It’s only 3 p.m. on a Friday and frustrated drivers are already circling through downtown Santa Cruz in search of the last few remaining parking spots.
On most weekday afternoons, the city’s parking structures nearly fill up, hovering around 90 percent of full capacity. The downtown concrete buildings, which range from two to four stories, have wait lists several months long, with requests for almost 1000 permits, according to a city report from December.
On top of that, as many as three downtown Santa Cruz parking lots could disappear in the not-so-distant future, as they are privately owned. So it may come as no surprise that the city manager’s office is looking at building a new parking structure at a site long discussed for such a project—the parking lot between Lincoln and Cathcart streets, along Cedar Street.
But some environmentalists contend that the city hasn’t been listening to its own consultants, and that staffers have not adequately begun transportation demand management efforts—essentially incentives to get people to drive less—in order to cut back the demand for parking.
Rick Longinotti, co-chair of the Campaign for Sensible Transportation, points to Stanford University, where administrators scaled back car trips dramatically, reducing the number of employees who drive alone to work from 72 percent to 46 percent over the course of seven years.
“The county of Santa Clara really made the conditions clear to Stanford to continue to grow,” Longinotti says. “If they were going to grow, they needed to limit the amount of new trips during commute hours to zero. Under those circumstances, Stanford really had to do something. So I want to give credit to the citizens of Santa Clara County. We could do something similar here.”
Longinotti and his fellow co-chair, Bruce Van Allen, organized a meeting on the morning of Saturday, March 4 with Brodie Hamilton, Stanford’s former director of transportation and parking, to explain how he helped shift a culture in sustainable transportation. Hamilton told activists at the Santa Cruz Police Department Community Room that one challenge was figuring out how to get workers to stop coming up with excuses for driving.
“The approach I took at Stanford was to address the ‘yes, buts,’” recalled Hamilton, who retired in 2014. “People say, ‘Well, I use alternative transportation, but … it costs too much.’ All right, we’ll make it free. ‘Oh. Well … when I get to work, sometimes I need to run errands.’ That’s fine—we’ve got car-sharing. We’ll give it to you for free. And there were all kinds of other things that we ended up addressing because we were looking at all the ‘yes buts’ to alternative transportation.”
Under Hamilton’s guidance, Stanford partnered with local train systems and began a massive marketing campaign. Stanford parking permits cost $700 annually, and if someone didn’t purchase one, the university would give them $300 each year instead. By 2002, the university had fewer parking spots than it did 10 years earlier, despite growing by more than 4,000 students.
Here in Santa Cruz, it’s hard to say exactly how long it will be before the supply of parking spots starts dropping, as more than 100 spaces are in lots that the city doesn’t own—some of which could soon be developed. According to a strategic plan from 2015, city leaders would like to consolidate parking into one lot near the center of downtown and free up single-story lots for mixed-use buildings, presumably with new housing.
The current rough draft proposal for the Cedar Street lot is to put a library on the ground floor, using money from Measure S, which voters approved in June. City Manager Martín Bernal estimates that it would be cheaper to build a brand-new, state-of-the-art library than to renovate the old one. Five stories of parking—plus a little office space—would go up above.
At a meeting in December, Transportation Manager Jim Burr said the city already does a lot to encourage alternative transportation, as 19 percent of people already bike or walk to work in the city. Longinotti has pressed the city to do more, including build more bike lockers, but the city’s lockers—which cost a nickel an hour—have garnered notoriously little use, something a city committee is studying.
Generally, planners like to start building a new parking structure before they absolutely need it, because once they break ground, the city will lose all 135 spots in the current lot until the project’s finished.
It isn’t clear how the city would pay for the $35 million, 632-space building, although a separate subcommittee is looking into it. Parking permits are currently $37 a month, and most city councilmembers have shown little interest in hiking up rates because many workers make meager wages and pay steep rents.
At Saturday’s meeting, George Dondero, executive director of the Regional Transportation Commission, asked the speakers about the differences between doing transportation demand management for a university and doing it on a municipal level.
UCSC’s transportation and parking director Larry Pageler, who spoke after Hamilton, conceded that part of the problem seems to be one of people living farther and farther away—sometimes out of the county—due to a lack of affordable housing. He also noted that the city doesn’t have the same authority over downtown employees that UCSC has over its community. “We are very different,” Pageler said.
Alan Schlenger, who attended the meeting, serves as board treasurer for Santa Cruz Community Farmers Markets, which holds its popular weekly Wednesday event downtown on that same Cedar Street lot that may turn into a parking structure. Although he isn’t ready to support or oppose the plan, he has felt encouraged by Bernal’s commitment to finding a permanent location for the market.
Bernal has even talked about building a pavilion for the market to use, and city leaders are forming a working group to discuss it.
“You don’t have a definite proposal,” he says, “and you’ll have to see when they come back.”