Parking in downtown Berkeley may get harder before it gets easier as a new project ramps up to demolish and rebuild the Center Street garage to add hundreds of spaces, improve seismic security and incorporate “green building” standards.
The project is expected to strain parking demand downtown, where availability is often scarce already. City staff have been working to improve the parking situation via its goBerkeley campaign, which has been underway this year. Merchants have been keeping a close eye on the Center Street project and say they hope the city will be thoughtful as it moves ahead.
The five-story Center Street parking garage — which has entrances on both Addison and Center streets — has 420 spaces, ground floor retail and was built in the 1950s, according to the staff report prepared for last week’s Berkeley City Council meeting. Tuesday night, as part of the consent calendar, the Council approved paying up to $1 million to a consultant who will plan and manage the project.
If money is available, according to the staff report, the city would like to build in “additional elements of first floor commercial space” on Center and Addison, as well as secure bike parking, office space for parking staff and public art.
The new structure is anticipated to have space for 690 vehicles, with a height limit of 67 feet. (The height of the current garage was not available as of publication time.) The city would strive for LEED Silver certification for the structure.
“The actual number of parking spaces will depend on the project Financial Plan and Operational planning, which will include the estimated parking demand, queuing analysis, partnership agreements, and construction cost estimates,” according to the staff report. “The City has carried out numerous studies of parking in the area and developed conceptual site plans. All relevant background documents will be provided to the selected firm or team.”
According to the staff report, the contract was awarded to San Francisco-based Conversion Management Associates, Inc. for $1 million from Dec. 1, 2013, through December 2018. In August, the city requested applications from those hoping to oversee the project, and selected Conversion Management through a competitive process that drew bids from five applicants.
The company has “developed many complex projects in the region, including parking garages with multiple public and non-profit stakeholders. The team includes qualified land use attorneys, fiscal analysts, project managers, parking architects and designers, and several area-specific engineering firms,” according to the staff report.
City employees have the expertise to oversee the project, wrote staff, but that would drain municipal resources and “delay or defer other work plan priorities.”
Money for the project will come from the Off Street Parking Fund, with $350,000 this fiscal year and $650,000 in fiscal year 2015.
According to the city’s request seeking applicants to handle the project, “The City has developed several designs and construction cost estimates for the site, including different structure heights, with and without subterranean parking, and with varying amounts of ground floor commercial space.”
The city has also asked the consultant to come up with a plan to handle parking demand while the garage is inaccessible.
According to the city, three “major institutions” – UC Berkeley, Peralta Community College District/Berkeley City College and the YMCA – “have stated their interest in investing or entering into a long-term customer agreement to enable construction of a parking structure that will provide their institutions with parking. The City has met with each group and developed a preliminary parking demand assessment based on data they provided about current usage.”
John Caner, who runs the Downtown Berkeley Association, said the challenge will be to complete the project quickly and efficiently, particularly as the city has already lost parking spaces due to projects like Cal’s new aquatics center.
“We’re having increasing demand for parking services in downtown,” he said. “It’s going to be painful and difficult during the transition.”
Caner said he hopes the city will think carefully about coordinating with other municipal projects, such as its proposal to convert its Berkeley Way parking lot into supportive homeless housing.
Susie Medak, managing director at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre, concurred. She said there’s “huge” demand for convenient parking downtown, which is only expected to grow with plans for a new 1,200-seat performance space that’s been proposed on University Avenue.
Medak said that, as the city has put effort into reviving its downtown arts district, parking has become increasingly slim. It’s not uncommon for theater-goers — many of whom drive to Berkeley from other cities around the region — to miss the beginning of shows due to hold-ups in line to access the parking garage on Center, or find it full upon arrival, she said.
“This is a real a problem that we’ve seen coming at us since the mid-90s,” said Medak. “I feel like I’ve been Cassandra wailing about this for 15 years, almost 20 years, now.”
Medak described the city’s policies as “in conflict” with themselves, with a push to limit cars downtown while demand continues to grow.
“We’ve been living in denial as a city,” she said. “There’s the conflict between our desire to bring in tourism and entertainment dollars, and our desire to reduce automobile traffic and services. It’s a perfect storm waiting to happen.”
Medak said she hopes the city will consider perhaps adding another entrance to the garage, via Milvia Street, to improve problems with congestion, or to construct more parking venues around downtown to ease demand. The university, too, should take more responsibility for its parking needs, she added.
“To make this work is going to require really unusual, fresh, imaginative thinking,” she said. “And that’s not the way most people think about parking lots.”
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