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The SMART Area Plan, Part 2: All Those Cars

San Rafael wants to make its SMART area more dense, but what will it do with all those cars?

Over the next few days I’ll be posting my impressions and comments regarding the San Rafael SMART Station Area Plan. It’s such a large, complicated, and potentially game-changing document that it needs more than just a single post. Today we tackle parking. Subsequent posts will examine mobility, buses and the future of the area. So far, we’ve covered land use.

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With all these homes, all this retail and all these commuters, parking could turn terrible without mitigation. Although the transit options will be the richest of anywhere in Marin, the rest of Marin will likely remain just as transit-poor as it is today, so the Advisory Committee explored ways to deal with incoming traffic and where to put all the cars.

Overview

As you probably can guess, I’m not one in favor of excessive parking. You could call me a Shoupite, I suppose: parking has its place, but developments should not be mandated to build it, and where there is high demand for parking it should be priced to manage the demand. For regular drivers, this ensures they will always have a space roughly where they need it, mitigating the need for circling. For commuters, it means the commuter lot won’t fill up by some God-forsaken hour. For cities, it means new revenue to plow into repaving roads, beautifying sidewalks, building bicycle infrastructure and expanding transit systems.

Excluding the 68 spaces that will be removed after SMART rolls into town, there are 144 metered on-street parking spaces (56 removed by SMART) in the Area Plan’s study area.  These hit 50 percent occupancy at peak usage.  There are also 395 free off-street, all-day spaces (12 removed by SMART) that hit 90 percent occupancy by 11a.m. This puts the total demand for on-street parking at 100 and total demand for all-day parking at 389 spaces. It’s that second one that’s awfully tight, and likely why the Montecito Neighborhood Association reports significant overflow.

The already tight parking supply poses a problem: how can the city accommodate new residences, retail and offices while providing sufficient parking for new commuters and new shoppers without wrecking the transit-orientation of the area? The Area Plan believes it can be done by adding more parking, including the area within the downtown shared parking district, and through demand mitigation.

More Parking?

I’m not entirely convinced there’s a need for more parking given the huge number of public and private lots – over 110 by my count – within a half-mile radius of the station.  It's a veritable wealth of pavement, and I'd wager that around half of the build-able area south of Mission is taken up by places to store vehicles. Look especially at the north side of Third Street - it’s just a long line of parking garages. Little wonder it's rarely said, “Ooh, let’s check out that cool place on Third Street!”

With over 90 percent occupancy of public lots, the city should encourage owners of private parking to open it up to the public, or provide a mechanism for developers to purchase shared parking from those with a surplus, diminishing their own requirements. If there is still too much demand, the city should work with Caltrans to start pricing those lots, perhaps as little as $1 a day.  As for spillover areas, setting up parking meters with a residential parking permit system would ensure commuters and airport travelers don’t park in residential areas.  To go really extreme, the city could allow enterprising residents to rent out their driveways for the day.

Alas, the politics and mechanics of parking are a bit more complicated. Everybody wants free parking right in front of their destination. Residents often gripe that downtown Tiburon has too little parking, but when the city actually looked they found scores of spots, just a little off the beaten path.  Similarly, San Rafael has a huge, untapped supply of parking, much of it on valuable land but offered up for free.  If the city were to implement parking pricing, it must show residents and business owners that the money is going to improve the neighborhood and offer safe alternatives to driving, not simply to general revenues to be spent willy-nilly.

Yes, More Parking, but Less Demand

The Area Plan takes driving alternatives seriously, but also suggests that additional parking, alongside demand mitigation measures such as car sharing and bicycling, will be necessary.

Car sharing is absent in Marin, mostly because our low-density cities and towns can’t support it, but studies have shown it dramatically reduces the need for parking. A single car share vehicle removes 14 cars from the road. The plan suggests allowing developers to forgo some parking if they support on-site car sharing. This is an excellent idea.  Parking is incredibly expensive, up to $30,000 per space in a garage, and the more flexibility a developer has in its parking, the better the city will be. Still, I’d go one step further. As part of the car sharing rollout, San Rafael should give every household within walking distance of the redevelopment area free membership for a year, which would cost a relative pittance at around $184,000. Marinites are unfamiliar with car sharing, and this could serve to get people out of their cars and onto the sidewalks.

Even with demand minimized, this is still a transit-unfriendly county, and parking will be needed for residents, commuters and customers. To keep the burden off developers, the Area Plan recommends including the area in the downtown shared parking zone, which allows retailers to count spaces in parking garages against their parking minimums, and building another parking garage along Third.

I would hate to see San Rafael add yet another garage onto Third, especially in the middle of an important walking area and so close to other parking garages and lots. If a garage is really deemed necessary, a better location would be east of the freeway and extending the shared parking zone out to San Rafael High School and Union Street. Montecito Shopping Center is overflowing with cars, and they’d probably like having a bit more breathing room. Besides, the newly tall buildings along Irving will want good access to a garage if they are to be built with less parking than normal.

The parking zone should be extended to residences as well. With on-street parking only 50 percent full, some demand for off-street retail parking could be absorbed by the street, freeing up space in the garages for residents to store their cars.

Parking will be seen as a problem anywhere one goes outside of the mall, but properly managing it will make the place more attractive: nobody wants to spend time among giant parking lots and garages. Through demand mitigation ( car sharing, transit, bicycling), innovative policies to broaden the parking supply, and parking pricing, San Rafael should be able to manage the influx of people to the area. If parking will truly be a problem, a garage east of the freeway will open up that area for business and support the higher-density development planned along Irwin.

Generally, a car is anathema to transit-oriented living, but there’s little transit to orient around. It is difficult to balance the needs of a transit-poor community with the needs of transit-oriented development, so the problem of parking will remain a very real one for the area. I hope the city will strike that balance, managing demand and providing mobility without encouraging car usage.

For an amazing rundown on how to manage parking, Los Angeles Magazine has a wonderful summary on the history, and future, of their parking problems.

This post is contributed by a community member. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Patch Media Corporation. Everyone is welcome to submit a post to Patch. If you'd like to post a blog, go here to get started.

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