For more than a few years now, we’ve enjoyed the perspectives offered by the citizen’s group Friends of Los Altos.
Although we sometimes don’t agree with its views, we respect what the group has to say. That’s because its board comprises three former Los Altos council members – Ron Packard, David Casas and Lou Becker – and a former planning commissioner, Jon Baer, all of whom comported themselves well while serving the city.
Friends’ latest editorial on the city’s Downtown Vision plan was interesting and provocative. (You can read it by clicking this link.)
Friends of Los Altos representatives correctly noted that virtually nothing has happened since the council adopted the plan a year ago this month. It’s easy to see why. The Downtown Vision plan has a lot of ideas – many of them ambitious and costly – on how to increase downtown vibrancy. Ideas include creating green spaces and building a performing arts center, offices and/or housing where the aboveground parking plazas are now located, and putting much of that parking underground.
Friends members feared that one of the “lower-hanging fruit” options in the plan – converting parking plaza space into space for outdoor dining – would result in the loss of 100 or more parking spaces. Members griped about the $300,000 cost of the plan and lack of specifics, then seemed to imply that the plan shouldn’t go anywhere because many of the recommendations involve touching the parking plazas.
“The problem is that we currently have little or no excess parking,” Friends said in its editorial.
I’ve worked and parked downtown for 25 years – Friends, there is no parking problem here. There is no lack of excess parking. I would agree with them about leaving the parking plazas alone – if it were 1985. But 2020 is right around the corner. Transportation trends are changing in cities large and small, nationwide and around the world.
Sprawling parking lots are becoming relics of the past. Riders don’t need parking spaces when they use Uber and Lyft. People are biking and walking more. Communities are being rethought as more close-knit, with one’s needs within walking distance.
Parking is not what drives good business. According to Michael Kodransky, global research manager for the Institute of Transportation and Development Policy: “Nobody goes to a city because it has great parking.”
I would assert that the fixation on parking – as well as opposition to change of any kind – has hurt the downtown. I found it sad that the 2017 First Street Green Project, with converted parking plaza green space and underground parking, died essentially under the threat of litigation. People vehemently protested over construction disruption, just as they did over construction work on Main Street in 1993. But nothing gets built without disruption.
Downtown Los Altos remains unfriendly to cyclists. The slanted spaces on Main Street make for easy car access but are difficult to back out of, and increase the danger of someone – like a cyclist – getting hit. Better, in my mind, to change to parallel parking and add bike lanes.
Fear is a powerful deterrent that has kept us in 1985. Any increased “vibrancy” will depend on putting that fear aside.
Bruce Barton is editor-in-chief of the Town Crier.