Faced with a citizenry upset about downtown's deepening parking shortages and businesses anxious about looming parking restrictions, Palo Alto officials struggled on Monday with the complex topic of new downtown garages.
After a discussion that involved more than 10 separate votes and stretched just past midnight, the council directed planners to further explore potential locations for downtown garages; solicit ideas for partnerships on new garages from the private sector; agreed to expand the pool of downtown drivers to whom the city can sell permits for the City Hall garage and to explore new technologies that would enable city officials to track garage usage in real time.
The meeting served as a prequel to the Feb. 24 discussion of a broad "transportation demand management" program, which would provide incentives for commuters to ditch their cars and switch to transit and other modes. But even as the council looks to manage demand, it is also considering supply-side solutions, including new garages and a satellite lot east of Embarcadero Road.
The new parking facilities were the two meatiest items in the long menu of reforms planning staff brought to the council Monday night. The discussion came two weeks after the council asked staff to create a "residential parking permit program" (RPPP) that would set time restrictions in parking spots for downtown commuters in congested residential areas, provided a supermajority of residents votes to institute such a program. Once the program is in place, workers long accustomed to having free all-day parking access in neighborhoods like Downtown North and Professorville will have to find new spots to park.
Where these spots will be was the lingering question at Monday's meeting, which underscored once again that parking discussions in Palo Alto are rarely brief and never simple.
Even as council approved a slew of relatively non-controversial parking-supply initiatives (selling more permits to underused city-owned garages, better use of technology to track parking availability, allowing commuters around South of Forest Area to purchase parking permits for the City Hall garage), council members opted to tread carefully on the two most ambitious ideas -- a proposed garage on the city-owned Gilman Street lot, near the downtown post office, and a much larger parking structure on Urban Lane, west of the Caltrain tracks. Instead of moving forward with more analysis on these particular proposals as staff had recommended, the council agreed that it needs more information about alternative sites.
The Urban Lane structure, which would accommodate up to 478 cars, proved particularly unpopular, with several council members describing its massing as out of scale with the neighborhood and Councilman Greg Scharff likening the rendering of the structure to a "blimp."
Even the more modest proposal for the Gilman Street structure faced some opposition. Councilwoman Karen Holman and Councilman Pat Burt proved particularly skeptical about the data used by staff to choose Lot G, as this site is called, over five other potential sites.
Holman said she doesn't believe the community "really wants a five-story parking garage above ground." She went through a laundry list of other parking initiatives the council is pursuing -- including Caltrain Go Passes for city workers and increased parking-permit sales for existing garages -- and suggested that moving ahead on a garage now would be "premature."
"We're not going to fill our downtown, I hope, with five-story parking garages," Holman said. "It would change the character of our town remarkably."
Burt characterized staff's choice of Lot G as arbitrary and requested more information, including a calculation of how many spaces the city should pursue, before making any decisions on this issue. The council ultimately requested by an 8-1 vote, with Mayor Nancy Shepherd dissenting, that staff return with three different alternatives for a new downtown garage. Burt also warned against doing too much at once.
"I'm open to doing one (garage) but the one should be done in a thoughtful, deliberative process, even if it's an expedited thoughtful, deliberative process," Burt said.
Burt also proved apprehensive about staff's other garage proposal, on Urban Lane. In this case, he had plenty of company on the council.
The concept proposed by staff is to pursue a partnership with Stanford University, which owns the land, and Caltrain, which leases it from Stanford and uses it for commuter parking, to create a slew of improvements to the area around the transit center. City planners asked for the authority to pursue planning grants to explore this concept further.
That request ultimately fizzled after one member after another suggested that the proposed structure is too massive. Burt was particularly adamant about not pursuing the grants, likening this idea to the city's recent stumble with 27 University Ave., an ambitious proposal by John Arrillaga to build four office towers and a theater. After expressing initial enthusiasm about the development and considering a special election on the Arrillaga "concept," the council withstood a flurry of criticism from the community before backtracking and effectively killing the proposal.
Burt warned Monday that proceeding with the giant Urban Lane garage would similarly send the wrong message and prompt members of the community to ask about the council, "What were they thinking?"
"It's like this council doesn't learn from our errors," Burt said.
Initially, council members considered allowing staff to apply for grants that would allow planning work. Chief Transportation Official Jaime Rodriguez said both the Metropolitan Transportation Authority and the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority have funds available for projects of this nature. But after hearing from Burt and other members, City Manager James Keene reversed course and argued that this approval could actually cause more harm than good. Councilman Marc Berman stressed that if the council ultimately decides to pursue planning work in this area, it could do so later with local funds.
One idea that did move forward Monday, though not without disagreement, was staff's proposal for a satellite lot on Embarcadero Road, where commuters would leave their cars before getting shuttled to their offices downtown. The move would require the reduction of lanes on Embarcadero from four to two and would create about 200 parking spaces along Embarcadero, east of Geng Road.
Holman panned the idea of adding parking so close to the Baylands and argued that this would be tantamount to "urbanization" in an area where parking traditionally hadn't been allowed. She warned about a parking "creep" happening and called adding parking east of Embarcadero "a bad idea."
"I don't think transferring impacts from one location to another is where we want to be going," Holman said.
Schmid agreed and joined her in voting against the proposal.
"The people who will benefit are commuters from outside who want to work downtown," he said. "The people who will bear the cost will be the residents going to the Baylands -- a changed and different experience."
Their colleagues, however, had fewer reservations, particularly after staff explained that the approval only pays for environmental analysis and additional design work. Scharff stressed that it's important to give downtown workers a place to park once the Residential Parking Permit Program is launched. And Klein, who worked at a law firm on Embarcadero for more than 25 years, vigorously disputed Holman's characterization of the site. He argued that Embarcadero is currently "underutilized."
"If there are better stop gaps, bring them forth," Klein said. "I can't think of one; staff hasn't been able to think of one. If we aren't going to let (commuters) park in neighborhoods, we've got to let them do it in some other place.
"This is the place to do it," Klein added, before the council voted 7-2 to support the exploration of this idea, with Holman and Schmid dissenting.
By the same vote, the council approved having staff reach out to private developers for proposals on possible partnerships for downtown structures. While Schmid and Holman didn't like the idea and voted against it, their colleagues agreed with Councilman Larry Klein, who called it an "innocuous idea." Shepherd concurred.
"I believe we need to go ahead and solicit and find out if there is interest," Shepherd said.