The Big Six

On Monday mornings my wife and I head to the main branch of the Redwood City public library to do a little volunteer work for Friends of the Redwood City Public Library, an all-volunteer organization that, through the sale of donated books and member donations, funds a number of Library-related programs. We try to get our work done by noon, after which we usually stroll over to Broadway for lunch at one of our local eateries. Our normal route takes us across Middlefield Road, through the small plaza between City Hall and Donato Enoteca, and through the City Hall/Main Street parking lot, emerging on Broadway via the driveway between Arthur Murray Dance Studio and Rockn Wraps.

We take that route because it is the most direct between the library and the section of Broadway with the most restaurants. It means walking through an active parking lot, but there usually isn’t too much traffic and there are some sidewalk sections, so as long as we remain alert we have little trouble. But as we walk through I cannot help but think about what our walk would be like if, instead of it being a parking lot, that large space was instead a large municipal park. A little over a year ago I proposed turning the lot into just that (in my post Some Assembly Required), and at about the same time a consultancy firm began to review a half-dozen city-owned parcels to determine which, if any, might be suitable for a downtown park.

The consultant, SERA Architects, recently completed Phase I of their study and presented the results to a number of organizations, including the Parks, Recreation and Community Services Commission, the Planning Commission, the Complete Streets Advisory Committee, and, most recently, the City Council. I watched their presentation to the combined Planning Commission and Complete Streets Advisory Committee, and the somewhat shorter presentation they gave to the City Council. I also read the “DRAFT Downtown Parks Site Assessment and Feasibility Study,” upon which the oral presentations were based. I’ll go over some of the results here, but if you want to learn more you should read the study and watch the presentation to the City Council (the audio recording didn’t work very well during the presentation to the Planning Commission, making it hard to hear what is being said at times).

SERA Architects studied six city-owned downtown properties.

Site 1: Winslow Street parking lot

This small 46-space parking lot sits next to the old “Pizza and Pipes” restaurant, on Winslow Street near the Caltrain station. Recently it was used to stage construction equipment and materials for the 815 Hamilton project (the nearly complete building being constructed behind the Fox Theater).

While there were some things to recommend this as a park site, it isn’t very large (just 1.1 acres) and the noise produced by Caltrain make this site less than ideal. Instead, the consultant strongly recommended that the City consider an alternate use for this site, such as for low-income housing.

Site 2: Main Library Campus parking lots, plus Roselli Park

The consultant looked at all three library parking lots (Lot A, at the corner of Middlefield and Main, Lot B, at the corner of Middlefield and Jefferson, and Lot C, behind the library building) and zeroed in on the 51-space Lot A, plus the adjacent Roselli Park (shown below). Although its location at the corner of two busy streets (Middlefield and Main) dampen the site’s appeal somewhat, its proximity to the library recommends it, particularly as a place for a park aimed at young children. Roselli Park, when combined with Parking Lot A, would make for a 1.7 acre park that could be used for both library and city functions.

Site 3: City Hall parking lot

This site includes the small 15-space parking lot behind City Hall and the large 150-space Main Street parking lot that occupies the center of the block. The consultant noted that a park here wouldn’t necessarily have to consume the entire area, and indeed at least some of the available space would have to be configured so that services (such as trash pickup) could continue to be provided to the surrounding buildings.

At 3.3 acres this site is the largest of those studied, and could easily be organized into multiple distinct spaces. It has the benefit of being relatively protected and quiet, thanks to the surrounding buildings. The consultant expressed some concern that there may not be enough “eyes” on the space for security purposes, but I wonder: between the housing that overlooks the space, City Hall itself, and the four-story building being constructed at 2075 Broadway, there are a lot of windows looking over the site. Some of the businesses around the edge (Rockn’ Wraps and Pasha Mediterranean, in particular) could easily be modified to have seating along the park side. And finally, the paths that would presumably crisscross this park would likely draw lots of people. Thus, safety may not be any more of an issue here than at any of the other sites.

