downtown parking
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The Price of Parking: 600-Space Downtown Project Faces New Scrutiny

A former planning consultant raises alarm as officials look to other communities for examples

A preliminary rendering shows how a combination parking garage and library might look on Cedar Street.

[Editor’s note: This is the second part in a two-part series on the issues surrounding parking downtown. Read part 1 here.]

A former planning consultant has leveled a serious allegation against Santa Cruz city staff and future plans to build more downtown parking.

Economist and transportation planner Patrick Siegman spent more than a year working on the Economics of Parking study at the tail end of his 15 years with Nelson\Nygaard Consulting Associates. He claims that city staffers have predicated their plans for a 600-space mixed-use garage on faulty math.

“I don’t say that lightly. I was really disturbed by it,” adds Siegman, who was laid off this past spring. Siegman, who now runs his own firm, says that years of repetitive stress slowed his work habits, and he harbored no hard feelings over the layoff. Two of his projects, including his work on the parking study, ran over budget, he says. Nelson\Nygaard officials did not return GT’s calls about Siegman’s termination.

Earlier this year, Jim Burr, the city’s transportation manager, began working on the model started by Nelson\Nygaard, and Burr says that he and other staffers did so “in a professional manner.”

“It’s our job to let decision makers here in the city know about our best picture of what the future’s gonna be for downtown parking, and that’s what we did,” Burr says. “That’s a very serious allegation, and I’ve been doing this for a long time. I take it very seriously, and I’m quite offended by Patrick.”

Most of the spots in the garage would be replacement parking for redeveloped lots in other blocks, according to city projections. The garage would be combined with a new public library and some housing or office spaces.

GT spoke with two former colleagues, who vouched for Siegman’s work but asked to remain anonymous.

“He’s a very upstanding guy. I’ve never heard of him speaking out against a client or former client,” one former coworker said. “He’s certainly very passionate about sustainable transportation, but I’ve worked closely with him on some projects, and he’s always very fact-based.”

Siegman says that part of what initially perturbed him was that Burr said in a presentation to the Downtown Commission that parking demand necessitated a new garage, based on modeling from Nelson\Nygaard. But Siegman says he did not hear any mention of city staff modifying the firm’s model. (Burr says he is certain he mentioned it in either his talk or in the staff report.)

In his original version, Burr assumed that an off-street parking garage was effectively full when it reached 80 percent capacity. Siegman, however, had created his earlier model with the assumption that a parking garage is effectively full when it reaches 90 percent capacity.

Burr later changed the city’s downtown parking model to have a 90 percent full rate for later meetings, and he says the parking models still penciled out, as he had presented. He also clarified Nelson\Nygaard’s role in the process.

There is still disagreement on many of the key issues around parking demand, including the impact of raising parking rates and fees.

Siegman has observed that raising parking rates—which the city of Santa Cruz plans to do in order to pay for the garage—has created a decrease in demand in other cities. Siegman’s model assumed that Santa Cruz would be no different.

Siegman believes the garage may never make enough money to break even—a notion that Burr sees as ridiculous.

City officials see the increased parking rates having little to no impact on demand. Economic Development Director Bonnie Lipscomb says that even though the city would more than double its hourly rates to $1.25, prices would have to go much higher before they would have any impact on demand. Burr notes that less than a decade ago many lots were free, and demand didn’t change at all when they became pay lots.

Santa Cruz officials—including Lipscomb, City Manager Martín Bernal, and Public Works Director Mark Dettle—are standing by the city’s calculations.

“We’re still working with Nelson\Nygaard,” Bernal says, “and they’re completing the study, so it’s not like the project was completed, and we threw it out.”

WHEN YOU’RE DOWNTOWN

Even if the proposed increased parking rates sound relatively low, it’s hard to know exactly what effect they’ll have on workers. Many downtown businesses already have a difficult time recruiting employees and holding on to them—partly because of the town’s high housing costs. It isn’t hard to imagine increased rates putting an additional squeeze on many downtown workers. Such questions aren’t new.

In Santa Cruz City Council meetings over the years, Chip, the executive director of the Downtown Association, has pushed for creative solutions to parking problems and encouraged councilmembers to consider options carefully. Even the monthly parking passes, which are more affordable than hour rates, can be steep for some workers.

According to the city’s projections, parking passes would be going up also, to $75 a month.

The potential impact on workers has been on Lipscomb’s mind.

“It’s definitely a concern,” she says. “That’s part of the conversation that we’ve been having with some of the businesses—looking at the proposed parking rate structure and working with the businesses to come up with some programs. We’re going to be able to do some of that.”

There has been a push from the Campaign for Sustainable Transportation to provide free or substantially reduced-cost bus passes to workers, arguing that it would be a better way to spend revenue from increased parking rates. At a June 19 council meeting, Brett Garrett challenged notions that Santa Cruz cannot have a parking shortage, given that New York City and San Francisco both do. He noted that both cities also have great transit, which is what he would like to see Santa Cruz prioritize. “And then, if we have enough money left over, we’ll think about whether or not we have enough parking,” he says.

Lipscomb says the city is “totally supportive” of distributing such downtown bus passes. “We want to make sure we’re matching the bus passes to those who will use them,” she says.

A city survey of downtown commuters found that 24 percent of downtown workers would use such a pass if it were available to them.

Chip tells GT that increased public transit can only have so much of an impact. “A lot of the places where people live, there isn’t a bus,” he says. “We can’t just pretend that employees don’t park downtown.”

BOULDER PUSH

After last week’s story (“Levels in the Details,” GT, 8/29) ran, sustainable transportation activist Rick Longinotti wrote to remind us about downtown commuter surveys. He suggested the information could be a more effective method to measure how people get around than the census data which had been used prior.

Downtown commuter information isn’t readily available for as many communities for a wide-ranging side-by-side comparison. But the city of Boulder conducted one in 2014, as did the city of Santa Cruz in 2017. Unlike census data, the surveys show the workers who come downtown. It also shows a bigger gap between the two towns than indicated in the census data.

Santa Cruz’s commuter results were similar to the census numbers, and still impressive: the drive-alone rate was 58 percent, less than 2 percent higher than shown in the census data. Boulder’s was far lower, coming in at 43 percent, highlighting why activists see it as a dream scenario.

Even so, Downtown Commissioner Zachary Davis tells GT that when he went with the Santa Cruz Chamber of Commerce on a trip to Boulder in 2014, he was struck by how long community members have been working on creating multimodal transportation in and around Boulder—a history documented in two papers, one on the history of Boulder transportation from 1858-1984, and another on transportation from 1984-2017. While it’s the more recent paper that illustrates the focus of getting people out of single-occupant vehicles, Davis argues that both papers demonstrate the depth of engagement Boulder has had with regional transportation planning, as well as its willingness to document efforts made and lessons learned over the years.

“From my perspective, what Boulder has achieved has taken decades of far-reaching vision, consistency and political will,” Davis, who co-owns the Penny Ice Creamery, writes in an email. “Not something easily replicated.”

News Editor at |

Jacob, the news editor at Good Times, won the 2014 award for best local government coverage from the California Newspaper Publishers Association. A longtime basketball and football fanatic, Jacob has evolved into a shameless fair weather fan and band wagoner for hot West Coast sports teams. He also enjoys arguing with others about where to find the best burrito in town.

1 Comment

1 Comment

  1. John

    September 4, 2018 at 11:28 pm

    most of my trips downtown are quite short stops, I’m going to a specific business and rarely there for more than 30 minutes. if the parking costs double, I’m gonna take my business elsewhere.

    I’ve lived in santa cruz for 25 years now, and the monterey bay area since the 1970s.

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