Seeking to address downtown's worsening parking crisis and also make use of the city's famed canopy, Palo Alto planners unveiled on Monday a new plan to convert street trees into parking lots for downtown commuters.
Dubbed "Park-n-Bark" by planning staff, intricate rope-and-pulley systems would be installed on 831 trees, mostly oaks and redwoods, and a valet stationed at each tree. The branches of the selected trees would be extended and reinforced with concrete beams, and platforms capable of supporting up to three compact cars would be added.
The parking trees would be distinguished by red balconies, which would serve as perches for the valets. Each valet, identified by Keebler Elf-like uniforms, would use the pulleys to lift the car onto the branch and to bring it back down at the end of the day.
The 831 trees deemed sufficiently strong to accommodate the parked cars were identified by City Arborist Walter Pasteur, who surveyed the entire downtown canopy last year while drafting the city's Urban Forest Master Plan. If the council approves the plan, the tree-lots can be in place by early next year, around the same time that the city's much-debated "residential parking permit program" kicks in. That parking program will set time limits on cars parked without permits in residential neighborhoods such as Downtown North and Professorville.
Residents from both neighborhoods have vigorously complained about the influx of commuter cars parked on their once-quiet blocks, likening the situation to "a flood," "a tsunami," "a blitzkrieg," "an earthquake" and a "nuclear meltdown." The City Council has responded by proposing new garages and using the latest parking technologies, including the stacking "gumball machine" contraptions recently installed in the High Street garage and the Park-n-Bark system unveiled Monday.
Assistant Planning Director Adam Arkin praised the new program at a press conference in El Camino Park.
"They say money doesn't grow on trees, but with a downtown parking spaces valued at $60,000 a pop, this is as close as we can get to challenging them, whoever they are," Arkin said, while a Prius rested comfortably on an overhead branch of El Palo Alto, the city's namesake tree. "We see this as the perfect union of Palo Alto's two identities -- as a technological pioneer and as a leading tree-loving community. Not to mention, its recent reputation as a place where you can't find a parking space at lunch time to save your life."
The announcement was greeted with jubilation by dozens of downtown residents. Nelson Emerson, a Downtown North resident who has spent the last two years measuring car "saturation" on downtown blocks, said he's glad to see the city finally taking action.
"Thank goodness," Emerson said. "After kicking this can down the road for a decade, it's about time we started looking at real solutions. It's pretty amazing that the answer has been all around us the whole time."
Not everyone was as thrilled. Local conservationist groups, including the nonprofit Urban Canopy, voiced concerns about the aesthetic and structural impacts of the program. Dana Greene, the group's executive director, said the city needs to make sure the cars and the trees don't damage one another. She also noted that local trees serve as homes for squirrels, bluejays and other creatures, who will now have to share the branches with automobiles.
"Yes, it's great that downtown workers now have a new place to leave their cars," she said. "But we'll see how thrilled they'll be when, at the end of the day, they get back to their cars and see the roof covered in bird droppings and the radio presets all changed by a squirrel who prefers country music to heavy metal."
The city's Chief Transportation Officer Javier Ramirez said the negative impacts have already been analyzed through an extensive Environmental Impact Report and assured local environmentalists and employers that valets will be paid to keep the wildlife away from the vehicles and make sure the program rolls out smoothly.
"We're not paving a paradise to put up a parking lot," Ramirez said. "We're just merging the two and, hopefully, in the end everyone wins."