Faced with a tense political climate, a dearth of parking and a daunting laundry list of traffic-related initiatives, Palo Alto officials are launching a new planning effort aimed at getting the public involved in a deep conversation about the city's future.
The initiative, dubbed Our Palo Alto, is centered around the city's ongoing update of its land-use bible, the Comprehensive Plan, and related conversations over growth and development, subjects that have dominated City Council agendas throughout the past year.
The public outcry over new developments, particularly those that violate established zoning and height limits, hit its high note last November, when voters overwhelmingly overturned in a referendum an approved housing development on Maybell Avenue. At the same time, downtown residents and land-use watchdogs have been up in arms about downtown's recent spurt in commercial growth and the resulting parking shortage in residential neighborhoods.
City Manager James Keene said Wednesday that Our Palo Alto would stretch for about two years and include meetings, forums, surveys and other to-be-determined outreach tools. It would aim to reach residents who don't normally attend council meetings and encourage dialogue between and among neighbors about the city's future. It would also cover a wide range of topics relating to development, including reforming the city's controversial "planned community" zoning; considering new uses for land in certain neighborhoods; and introducing incentives for downtown workers who will ditch their cars and switch to other modes of transportation.
"Our goal is to support a broad-based discussion about where the city's going and where the city's future is," Keene said at a press conference Wednesday.
The effort also includes as one of its earliest "action" items the city's proposed "residential parking permit program" (RPP), which will be debated at Monday's council meeting. If approved, the program would allow residents to buy up to two permits per household and would set some permits aside for downtown employees. Cars that don't have permits would face time restrictions, much like they do on most blocks in downtown's commercial core.
The program, which has attracted vehement criticism from both residents and businesses, also creates criteria for other neighborhoods that want to adopt the program. This includes support from at least 70 percent of neighborhood residents and a threshold of parked cars of at least 75 percent.
City officials Wednesday that the parking-permit discussion will be just the first of many city efforts to calm downtown's frustrations over insufficient parking. In February, staff plans to propose some first steps toward building a new downtown garage; begin a process for aggressively expanding the city's shuttle program; explore the creation of satellite parking lots east of U.S. Highway 101; and introduce a slew of "transportation-demand-management" (TDM) initiatives aimed at getting drivers to switch from cars to other modes of transportation. This includes establishing a transportation-management authority, an agency that would collect money from members within a geographical area and use the funds for such programs as Caltrain passes and car-sharing services.
The proposed parking program has yet to undergo its first public hearing, but early reviews have already been harsh. Residents have panned it as too complex and argued that the threshold for resident participation is too high.
Downtown employers deride it as a "huge waste of money" and want the city to ditch the program altogether in favor of other strategies for reducing parking congestion. This includes designating certain spots on neighborhood streets as for residents only.
Planning Director Hillary Gitelman said Wednesday that while some details of the program remain uncertain (including the question of how many permits should be designated for businesses), success will depend in large part on the city's other efforts pertaining to downtown traffic.
"We already heard from people on both sides," Gitelman said. "Everyone agrees on basic principles, one of which is that the RPP is only part of the puzzle."
Other pieces will be more fully discussed as part of the city's update of the Comprehensive Plan, which has been in the works for more than five years and which is about to shift gears once again.
Gitelman said the council had initially planned to make only minor changes to the existing Comprehensive Plan, which has a planning horizon of 1998-2010. Recent development trends, however, have prompted considerations of broader changes, she said.
"The world has changed. The economy has come roaring back," Gitelman said. "The community has expressed an interest in looking more broadly at issues."
Keene stressed that the design of Our Palo Alto is still in the works. Claudia Keith, the city's chief communication officer, said it could include walking tours, lectures from experts, and a dedicated website with multimedia components and opportunities for residents to offer their opinions.
"We really have to develop 20 different channels or approaches to get involved," Keene said, noting that some will inevitably fail.
In addition to informing the city's update of the Comprehensive Plan, officials expect the new initiative to also support the council's goal of fostering more civic engagement, even if this engagement includes a heavy dose of criticism.
"The fact that there is conflict is not a bad thing in a democracy," Keene said. "It's not a symbol of failure. It's a symbol that there is passion and different opinions about things."
Gitelman also indicated that the city would be hiring a few more planners in the new fiscal year and also look to consultants to help facilitate Our Palo Alto.