A Palo Alto law that relaxed parking regulations for developers with downtown projects began its transition from the city's zoning code to its history books Monday night after the City Council passed an "urgency ordinance" temporarily halting it.
The ordinance, which the council approved on an 8-0 vote with Greg Schmid absent, imposes a moratorium on the parking exemption granted to developers looking to build dense developments downtown and in the California Avenue business district. The city added these exemptions to its zoning code in the mid-1980s as a way to encourage downtown development after building regulations were tightened.
Since then, conditions have changed dramatically: Downtown vacancies are almost nonexistent; developers are filing applications at a brisk pace; and downtown residents are reporting a severe shortage of parking on neighborhood streets and urging the council to do something about it. A new report from the city's Planning and Community Environment Department notes that the parking exemption "is likely to immediately exacerbate parking problems without seeming to provide for any public purpose."
In recent months, several developers invoked the parking exemption as part of their applications. These include the recently approved four-story Lytton Gateway project on Lytton Avenue and Alma Street; the proposed four-story office building at 135 Hamilton Ave.; and a smaller office building at 636 Waverley St. The Lytton Gateway developers did not get the exemption because they applied under "planned community" zoning, which gives the council greater latitude to negotiate with the applicants.
The only thing the council didn't rule on Monday was whether the moratorium should apply to the other two projects, which are currently going through the approval process. The applicants for each project argued that it should not. Charles "Chop" Keenan, a prominent downtown developer, urged the council not to change the rules for his project at 135 Hamilton while he is going through the process.
"At the very last second, the rules seem to be changing," Keenan said. "I'm asking to be grandfathered the way you have grandfathered projects not just in the pipeline but way in the pipeline."
David Kleiman, the applicant behind 636 Waverley, made a similar argument and said it's not fair for the city to now demand fees for parking spots that he thought his company would be exempted from providing.
"We've spent a substantial amount of money and time getting the project ready to a state where it now exists," Kleiman said.
While staff had recommended applying the moratorium to these projects, the council decided not to do that just yet. Instead, the council directed staff to return within 45 days with a potential exemption proposal for the two projects. Staff would also consider strategies that applicants would have to implement to reduce the demand for parking spots.
Councilmen Sid Espinosa and Larry Klein both said that it wouldn't be fair to change the rules for Keenan and Kleiman.
"I'm a big believer in fairness and equity. I think we sometimes forget the amount spent in both time and cost to get projects through the city's system," Espinosa said.
Downtown parking has become one of Palo Alto's most controversial topics and a consistent source of angst in Professorville, Downtown North and other neighborhoods near the city's commercial core. After years of lobbying from Professorville residents, staff proposed in July implementing a residential-permit-parking program in a section of the neighborhood. The council rejected this pilot program and directed staff to seek more comprehensive solutions to downtown's parking woes, including a full analysis that considers zoning changes and assess the need for new facilities.
Ken Alsman, a Professorville resident who has been the neighborhood's leading advocate for parking relief, urged the council to adopt the moratorium and to apply it to all projects, even the ones currently going through the planning process. Exempting 135 Hamilton, Alsman said, would exacerbate downtown's parking shortage and lead dozens of office workers to park in adjacent neighborhoods.
"Seventy people looking for parking somewhere -- and there's no parking downtown," Alsman said. "I can only guess where it's going to go."
With the ordinance passed, the council now has 45 days to consider an "interim" report from staff. The moratorium, while temporary, could be extended by 10 months and 15 days (the maximum allowed after state law), while the city considers further revisions to its zoning code and other methods for alleviating downtown's parking woes, such as new parking facilities. The final proposal would be reviewed by the Planning and Transportation Commission and would be subject to a public hearing before it would be adopted, according to the new report.