Libraries, parking and the real “monstrosity”
Let’s take a deeper look into one of my “favorite” local advocacy campaigns: the campaign against building a new library and housing and parking building downtown on an existing parking lot.
It is a campaign that mixes some real facts and data with some of that other stuff that isn’t so real. You’ve already heard their claims so I won’t repeat all of them: just the dubious highlights -- as I lay out an alternative perspective.
Let’s start with the opposition campaign’s biggest misdirection: stopping this new library/parking/housing building will save the Farmers’ Market. The Farmers' Market has already been “saved.” Even better, the City has put together a specific site nearby and plan that will become the permanent home the Market has been looking for. And the Farmers' Market leadership has indicated they like this new plan. So let’s set aside the Farmers' Market stunt and move on.
While the Farmers’ Market piece is the most obvious, the one that’s most important is the relationship between this project and affordable and other multi-unit rental housing downtown. (The housing issue is what draws me to get involved – because I believe housing is the overriding issue in our community and should be central to this discussion.)
So how does this proposed project impact housing?
1) There can be (and will be, if we so decide) affordable rental housing built as part of the new project. Yes, I’m talking about right there in the same building. We need those apartments now.
2) As a community, we need to build several hundred more apartments downtown to house people and families that already work in our community. There are several very good housing projects in various stages of planning. Even if we embrace the idea that we don’t need a parking space for every one of these apartments, we will need a bunch. In the meantime, the downtown is losing parking spaces. The big lot adjacent to the red church downtown is about to be turned into apartments and there will no longer be public parking there. And a couple of other city lots, current leased from private owners, are being repurposed and will not be public lots either. So we are on a path to having a lot more parking need for residents and less parking for them. If we create new parking spaces in a public parking building, we don’t have to have private parking for the downtown apartment dwellers that still depend on a car for their basic transportation needs.
3) This is my personal favorite. If we build this library/housing/parking building, we will have an old library site that is owned by the community available to BUILD MORE AFFORDABLE HOUSING. And because the land is publicly owned, it becomes much more feasible for a nonprofit housing organization to build a bunch of apartments there. (And, some of the parking that’s needed for residents can be in the new library building—and in other parking structures that already exist downtown.) This is a big deal because that is a very big and very well-located site...and could easily be home to a couple of hundred local residents needing an apartment with lower rent.
4) This one is perhaps the most compelling for those who are feeling uncertain about the whole thing: this project makes sense even if we don’t end up needing as much parking as I suspect we need. (More on that need later...) That’s because, if we find we have an oversupply after the new building is built, we can simply repurpose an existing flat parking lot into even more HOUSING! That’s the kind of backup plan we need.
5) And thinking about the planned affordable project at the Metro site... if we need to build even a modest amount of parking for that project on that site, every space will mean less affordable apartments. If we have a new building a block away with room for the parking for the uses Metro site project, we can maximize the number of housing units. Ditto for the project moving ahead on the Red Church parking lot.
Okay, so that’s the heart of the housing case. But I know there’s more to this than housing.
There’s the library thing. With the new project, we get a first class new library and almost no disruption to current library services. If simply re-do the old library, we end up with a second-class library or we have to come up with 10 million bucks and live with a half-assed temporary pseudo library for a couple of years. I am an old guy and I understand nostalgia as well as the next person—but I am having trouble with people to trying to justify keeping the same crummy library so that 64 year olds can maintain their comfort by avoiding change while the younger people that need a better library are left out of the equation. And, again, there’s the loss of the big opportunity for housing... which a lot of seniors need more than they need an outdated library.
And there are the environmental issues...especially the carbon impact of cars. The conventional wisdom on this suggests that we should stop building any more parking because that encourages more people to drive and does other environmental damage. Like so many “conventional wisdoms” this one has some major flaws.
- Public shared parking for downtown residents and shoppers and workers is better than private parking for each one separately. We can use less land for parking with public parking structures.
- If we make downtown housing work better, which this kind of project does, a good number of people (not all, but more) will drive less because they can walk around downtown to do some of their daily tasks.
