Free Parking

I used to love playing Monopoly®. While we generally followed the rules, we did make a few changes. One of them being a pot of money in the center of the board that goes to any player landing on Free Parking. If only that happened in real life! Or in Monopoly, for that matter: officially, nothing is supposed to happen when you land on Free Parking. It’s just a “resting place”.

Although I’d love to get a pile of money whenever I park my car, in truth I’m just happy when I don’t have to pay. Although there are many opportunities to pay for parking in and around downtown Redwood City, if you are willing to walk a block or three it isn’t that difficult to park your car at no cost. I’ve covered the downtown parking situation before, but there have been changes in the two years since I wrote that post—and there are more changes coming soon.

The trick to free (or cheap) parking is in knowing the system, which admittedly can be a bit complex. Redwood City maintains a map of the available parking on their website that indicates the cost (if any) and the times it is available. Study the map carefully!

According to the map there are nearly 4,000 parking spaces in and around downtown—although many of them are only available to the general public on evenings and weekends. In short, though, on weekdays from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. the only real free parking (for 90 minutes, or for four hours with Century Theatre validation) is available in the Jefferson garage (beneath the Century Theatres building) or in the Marshall garage.

Most people are familiar with the Jefferson garage, but don’t forget that it has two levels. If you don’t see a lot of empty spaces when you pull your ticket, head down to the lower level. Except during peak times the lower level is pretty empty.

The Marshall garage, although less well-known, is still quite convenient to most of downtown. This is a four-story above-ground garage that sits on Marshall Street (hence the name) but can also be entered from Broadway using the small mid-block alleyway between Jefferson Avenue and Main Street:


Here, the topmost level is often where you will find plenty of space.

These garages are very convenient, but unless you are going to the movies 90 minutes of free parking often isn’t enough. After 6 p.m., or on a weekend day, unless you are going to the movies look elsewhere for free parking. Street parking within our downtown and the surface lots shown in orange on the city map are free before 10 a.m. and after 6 p.m., and all day on Sunday.

On Saturday you still have to pay for street parking during the day. But if you don’t mind a small walk, check out the 160 spaces in the Caltrain lot north of Broadway; they are free for the taking weekdays from 6 p.m. to 2 a.m. and all day on Saturday and Sunday.


In addition, the County garage (on Middlefield Road, near Veterans Boulevard) is free to the public all weekend long and on weekdays after 6 p.m. Although it is a bit further out, and thus requires a slightly longer walk than some other lots, its huge size (almost 800 spaces) means that you are pretty much guaranteed to find a space there. If I’m heading downtown on a busy evening (a Friday, for instance) I often take Veterans to the County garage, thus avoiding not only the parking hassles but the downtown traffic as well. If you’ve never been there, it’s easy to navigate: the driveway is off Middlefield Road, near the intersection with Veterans. From the well-marked driveway turn left into the open entrance in the middle of the building:


Redwood City’s downtown parking can be a bit confusing, but there really is quite a bit to be had. Whether or not it is convenient is another issue. An issue that is of prime concern to our downtown merchants, since without convenient parking within a short stroll of a given store, shoppers will consider going elsewhere.

To their credit, Redwood City’s City Council is aware of the problems and has been discussing them at their public meetings. Of course, those problems are largely due to our changing downtown. Between the increased demand for parking from new office and apartment buildings, and the loss of some public parking to make way for those buildings, the abundance of convenient downtown parking is on the wane.

Fortunately, the new buildings have internal parking and many of those spaces are being made available to the public when not needed by the building’s tenants. The Crossing/900 (Box) project, for instance, has a 904-space parking garage, much of which will be open to the public during non-business hours. While that won’t help the weekday shopper, the typical movie- or concert-goer will be able to take advantage of some fairly convenient parking in those buildings. 601 Marshall (planned for the site across from the Bank of America) will also be making its parking available to the public during off hours, as will the new five-story office building that was recently approved for 815 Hamilton (immediately behind the Fox Theater). That building’s parking will even be connected to the Jefferson garage, giving us a second exit. What we don’t yet know is whether these spaces will be free of charge (I’m guessing they won’t), and exactly when they will be open to the public.

