enough signs to tell people that they can park in these garages.
Worthington also suggested that the city could put shuttles in place to carry people from parking garages to shopping areas, theaters, etc. That way people who don’t use the garages because they are not close enough to their destination might begin using them, Worthington said.
The plan calls for the city to evaluate the possibility of constructing “satellite” parking facilities away from the congested downtown area and then transporting people to popular Berkeley destinations by shuttle.
Sill, Planning Commissioner Mary Ann McCamant said Thursday that the plan’s language is “too draconian” and “really ties the hands of the city” in dealing with parking.
McCamant said she agrees that downtown is too congested and that the solution lies in getting people to rely on their cars less, but she said ruling out new parking only harms merchants without reducing congestion.
“There are all kinds of things that are starting to blossom” in downtown Berkeley, McCamant said, pointing to Berkeley Repertory Theatre, the soon to be reopened Berkeley Public Library, and the new downtown location planned for the popular Freight & Salvage Coffee House.
“People will not continue to come for all that if they can’t park. They just won’t.”
The Planning Commission’s General Plan would replace the Berkeley Master Plan of 1977, serving as an updated statement of community priorities to guide city government in the years to come. The Planning Commission will continue making last minute adjustments to the language of the plan at its next meeting: 7 p.m., April 24, at the North Berkeley Senior Center, 1901 Hearst Ave.