New Plan to Tackle Downtown Parking

By Richard Brenneman
Friday March 23, 2007

Even before they started talking about it, citizen commissioners and committee members heard a dramatic attack on one provision of the city’s new proposed downtown parking plan. 

Steve Wollmer, who lives on Berkeley Way near the soon-to-be-built Trader Joe’s building, fired a zinger at the start of public comments at Wednesday night’s joint meeting of the Downtown Area Plan Advisory Committee (DAPAC) and the Transportation Commission.  

“We find the selling of the public commons to be somewhat disturbing,” said Wollmer. “It should start at city hall instead.” 

He was referring to a provision that urges either elimination of Residential Permit Parking (RPP) or a hike in permit fees to restrict parking on the downtown’s residential streets. 

Wollmer said street parking is critical to residents in a city where many apartments, created from divided or expanded houses, lack any parking on the property and force residents to park on the streets. 

“If you want to create hatred and dissension among the citizens who live downtown, sell the parking,” he said. 

No decisions were reached on that issue Wednesday night, during a three-hour session that focused on what parking policies the city should follow during the growth of the next two decades. 

A perennial topic of conversation, downtown parking availability will depend on decisions about how many units builders are required to create for different types of buildings. 

One given, over which the city has no control, is UC Berkeley’s expansion plan through 2020, which calls for 800,000 square feet of new construction and 1,000 new parking spaces to accommodate it. 

Current city policy requires builders of housing to create one parking space for every three dwelling units—a figure Planning Director Dan Marks said may be the lowest in the nation. 

The low requirement is part of the city’s effort to encourage use of mass transit rather than passenger cars, a policy favored by transportation commissioners. 

Members of both bodies indicated they favored the policy, and a minority urged an even tighter no-new-space policy. 

In the end, members of the two groups indicated they were sympathetic to an approach that would let market forces decide how many spaces would be required for new housing. 

Marks said one alternative might be to decouple housing from parking, allowing developers to contribute funds toward city-owned parking in lieu of building spaces of their own. 

The other policy under consideration is the amount of parking needed for non-residential uses, primarily retail and offices, which are currently required to provide 1.5 spaces per thousand square feet of floor space. 


Two scenarios 

Two model planning scenarios are being used to prepare the new plan. The high-intensity model calls for 3,000 new residential units, many in a series of 16-story point towers. 

City planning staff members have said that concentrating the potential new residential growth mandated by the Association of Bay Area Governments (ABAG) in the downtown may be the least politically costly alternative for meeting the quota. That doesn’t mean all the units will be built—a factor left largely to the market—but that the city must be willing to accommodate the ABAG numbers. 

Assuming the full number is built, the new housing would require an additional 1,000 parking spaces. 

In addition to housing, the high-intensity model would create 300,000 square feet of new non-residential uses, mandating 450 new parking spaces under existing requirements, bring the total new parking spaces to 1,450. 

A second alternative, the so-called baseline model, doesn’t allow for high-rises and calls for 1,600 units in smaller buildings and 205,000 square feet of non-residential construction with a total of 840 new spaces. 

Members of the two panels voted overwhelming to exclude from the totals the 250 parking spaces lost since the city’s last downtown plan was created 15 years ago, and a majority voted against a proposal that would have ended the requirement for new spaces for non-residential construction. 

The votes were straw polls rather than formal actions. 


Hard numbers 

During the opening comments period, Deborah Badhia, executive director of the Downtown Berkeley Association, had urged adoption of a plan calling for a balance of transportation and parking. 

The DBA, which represents downtown merchants, wants parking spaces, reflecting the desires of its membership. Berkeley’s public transportation activists have regularly urged fewer spaces. 

Wednesday’s meeting yielded some specific numbers on parking in downtown Berkeley, assembled by the staff of IBI Consultants, the firm hired by city staff to work on the plan, and presented by Bill Delo of the firm. 

Currently, the city controls 665 public off-street parking spaces, while privately-controlled spaces in lots and inside buildings accommodate 1,236 vehicles, and university-owned facilities house 348 spaces. 

There are 1,275 on-street spaces, of which 1,275 are governed by one of the city’s two types of parking meters, with an additional 375 spaces governed by RPP rules.  

Of the three city-owned facilities, the city’s Center Street garage generates the heaviest weekday daytime usage, with an average occupancy of 98 percent, with the soon-to-be-temporarily-closed Oxford Plaza lot coming second with 90 percent and the Berkeley Way lot trailing at 29 percent. 

Center Street lot use drops dramatically on weekends, falling to 32 percent on Saturday afternoon, while levels of the Oxford Plaza and Berkeley Way lots at the same time are 68 percent and 65 percent respectively. 

Several panelists said they worried about the impact of the Oxford lot closure on Berkeley’s movie theaters, and asked staff to see if they could come up with estimates of the impact. 

The Oxford lot will reopen after construction of a new underground facility is completed, but with a net loss of public spaces. The closure is mandated by construction of the new Oxford Plaza affordable housing structure and accompanying David Brower Center.