If you read my post Vive La Différence, which introduced 815 Hamilton, you know that neither it nor 601 Marshall contain the recommended amount of parking. For office buildings Redwood City apparently wants three spaces per 1,000 square feet of building. Thus, the 300,000 square-foot Crossing/900 buildings should include 900 parking spaces—which they do. Based upon its size, however, 601 Marshall should have 388 spaces in its garage; its plans only show 270. 815 Hamilton is even worse: its garage should have 203 spaces but the plans show 88.

The city’s solution for this problem is an “in-lieu” fee that the developer pays for every missing parking space. The city is then supposed to use these fees to improve our downtown parking situation. This should have the benefit of trading parking that otherwise would be dedicated to the building for public parking that we all can use. Officially the in-lieu fee is $10,000 per space, but recently approved projects appear to be paying quite a bit more: a full $25,000 per space. 601 Marshall is paying that higher rate, as is 815 Hamilton (but due to the Jefferson garage connector and other benefits to the city, 815 Hamilton’s total in-lieu fee is being reduced to $350,000). I’m less sure about the recently approved project at 550 Allerton—which appears to be short about 58 spaces—but I’m guessing that they, too, will pay the higher rate. If so, when you count the $440,000 that was already in the in-lieu parking fund and then you add the in-lieu fees from the three newly approved office buildings (assuming that they all are paying the higher amount), the fund should wind up with something in the neighborhood of $5.2 million.

Some of that money will be spent on “low hanging fruit”. Aaron Aknin, our interim City Manager, noted that we might be able to gain some 40-50 spaces just by re-striping. The City may also increase its use of valet parking, which allows more cars to be crammed into a given area. And then there’s my favorite: we’re getting digital displays that indicate the number of available spaces in the city garages. I believe that In-lieu money will also be used for new payment machines in the parking garages, and new, easier to use pay-by-space meters throughout downtown.

As to more parking, we clearly don’t have the land for a new parking lot, so our only other solution is an additional municipal garage. Curious as to what that would cost, I did some research and some back-of-the-envelope calculations. The most likely spot—one that has been mentioned by at least one City Council member—is the 98-space library parking lot at the corner of Jefferson Avenue and Middlefield Road. Parking garages appear to cost in the neighborhood of $22,000 to $25,000 per space to construct. If the city were to construct a three-level garage on the site, it could have roughly 300 spaces, and thus should cost somewhere in the ballpark of $7.5 million. Note that while the city has broached the idea, I know of no plans as yet to build such a garage. This is just me speculating.

In my blog post introducing 815 Hamilton I mentioned that not only would its underground garage connect to the Jefferson garage, but it would also have a connector to a garage built beneath a future building on the site of the 46-space Winslow Street lot:


Back then I knew of no plans for any actual development on the Winslow Street lot. I was not surprised, however, to see the following on the agenda for the August 17 City Council meeting:

Under Negotiation: Price and terms for purchase, sale, or lease of Winslow Street property

It being a closed-session meeting I wasn’t sure when we’d hear the outcome. Thus, I was pleasantly surprised when the results of their discussion hit my inbox on Thursday. I was even more pleased to see the results: apparently our city leaders were planning to sell or lease the land for a future hotel project, but have changed their minds and will now look to us, the public, for input as to how it can best be used. Watch for a series of community workshops on the subject in early 2016, and make your opinion heard! You can bet I’ll be there.

Finally, while I’m on the subject of downtown parking, if you ever park in one of the many downtown private lots when the associated businesses are closed—such as one of the bank parking lots—be aware that some are starting to charge for the privilege. This was recently added to Union Bank’s parking lot:


Although the markings on the low-tech payment box are a bit unclear, it appears that you can use their lot on nights and weekends for a flat $5 fee. I expect other nearby businesses to follow suit, so the days of finding free parking in a downtown business’ private lot may well be coming to an end.

Our downtown construction has complicated the Redwood City parking scene. Personally, I’m waiting to see what happens when Box moves in (starting in late October, I hear), and when the giant Indigo (525 Middlefield) and Marston (601 Main) apartment buildings are ready for occupancy (both in early 2016). It’ll be interesting to see how both we and the city adjust to our changing traffic and parking patterns. The environmental impact studies done for those projects should have accounted for the upcoming changes. But however those studies look on paper, remember they are not a game: this is real life. Just as in Monopoly, when buildings go up, rents increase. But those buildings don’t prevent that little metal car—my favorite Monopoly piece—from moving easily around the board. Let’s hope that our real cars can continue to move just as easily around Redwood City’s downtown.

