If you think downtown Los Altos has a parking problem, drive to downtown Mountain View and you’ll find parking much harder to come by. Even on midweek nights, cars circle through the public lots behind Castro Street, waiting for spaces to open.
But are there really too few spaces?
According to Mountain View city officials, the answer, surprisingly, is no. They point to downtown’s two parking structures, including at least one they claim is consistently underused. City officials are trying to boost awareness of the structures that may offer more available – and free – parking.
Mountain View’s parking problems are a direct result of a thriving downtown.
“The growth of downtown has accelerated faster than we anticipated,” said Tiffany Chew, the city’s economic development manager. “But we’re at a standpoint where businesses are booming, so the downtown has seen an increase in overall popularity and occupancy in the existing buildings. That’s where we have challenges with parking.”
While there are more commuters than ever making their way in and out of downtown Mountain View, the city’s parking structures are not quite overloaded.
“While most of our lots are near the practical capacity, we still have one parking structure that’s not at that 85 percent threshold,” Chew said, referencing parking structure No. 2 at California and Bryant streets, where the CVS pharmacy is located. “We’re
encouraging people to start utilizing that parking structure.”
The city of Mountain View has been exploring ways to optimize use of its existing parking lots.
The first of the city’s efforts to direct downtown visitors to different parking lots came several years ago, when it implemented a downtown wayfinding signage program. Signs were posted around downtown that point to buildings like city hall and the police and fire departments, as well as downtown’s parking garages. Now, with an increasingly robust downtown scene, the city is reviewing ways to maximize the use of its existing parking structures. One such way, officials decided, is to adjust the downtown parking permit fee structure.
“We recently made changes to the fee structure and added the quarterly permit to the program,” Chew said. “We haven’t changed the fees in over seven years, so it was time to restructure the program a little bit to look at ways to better accommodate people within the district.”
Effective Jan. 1, annual permits rose to $300, quarterly to $100, monthly to $50 and daily permits, comprising 25 passes, to $100.
Maintenance of the district in coming years will include the purchase of new technologies.
“One of the things that we’re looking at is parking technology to make our system more efficient,” Chew said. “We’re in the heart of Silicon Valley – there’s a lot of technology available to make things more efficient.”
In upcoming months, the city council and the Downtown Committee will engage in talks to determine how much it can afford and which technologies to implement.
“The committee will have a chance to review and look at technology (such as) the wayfinding signage,” said Alex Andrade, the city’s business development specialist. “There are vehicle license plate recognition technologies that utilize the license plates as a way to determine whether there are people in violation – it’s essentially digital chalking.”
Andrade also mentioned that cameras are affixed to a city police vehicle to track how long people have been parked in particular spaces, and sensors and loop detectors connected to parking signage allow vehicles to be counted as they enter and exit a parking garage to count how many spaces are available.
The committee is scheduled to present its proposals to the city council Tuesday.
Andrade said the city does not intend to move forward with any kind of paid parking at the moment.
“What we do know is that parking behavior typically changes dramatically when people have to pay for parking, so we don’t know where this is going,” he said.
Traffic expert Donald Shoup, a renowned proponent of paid parking, visited the Mountain View staff recently to discuss his ideas.
“We’re looking at other cities to see what they’re doing with their downtowns,” Andrade added.
The city is also studying ways to generate more parking spaces, possibly via a third parking structure.
“This is an issue of looking at available land, having design set aside,” Andrade said. “So clearly that would be a potential long-term strategy, but we couldn’t say when or where. But we’re definitely starting those conversations.”
One thing is for sure – there likely won’t be any additional parking along Castro Street.
“If you think about all the successful downtowns, you don’t want to see parking right in front of Castro Street,” Chew said. “That’s why I think downtown Mountain View has been so successful – you have connectivity to parking in the back, lending itself to nice retail frontage along Castro Street that’s continuous, which is great for pedestrians and visitors.”
Downtown growth is showing little sign of slowing down, so parking challenges are likely to continue.