Business & Real Estate

Vision of downtown's future focuses on its parking issues

Asher Kohn/Town Crier
Contractors for Los Altos’ downtown visioning process recommend adding long-term parking to enable customers to do multiple things, like eat at a cafe and go to the bank, in a single trip.

The first glimpse of Los Altos’ downtown visioning process rests in a 102-page report scheduled for release at Tuesday’s Los Altos City Council meeting, after the Town Crier’s press deadline.

Compiled by a team of consultants, the report outlines an engagement strategy to discuss future scenarios and argues that more growth is necessary to maintain the “village feel” of Los Altos.

The economic vitality strategy, detailed by the Land Econ Group in concert with RRM Design Group, lays out the argument for why Los Altos’ strict parking rules and old infrastructure make life difficult for small-business owners.

“Given the small lot sizes, older buildings and high and not very flexible parking requirements, development in downtown Los Altos has been limited to those organizations that are extremely well capitalized and can assemble properties to create sufficient land area to construct an efficient above-grade or subterranean garage,” the report states.

The Land Econ Group points out that the greatest changes to downtown in recent years came from construction and redevelopment spearheaded by the Packard Foundation, Los Altos Community Investments and Safeway.

“The combination of high parking requirements, high land cost and the efficiency of larger parking garages forces new development to be of a size and bulk that many residents feel erode the downtown’s village character,” the report explains.

Finally fixing parking

The report recommends that Los Altos bring its downtown parking requirements in line with cities with similarly sized downtown districts.

“Los Altos’ parking requirement for restaurant development is five times that of downtown Santa Barbara and three times that of downtown San Luis Obispo,” according to the report. “In addition, the employee-related requirements penalize higher quality and more service-intensive restaurants.”

Their suggestion was to learn from these examples and use the human scale of downtown Los Altos as an advantage, not a hindrance.

“In contrast to Los Altos’ goal of providing convenient parking everywhere, many smaller cities that have vibrant downtowns promote a philosophy of parking once and visiting multiple destinations by walking. For example, a person who visits an office, a bank, a coffee shop, a drugstore and a restaurant in a small downtown needs only one parking space rather than the four or five” needed in Los Altos, the report states.

The city of Los Altos formed a parking committee, but it is stuck in purgatory. At the Jan. 24 city council meeting, the Citywide Parking Committee gave a report on downtown parking management. After the report, Ron Packard – a former city councilman who served when the Safeway project on First Street was under development – accused the committee of violating state transparency laws.

The Land Econ Group/RRM parking recommendation shares much of the Citywide Parking Committee’s logic. It recommends measuring parking by business square footage and levying a parking in-lieu fee to help smaller properties develop and keep pace with the current economy.

“Because of (Los Altos’) parking requirement, a retail store owner is unable to add a second story as small tenant office space; and a coffee shop owner cannot add a mezzanine level to accommodate peak business conditions,” the report states. “Small-scale incremental expansion of the downtown by longtime small property owners is essentially impossible. Such small-scale change would have maintained the area’s village character while adding vitality.”

Seven suggestions

Modifying Los Altos’ parking regulations is one of seven recommendations made by the consultants. The others include allowing fitness and personal service businesses in what is now retail zoning, providing a downtown location for a theater, preserving buildings of historical importance, adding public space, permitting three-story buildings with a top-floor setback at select locations and instituting a Downtown Design Review Committee.

These suggestions and more will be discussed in the community engagement portion of the downtown visioning process, led by Dave Javid of Plan to Place. Javid hopes to host pop-up workshops throughout the spring and summer at locations throughout Los Altos, as well as use a commercial space in downtown Los Altos for people to stop in and give their feedback.

There will also be two community workshops, first to refine the vision and then to review a draft vision plan.

The consultants hope to encourage dialogue through exercises that examine four scenarios city staff see for the future of Los Altos: the current zoning requirements; a buildout with 40-foot height limits; a buildout with 40-foot height limits and an emphasis on public facilities, such as a theater and public parking structures; and a buildout with 52-foot height limits. The scenarios would also include a review of different parking ratios.

According to estimates in the report, the visioning plan will go before the Planning and Transportation Commission in the winter of 2017-2018, and the city council soon thereafter.

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