8 thoughts on “Free Parking

  1. I found your discussion of the offset cost of parking spaces versus the cost to construct them really interesting. I’m curious about the metrics used to arrive at those numbers, and how people feel about the use of all that space in central areas; what it’s worth to them.

    Have you heard Freakonomics’ piece on parking? I found it to be highly enlightening:

    • I hadn’t heard that podcast–thanks for the link! I listened to it after I posted this week’s article, and I really enjoyed it. That podcast was from 2003; I’ll have to find out how the San Francisco “experiment” went.

    • As for the metrics, our city manager threw out the $2500/space figure (as a very rough estimate) so I started there and then did some poking around on the Internet. I found two separate sites with numbers that roughly agreed with each other, and with our City Manager. But of course for a parking garage there are many variables that can affect the construction costs, so that is a very rough number. But I found them very interesting nonetheless. As for how people feel about parking lots and garages and such, that discussion is just starting to gather some steam here. With the City Council’s about-face on the Winslow Street parking lot and their looking to the public for direction on that, I’m looking forward to the debate.

  2. Data out of Palo Alto indicates only 33% of downtown tech workers drive to work:
    Survey sheds light on downtown Palo Alto workers’ commuting
    Data show most commuters come from South Bay and Peninsula while San Franciscans prefer Caltrain


    The survey also indicated that coders are much less likely to drive than chefs, hotel workers, shopkeepers or just about any other type of downtown employees. And the gap is wide, with tech workers making up 39 percent of survey respondents (hospitality was a distant second with 16 percent).

    Yet only 33 percent of tech workers indicated that they drive alone, while 31 percent take Caltrain and 26 percent walk or bike. The drive-alone rate for those in retail is 78 percent; in hospitality it’s 73 percent; and in the restaurant sector it’s 72 percent.

    The survey’s conclusion about tech workers eschewing their cars is largely consistent with the data collected earlier this year by downtown tech companies Palantir, SurveyMonkey and RealIQ. The three companies surveyed their employees and determined that only 38 percent drive alone.

    “Mode share is obviously highly dependent on where the respondent is traveling from,” the survey from the three firms concluded. “Individual car share is very high in places with poor Caltrain access. Proximity to work (which allows for walking and biking) and access to Caltrain are two major factors in determining mode share.”

    When it comes to Caltrain, San Francisco’s commuters are far ahead of the pack. The survey showed 70 percent of them rely on Caltrain to get to work, compared to just 20 percent of South Bay residents and 16 percent of those who come from other Peninsula cities.


  3. It would be nice if there were better ways to get to downtown without cars from other residential neighborhoods. SamTrans is ineffective outside of limited commute hours and the transit center/ Sequoia Station area is uninviting for many people. Downtown has become more bicycle friendly , but crossing ECR ( especially at night) is often a bit dodgy. People won’t reduce car use until they feel safe using other options.

    • Back in 2010 when the city & Caltrans revamped ECR between Broadway and Brewster as part of the “Grand Boulevard Initiative” (press release), it was said to be a “first step” to a larger ECR make-over to make it more pedestrian-friendly. In fact, that project was originally supposed to go as far south as Jefferson … but due to insufficient funding, it was merely that one block.

      The whole countywide Grand Boulevard Initiative thing seems to have stalled out … but it’s high time for RWC to continue making over ECR to at least as far south as Jefferson (or even Maple) to widen sidewalks and boost pedestrian safety with bulb-outs and center island crossing refuges.

      • Redwood City is working on an El Camino Precise Plan; I’m eagerly looking forward to seeing what they have in mind. It’ll be a while before the plan is made public, however…

      • I’m glad they’re working on a plan for ECR. I’ll watch for a public input opportunity. One thing to make clear is that many of us want to go spend our money in downtown RWC, but cycling to Menlo Park or San Carlos can be safer and more pleasant due to the lack of ECR crossings.

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