Patrons of the Downtown YMCA will soon get a sneak preview of Berkeley’s changed parking picture—which some describe as a crunch and others as a matter of lowered expectations.
Last month and effective Nov. 1, TransAction Companies unilaterally terminated its agreement to provide Y patrons free parking during morning and evening hours at the company’s 2020 Kittredge St. garage, just behind the public library.
“This will make it more difficult for me to get to the Y,” said Jody Bush, retired Deputy Director of Library Services for the city, who like many seniors drives to the YMCA for swimming and fitness classes.
But Berkeley Transportation Director Peter Hillier said the city’s 420-space Center Street garage has had open spaces throughout the day all year, and that the Berkeley’s parking “problems” are as much subjective as real.
“There are different expectations around this,” he said. “Some people don’t consider parking on the roof of the Center Street Garage acceptable.”
Downtown business groups see TransAction’s move as part of a strategy to boot tenants from the Kittredge Street Garage, a 350-space lot that accounts for about 25 percent of the downtown parking supply, to pave the way for Library Gardens—a gargantuan 176-unit apartment complex and retail center providing housing for about 300 people.
TransAction Senior Vice President John DeClerq, acknowledged the motivation behind the decision, saying it was time for parkers to start changing habits with the development scheduled to start next year.
TransAction has already moved its employee parking from the Kittredge Street garage to the neighboring 612-space Great Western Garage on Allston Way, according to garage manager Denny Yang.
Even with the Kittredge garage open, the downtown parking supply is stretched thin. During the robust economic years of the late 1990s, downtown lots were often filled to capacity during peak early afternoon hours and the Kittredge lot even occasionally used a valet service to squeeze cars into the garage.
But the struggling economy has reduced demand for spaces, garage operators said. “This year we’ve had more spaces available,” Yang said, but with [Kittredge] closing we’ve started getting more cars and might be full by next month.”
When first introduced in 2000, Library Gardens was promoted as the crown jewel of downtown development, promising to add retail shops and house residents near Shattuck Avenue while replacing the lost ground floor parking with one or two underground parking levels.
But digging underground proved too expensive: DeClerq estimated that each basement parking spot would cost roughly $50,000. “Every week it was another million,” he said in an interview last October.
Last November he reintroduced the development, keeping the 176-unit apartment complex and five ground floor shops but scuttling the underground garage. The plan now calls for a 116-space ground floor lot with 105 parking permits for residents—a net loss for the city of at least 208 parking spaces.
City zoning laws require the development provide only 59 spaces, but downtown merchants fear that closing the Kittredge lot will severely impact business.
“Losing the [Kittredge] Garage would have a huge impact for the downtown,” said Downtown Berkeley Association Executive director Deborah Bahdia. “It would most severely impact the Library and YMCA, which are the anchors for downtown. We rely on them to bring thousands of people downtown every day that support economic life in the area.”
The project’s own Environmental Impact Report showed only modest displacement from loss of the lot, with demand only exceeding supply during peak early afternoon hours, but Berkeley activist Fred Lupke noted in an August letter to planning officials that the parking study was done in the summer—when UC Berkeley and Vista College were on recess—and a second survey was conducted on election day when most city employees stayed home.
Berkeley Planning Commissioner Rob Wrenn would like to see DeClerq provide the minimum number of parking spaces for complex residents, allowing the rest to remain open to commuters. “If you compare his project to other downtown developments his stands out as providing far more parking spaces for residents,” he said.
Closure of the Kittredge lot could create parking problems for Berkeley, Wrenn said, but he thought the city could alleviate a potential parking crunch by evicting long-term tenants from its Center Street Garage in favor of short-term users—who tend to favor the Kittredge site—or by expanding the Center Street facility during a much-needed earthquake retrofit.
The project is scheduled to go before the Zoning Adjustment Board in December.
In the meantime, many YMCA patrons could soon be facing a tough commute. Downtown YMCA Director Fran Gallati estimated that 500 patrons use the YMCA between 5 a.m. and 11 a.m., 400 of whom come by car. Of those, 250 park at the Kittredge Garage.
TransAction for years had allowed YMCA patrons to park for free on weekdays between 5 a.m. and 11 a.m. and between 4 p.m. and 10 p.m. in return for a discounted monthly fee paid by the Y.
Gallati has negotiated a deal with the Great Western Garage to supply $1 parking during evening and early morning hours, but has still not plugged the 8 a.m. to 11 a.m. slot—when the YMCA offers the bulk of its fitness classes to seniors, the disabled, and parents with young children who are more likely to travel by car.
“It will be hard for a lot of our people not to drive,” he said. “If you have kids to bring for swimming lessons, or a medical condition and take part in a one- or two-hour class, you’ve built that into your lifestyle.”
Gallati said he didn’t expect the potential 300 new residents at the complex to offset loses by members who could no longer find parking, because he expected many of Library Garden’s future tenants to be students, who would not be the YMCA’s natural customer base.