After years of dire warnings, angry complaints and impassioned pleas from downtown residents about their once-quiet streets transforming into parking lots for area employees, Palo Alto officials on Monday introduced a powerful, controversial and long-awaited tool aimed at providing relief.
By a unanimous vote, the City Council directed staff to draft an ordinance that establishes a framework for a citywide "residential parking permit program," which would allow participating neighborhoods to create parking restrictions on their residential blocks. The program, a subject of extensive and heated debate spanning more than two years, will allow residents to purchase permits and establish time limits for all parked cars that don't display permits.
Now with the first step out of the way, the city faces the uphill task of hashing out all the details and convincing the clamoring parties that this tool will serve as a palliative to the pesky problem of parking congestion and not a Trojan horse that will make a bad situation even worse.
The council's decision on Monday means that the days of free, unrestricted parking for employees on residential blocks may soon be coming to an end. It also means that residents will finally have the program they have long been clamoring for.
Though the details of the parking program -- including the number of issued permits and their costs -- will be hashed out, the staff proposal that the council endorsed on Monday sets most of the major parameters. To qualify for a permit program, a neighborhood would have to submit a petition demonstrating the support of supermajority of residents. A staff analysis would have to then confirm that the area has a high level of congestion, with a 75 percent occupancy rate as the benchmark. If the neighborhood meets all these thresholds, residents would proceed to a series of public hearings with area employees before the council signs off on the program.
Once the program is in place, cars without the permits would be subject to a parking restriction, possibly similar to the two- and three-hour restrictions currently in place in downtown garages and in the commercial core.
The program that staff presented to the council Monday does not limit itself to downtown, where calls for help have been particularly urgent, but would become available to any residential neighborhood that meets the congestion threshold. While some broad principles would apply to all areas, other factors would vary from one district to another. This includes the big question of how many permits would be distributed and what share would go to employees as opposed to residents.
"The point of framework is that it allows flexibility for different districts and different neighborhoods," said Jessica Sullivan, the city's parking manager, noting that the answers might be different for different parts of the city.
The new program would supplement the two existing, yet very different, parking permit programs already in place. Since 2009, College Terrace has had a program that sets time limits for cars without permits and allows blocks to opt out if more than 50 percent of the residents choose to do so. And last May, a section of Crescent Park adopted a parking-permit program that bans drivers without permits from parking overnight at participating blocks. That program was introduced to counteract an influx of visiting vehicles from East Palo Alto.
The staff proposal reviewed Monday is both bolder and broader in scope. It evoked plenty of feedback, with dozens of representatives from business and residential communities offering a wide array of strong opinions. The most passionate criticism came from the downtown businesses, with some property owners and employers blasting the proposal as grossly unfair to workers and others saying they are open to the permit program, but only after the city puts forward other initiatives that boost parking supply or offer other transportation alternatives. David Sass, a general manager at Lyfe Kitchen, said he was "almost offended" by his employees being characterized by residents as "intruders" into neighborhoods. They are using public spaces, he noted, and they constitute a valuable part of the community.
Mike Folan, a manager at Whole Foods Market downtown, made a similar point and said the council's first step should be increasing the city's parking supply, not creating restrictions. Folan said he is concerned about the roughly 200 "team members" he oversees, many of whom use residential streets for parking.
"My people can't afford high permit fees to be able to park and they can't afford the tickets they get either," Folan said. "I don't think anything should be implemented until we have a solution for where they'd park."
John Garcia, manager at Mollie Stone's on California Avenue, made a similar appeal. He said his employees can't afford to live in Palo Alto, ride their bikes to work or rely on public transportation, which he described as "the pits."
"Something has to be done before you can just say, 'Wipe out parking for employees,'" Garcia said.
Downtown's two major business associations, the Chamber of Commerce and the Downtown Business and Professional Association, both said they were open to working with the city but emphasized the importance of pursuing "predicate actions," including building more garages, adding shuttles, opening satellite parking lots and pursuing other "transportation demand measures" aimed at getting commuters to switch from cars to other modes of transportation. Hal Mickelson, a member of the Chamber's board of directors, said his organization supports a program that would offer permits to businesses in the immediate area and that keeps the supply of these permits steady until other traffic-reduction measures are put in place.