Site 4: Top floor of the Marshall Street Garage

This one is a great example of out-of-the-box thinking. The consultant did not recommend that the city pursue it as a park site, but did note that the city might want to use it from time-to-time for public events. The logistics and the expense of turning the top deck of this garage into a park caused it to be eliminated from the final list, but I have to think that a park up there wouldn’t have gotten much use anyway.

Site 5: Spring Street park

Below is an old picture I have of the small triangular park bounded by Spring, Marshall, and Walnut streets. The existing “parklet” is very small, but if the city were to abandon the adjacent one-block section of Spring Street and add it to the park, the space grows to 1/2-acre in size. That’s still somewhat small, though, and combined with the fact that it is on the edge of downtown, this site was dismissed.

Site 6: Redwood Creek (Bradford Street to Convention Way)

This option doesn’t consist of a large neatly shaped parcel upon which the city could put, say, a play structure. Instead, this site consists of the narrow city-owned strips of land on either side of Redwood Creek between Bradford Street and Convention Way (which is essentially where the creek ducks under Highway 101). The consultant nixed this site as suitable for a downtown park, but in the same breath noted that they felt it should be developed independently as a creek-side pathway for pedestrians and cyclists. This path would connect up with the soon-to-be-constructed Highway 101 underpass, allowing us to walk from Bradford Street all the way to where Redwood Creek empties into the bay. Everyone seemed to really like this idea, so expect it to see further discussion around a Redwood Creek pathway regardless of what happens with a downtown park.

Two sites—the Library Lot A/Roselli Park site and the City Hall/Main Street parking lot site—will move on to Phase II, where the consultants will do some preliminary site planning and determine what it would take to turn each site into a park. Part of this will involve determining just what kind of park will be most appropriate for each site: so far each was looked at based on how suitable it was for some sort of park, rather than based on how well a park there could serve a particular set of needs. From Phase II we will learn just how a park on the two chosen sites would impact the city, what each might cost, and how they would most likely be used by downtown residents and visitors.

On the subject of impacts, I want to address two: the loss of parking, and the cost to construct a new park. Because the two chosen sites are both partly or entirely parking lots, developing either would necessitate a loss of existing parking spaces. But given the number of parking spaces that are available and are coming online in some of the new and under-construction commercial buildings (spaces which are available to the public in the evenings and on weekends), we might not need to replace them all. And if they do need to be replaced, there is always the option to build additional public parking downtown, likely in the form of a new parking garage. Thus, a downtown park does not necessarily mean a net loss of downtown parking.

That brings us to the other big issue, which is money. Redwood City is projecting a drop in sales tax revenues, and is already having discussions about the best way to cut operating costs. Given that, some ask, should we really be spending money on a new park? As it turns out, a new park wouldn’t be built using General Fund monies. Instead, it would be constructed from Redwood City’s dedicated Parks Fund. This fund gets its monies from impact fees paid by the developers of those residential projects you see going up in Redwood City. The fees work out to about $10,000 to $11,000 per residential unit, meaning that, for example, the 125-unit apartment project recently approved for 353 Main Street could pay roughly $1.25 million into this fund alone. Parks Fund monies can only be used for capital improvement projects related to Parks and Rec facilities: they cannot be used, for instance, to fund a police officer’s position. Although there are other projects that will likely draw upon the Parks Fund—such as the revamp of the Veterans Memorial Senior Center—our Parks, Recreation & Community Services Director has already set aside about one million of the fund’s dollars for a downtown park, and plans to set aside an equal amount next year for this same purpose. Oh, and if we need to build additional parking? The city has another multi-million dollar fund—also paid into by developers—for just that purpose.

Phase II begins now and should run through the end of May. The consultants have heard from the City and from downtown merchants, but have yet to really hear from the majority of us who live and work here. During Phase II the city will be asking us just what would draw us to a downtown park and how we might use one. Be on the lookout for city outreach on this topic, and make your opinions heard! Whether you support a downtown park or not, and whether you would actually use it or not, your thoughts on this matter are valuable and should be made known to the folks working on this project. Personally, I hope that a park gets built, and that it occupies as much of the Main Street parking lot as possible. I’d love to be able to make that walk from the library to Broadway along a meandering path through native plantings, rather than through a concrete-and-asphalt lot that is mostly filled with parked cars.