- People will still use cars downtown and look for places to park. Many of us know the phenomenon of driving around for ten or fifteen minutes looking for a parking spot. If we have an adequate (but not excessive) supply, we can help people park quickly and not drive around in circles generating extra greenhouse gases.
- With this project and the attendant potential reduction in surface parking, we can right-size our parking quantity and avoid overdoing it in a way that could encourage driving over other choices.
Finally, it’s important to address the “red herring” items. There are a handful of “arguments” against the new library parking that have gotten people a bit agitated but seem to be less than well-founded.
1) Measure S says this in the formal ballot question authorizing library funds: “and construct/ expand facilities where necessary.” Some have claimed that they only voted to repair libraries when they voted for Measure S. Actually they voted for construction and expansion, too. (New library buildings are already under construction in Felton and Capitola to replace the older, inadequate structures using these same Measure S funds.) The real “bait and switch” here is that voters that didn’t read their ballots carefully want to re-write their intentions after the fact.
2) The parking experts that have weighed in on this project are decidedly mixed and divided on the need. Just because one expert has said the new parking component of the library project is not needed does not make this a fact. While some have called into question this expert’s current qualifications, I will not do that. I will simply say that he has one perspective that is not universally embraced and there is substantial countervailing evidence. One piece that seems to be ignored by opponents of any parking: our downtown has recently lost dozens of public parking spaces and other public spaces are going to go offline in the next year or two.
3) The library committee that recommended moving ahead with the library/parking combo knew exactly what they were doing. They want a better quality library and they really do know that this plan will get them what they desire. They were not tricked – they know the difference between a great library and mediocre library. They know the difference between a library that serves the youth of our community well and one that doesn’t. And they know the difference between $38 million and $28 million.
4) While legally possible, it is not realistic to think that $10 million in new parking revenue could easily be shifted over to the library for remodeling the existing building. Just because something is allowed, doesn’t mean it is desirable or politically feasible. The $10 million in question is first obligated to meet current parking facilities financial needs. In other words this is, by law, the first priority for these funds. Beyond this, if there will be excess revenue from recently increased parking rates, it either has to go to parking–related stuff or be formally reconsidered by political decision-makers and community members that supported the rate increase. They were told the rate increase would be used for parking-related items. I think it’s questionable to assume that there would be support – especially from downtown stakeholders - for higher parking rates to remodel the old library, especially when there is a less expensive alternative.
5) The downtown community—residents, workers, businesses owners – are not some privileged “special interest” group that should be dismissed because some project opponents have a misguided and theoretically (but not actually) progressive view of the world. Many downtown folks are middle and low income workers. Some are small business operators that struggle to make things work in a very difficult economic environment where they compete against big corporations. Others are renters in downtown apartments. Their needs for affordable housing and parking and a great library are as important a consideration as any I can see in this situation.
6) It is incorrect to simply say that current parking is sufficient if downtown residents and downtown visitors simply share all the same spaces: day users and overnight users. We know why this doesn’t work in practice (though it does sound good). Let’s say I live in a new apartment downtown and I drive to work three days per week and cycle the other days. I have a car. On days when I cycle, I still need a parking space for my car. I can’t share that with a downtown worker because my car will be there during some days. Or... Let’s say I drive to work all five days but I come home on Friday at 5:30 pm. Where will I park when all the spots are previously “shared” with shoppers and diners and movie-goers and art-lovers who have poured into downtown? Shared parking is a very valuable concept and we need to maximize it. But it isn’t a simple two-for-one proposition in our downtown.
With so many needs that our City struggles to meet, it seems clear that the library/parking/housing project is forward-looking and practical—and gets us some of things we need most to have a thriving downtown. Most importantly, it is a key step in addressing our affordable housing challenge. Some hyperbolists have called this project a monstrosity. The real monstrosity in all of this is that the housing affordability and homelessness crises continue unabated. We needn’t let nostalgia and misinformation prevent us from making progress on these priority issues.