Russ Cohen, executive director of the Downtown Business and Professional Association, also said his group is open to working with the city but asked that the city provide employees with other parking alternatives before it takes away their current supply. The permit program, he said, "is a tactic that is best used as the last tactic rather than the first tactic."
Others were more vehement in their opposition and argued that a permit program is altogether the wrong approach.
"The residential parking permit program does not create any new parking spaces, it just moves the problem from one area to another," said Simon Cintz, a downtown property owner. "What we need is a parking framework that shares the streets in a reasonable manner with residents and businesses."
But residents countered that they've waited long enough and that the dire state of their streets begs for urgent action.
Numerous speakers beseeched the council to restore the quality of life that has diminished in the past decade and to the make businesses pay their fair share for the parking impacts they cause. Eric Filseth, representing a group of residents, presented copies of a book his group had put together documenting the area's parking woes. The book, titled "A Day in the Neighborhoods," features dozens of photos of narrow residential streets filled to capacity with cars, some of which are parked illegally near red curbs, fire hydrants and directly in the path of a driveway. Accompanying photos of the lattermost incident also show a police officer giving the offending vehicle a parking citation and a tow truck taking the car away. The book explains that the resident of the house had to get out by driving through the neighbor's front yard.
The conversation, Filseth said, should not be about how to divide a neighborhood between workers and residents. Rather, it should be about reducing the number of cars on the streets and restoring the quality of life that has been degraded by parking impacts. He noted that his Downtown North block is typically filled to capacity with cars, which make the street half as narrow as it would otherwise be and create hazardous conditions for cars, bikes, pedestrians and everyone else who passes through. The cost of parking for employers, he said, should be treated as the "cost of business" and should not be paid for by residents.
"It's time to disentangle the residents form this process and protect the neighborhoods from commercial zones," Filseth said.
Richard Brand, who lives in Professorville, joined Filseth in calling for a definite timeline for implementing a parking-permit program.
"We've been doing this for a long time," Brand said as he waved a copy of a March 2013 staff report pledging action on this topic. "It's time to act."
"I support a parking permit program -- it's not just residential, we'll share it. We need the businesses to tell us how many cars they expect to come in and we'll work up some numbers."
Residents also maintained that most of the workers who park their cars in the neighborhoods are not, in fact, employees from grocery stores and restaurants but business professionals. Filseth said employees from the food-service industry make up only a "small fraction" of the daytime visitors and that residents and businesses should be able to accommodate the needs of this population.
The book submitted by residents also quotes Michael Hodos, a Professorville resident who had spent two weeks asking everyone who parks on his street where they worked.
"In two weeks, not one was a restaurant or retail worker. Every single one was a lawyer, engineer, marketing person or other professional," Hodos said.
The main criticism from residents about the staff proposal was that the program was too complex and rigid in its requirement. The threshold, they said, should be 50 percent, not 70 percent, as proposed by staff. They also urged that the program not include the long review process proposed by staff, which includes a petition, study, survey, public hearings and a trial program.
Both residents and employers will have a chance to provide further input on the ordinance as part of a new "stakeholders group" that the council formed on Monday as part of its discussion.
In proceeding with the staff-proposed framework, council members stressed that this is just one of many parking-related efforts city planners are working on. In the next few weeks, the council will consider proposals for new parking garages and "transportation demand management" programs that would give incentives to downtown commuters to carpool or scrap their cars altogether. Councilman Pat Burt and Councilwoman Karen Holman both described the permit program as one leg in a "three-legged stool" of parking initiatives. Councilwoman Gail Price said it's important that the program accommodate both the white-collar workers and the low-wage earners downtown. She characterized the program as "a different way to share the streets." Vice Mayor Liz Kniss simply called it "a big deal."
Now that the general framework has been agreed upon, it will be up to staff and the stakeholder group to work out the specifics in the coming months. Officials expect the process to be tricky. City Manager James Keene warned Monday that the process would likely require a series of revisions and corrections.
"Even what we ultimately settle on and implement is probably going to need to be changed after it's really put into practice," Keene said.
Burt agreed and warned that the program would bring with it a "disruption."
"But we've had a disruption that had been occurring in the neighborhood for the last couple of years," Burt added. "It's not as if the new disruption is the only one occurring."