With downtown residents up in arms about a shortage of parking spots on their blocks, Palo Alto officials approved on Tuesday a series of initiatives aimed at diagnosing the severity of the problem and finding a cure.
Through a series of votes, the council approved a set of proposals to proceed with two major studies -- one looking at downtown's capacity for new development and another focusing on garages and considering new parking facilities. The council also directed staff to consider zoning revisions to address parking impacts of new developments, pursue additional bike-parking stations and consider a variety of shorter-term solutions such as loading zones around residential areas.
While the measures are unlikely to satisfy the downtown residents looking for immediate fixes, council members agreed that they are a good start to what promises to be a long and complex search for solutions. Mayor Yiaway Yeh called the Tuesday actions "the start of what I know is a significant undertaking."
In approving the set of proposals by a 8-1 vote, with Karen Holman dissenting, council members emphasized the challenges inherent in solving the glaring and often-cited problem. Residents in the Professorville and Downtown North neighborhoods have been particularly adamant in recent years about downtown workers increasingly taking their street spots to avoid the time limits on parking in other areas of downtown.
Over the past two years, representatives from the neighborhoods have been meeting with downtown business owners and city planners in hopes of finding a solution all parties can agree on. In July staff recommended a residential-permit-parking program that would limit visitor parking to two hours in a section of Professorville. The council struck down the proposed parking restrictions and directed staff to consider more holistic and comprehensive solutions.
Russ Cohen, executive director of the Palo Alto Downtown Business and Professional Association, expressed support on Tuesday for the parking study and said downtown businesses are behind the city's effort to solve the parking problem. The business community, he said, "has recognized the need to provide a parking study to meet demand, having spent millions upon millions of dollars to build parking garages."
"We continue to explore new ways to meet parking demand," Cohen said.
Residents were far less thrilled. Richard Brand, who lives on Addison Avenue, urged the council to focus on the major parking shortages in the residential areas and not to conflate Professorville's problems with those of downtown as a whole. The time for gathering data, Brand said, "is quickly coming to an end."
"What we have is a development situation in the city that's out of control," Brand said. "Too many developments with too few parking spaces are being approved by the city and that I think is the crux of the problem."
Ken Alsman, a Ramona Street resident who has long lobbied the council to create a residential parking program in his neighborhood of Professorville, compared the parking problem in his area to a flood and told the council members that they should be ashamed for letting the parking problem get so out of hand on their watch. The process for finding parking solutions, he argued, "has been horribly mismanaged and horribly planned." He urged the council to focus on what he called the "core issue": Is there a systemic deficit in parking downtown? And how big is that deficit?
"There is no viable data in anything," Alsman said, referring to the staff's proposed approach.
The city hopes that its parking study will address the issue of inadequate data, though the answers aren't expected to come for some time. Palo Alto's Chief Transportation Official Jaime Rodriguez said the city wants to get reliable, independently verified numbers. Staff is scheduled to return to the council next week with a proposed contract for a consultant to conduct the study. The council directed staff to return in six months a report on the progress of the study.
At the same time, city officials plan to establish the parameters of the "downtown cap" study, which according to Rodriguez' report will consider the "land use types, densities and recent and projected development around the Downtown to determine future land use and parking needs/strategies to support land use changes." Planners look to hammer out the scope of the downtown study in the next month or two, Planning Director Curtis Williams said.
The council also backed staff's recommendations to study installation of more electric-vehicles and bike-parking stations and to discuss with Professorville and Downtown North residents the potential for short-term solutions such as loading zones and on-street parking permits for Professorville residents whose homes don't have parking or driveways. The lattermost proposal proved the most controversial, passing with a 5-4 vote (Vice Mayor Greg Scharff and Councilmembers Larry Klein, Gail Price and Nancy Shepherd dissented).
Scharff made the motion to endorse most of the proposals in the new staff report, including the two major studies. He also suggested that the city's Planning and Transportation Commission review the progress of the various initiatives before they return to the council for further consideration. Most of his colleagues agreed.
"I think this is a preliminary approach by staff," Scharff said. "It's a good one and I'd like to see it move.
Karen Holman said it was a "systemic problem" that needs a near-term solution. She argued that the city should create a residential permit-parking program in the downtown neighborhoods and urged staff to consider more immediate revisions to the zoning code, including changes that would roll back some of the parking exemptions for new developments.
She dissented because the proposals didn't come with a firm timeline.
Councilman Greg Schmid called downtown parking a "critical issue" and agreed with Alsman's point that staff should devote its near-term efforts to accurately pinning down the scope of the parking problem. It is "essential," Schmid said, that staff resources get spent on the issue of figuring out whether the city has a "systematic deficit." That should be the starting point, he said.
"You cannot leave the City Council here making decisions one application at a time without having a notion of what that deficit is and what it means to everybody downtown," Schmid said.