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Parking-plaza project appears headed for demise for now

Photo Town Crier File Graphic Los Altos officials had considered developing the parking plazas shaded in red.

A much-discussed plan for a public/private partnership that would permit three-story, mixed-use developments on some of Los Altos’ parking plazas appears headed to the grave – at least during this city council’s tenure.

“I don’t think it’s going to go anywhere,” Mayor Ron Packard told the Town Crier, acknowledging that future councilmembers could resurrect the plan. “The public has spoken, and they’re not that interested.”

Introduced years ago as a feasibility study for a parking garage, the proposal gradually evolved into the concept of selling three downtown parking plazas to commercial builders who would replace the lost parking spaces in new underground structures. The thought, city officials have said, is that development would bring more vitality to downtown.

But councilwoman Val Carpenter, who served as chairwoman of the committee charged with finding a solution, conceded last week that building structures in parking lots equals “a lot to give up.”

“People have come forward saying they like our tree-lined plazas and they don’t want … buildings in the way of the view,” she said. “I hear that.”

Added Carpenter, “It’s the nature of what we do – balance. … Looking for balance between preserving what we all cherish about living in Los Altos with needed improvements.”

She said that since city officials and Safeway, which plans to revamp the downtown store, agreed its grocery-store parking lot would be open to the public, there may be less of a need to immediately replace the estimated 100 parking spots lost from current infrastructure and commercial projects.

For now, councilmembers aren’t likely to continue the framework, despite unanimously rezoning the parking lots to allow development and clearing the environmental impact report. Packard said the city could now focus its efforts on a parking-garage project.

Asked whether dropping the parking-plaza development plan could contribute to a woeful downtown scene, Packard replied, “We have less vacancy than other towns percentagewise. … People who want to claim (economic) stagnation is a serious problem want to advance their agenda for higher density.”

It’s unclear whether there were any developers interested because city officials said they couldn’t discuss potential buyers.

Assistant City Manager and Community Development Director James Walgren, who spent years crafting the project and fielding council and public feedback, chuckled when asked if he were disappointed in the reversal of interest.

“There’s a lot of construction fatigue downtown,” he said. “I completely understand people’s reaction. … Tenant spaces are filling up, downtown is doing pretty well.”

Councilman David Casas, speaking in general terms to avoid violating open-meeting laws, called the parking plazas “public assets.”

“Our responsibility is for the assets we have to be utilized for their best use,” he said.

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