Palo Alto Weekly

Spectrum - April 20, 2012

Guest Opinion: It is time for residential parking permits in Palo Alto

by Sally-Ann Rudd

Fellow Palo Altans, it's time we take this issue of residential permit parking and settle it once and for all.

I live in Downtown North. My house is on a small lot (5,500 sq. ft.). It was built in 1907 and has a single-car garage and no driveway. We have two children. I drive a minivan. My husband drives a Honda Civic. He parks in the garage, and I park on the street. I am very happy in my little house, except for one thing.

If I move my car I lose my parking space. It's gone. I don't get it back until around 5 p.m. when the daytime parkers go home.

When I had babies, not being able to park outside my house was a very painful experience. I had to figure out how to get two tiny children into the house and my groceries. Which did I leave in the car, the babies or the ice cream, while I sprinted back and forth to the house?

When my mother came to visit, in a wheelchair, it was beyond inconvenient. I started calling the police for the people who parked overhanging the curb cut to my garage.

When we have contractors come to the house to fix things, I have to give them precise instructions about arriving early in the morning.

Not being able to park outside your own little house can make things very difficult.

So why can't we have residential permit parking?

Unlike neighboring cities, Palo Alto does not actively manage spillover parking into residential areas.

This has come about because Palo Alto's zoning requires a "minimum" parking level for new developments of four parking spaces for every 1,000 sq ft. In theory, this provides adequate on-site parking for employees so spillover parking shouldn't be a problem. You got the "in theory" at the start of that sentence, right?

Within the Downtown Parking District, where use changes don't require providing additional parking spaces, there are a little more than 5,000 spaces. If all the existing buildings had four spaces per 1,000 sq ft, there would be an additional 5,000 spaces required to meet those minimum ratios.

So clearly, there's a numerical parking deficit within the downtown area even if new developments are adequately parked.

But downtown Palo Alto has changed a lot in recent years. The ratios don't take into account changing a low-traffic retail establishment into a 200-seat restaurant. They don't take into account a start-up that rips all the cubicles out of an office and puts up large tables with workstations, which can fit in twice the workers as cubicle-land. They don't take into account replacing a two-story building with a three-story building with an extra layer of office space. They don't take into account "in-lieu parking" fees, where developers within the Downtown Parking District can pay fees instead of building actual parking spaces. Unfortunately, you can't park a real car in a virtual space.

Things have changed a lot but Palo Alto has run out of space for more parking. Therefore, the residential neighborhoods are taking the brunt of the spillover.

In 2009, College Terrace was given a Residential Permit Parking (RPP) program. It was funded by Stanford University, which gave the City $100,000 to protect the neighboring residential area. Stanford did this because they committed to a "parking cap and no new car trips" policy in their General Use Permit and capping parking is an effective way of encouraging people to find alternative ways of getting to work. It is one of a number of Transport Demand Management (TDM) approaches they use.

Palo Alto has committed to increasing the density of development projects around transit hubs, which makes perfect sense. Our city is fortunate to have a bus station and train station in the same place. The Marguerite shuttle serves Stanford. The Palo Alto shuttle serves some areas of Palo Alto.

What our city has not done is implement the kind of forward-thinking, visionary TDM programs that Stanford and surrounding cities have introduced, and resident permit parking is one of these.

If you introduce permit parking, you have a real tool you can use to encourage people to get out of their cars and find other ways to get around. They can use public transit, they can bike, they can start rideshare and car share programs.

More importantly, you can reduce the parking requirements for new development. This means you can have more space for people, less water pumped from the aquifer for deep garage constructions, you can make construction costs cheaper for developers and that might just encourage cheaper downtown rents and more diversity in our downtown. You will get fewer car trips, less air pollution, more trees and fewer accidents. People will find new ways to get around.

That's the kind of place we all want to live and work in, right?

But you can't reduce the parking requirements for development until you protect residential areas from spillover parking. Without taking non-resident cars from the neighborhoods, it is not a real reduction in parking supply and it's not fair to the people who live there.

The most common objection to resident permit parking is that it will affect the "economic vibrancy" of downtown Palo Alto. Most of the people who park in my neighborhood work in restaurants or retail. They arrive around 10 a.m. and they leave around 5 p.m. when the color zone parking restrictions downtown come to an end. I don't think they're buying their workout gear at Lululemon. I think they are working at Lululemon. For these workers, long-term parking permits are not an option, and they may come from areas where public transit is not available. It would be a lot more convenient for me if the people who were shopping at Lululemon or eating at Cheesecake Factory were parked outside my house, because they would circulate. The workers are there for hours. I would like to see a resident permit parking program that allowed some workers to continue using the neighborhood. I'd like to see the merchants take responsibility for ensuring the others have somewhere to park if they really can't use alternative transport. Satellite parking is an option, or giving up some two-hour spaces and making them long-term.

Many other cities have permit parking programs without sacrificing economic vibrancy. Berkeley comes to mind, so does San Francisco. No one's ever turned down a job at Stanford because they can't drive to work.

No one expects to drive to work in San Francisco. Why? Because long ago San Francisco stopped requiring developers to provide parking, implemented resident permit parking and those two measures spurred the development of a comprehensive public transit system that works really well.

It is time Palo Alto did the same.

Sally-Ann Rudd has lived in a small house in Downtown North since 1995 with her husband, children and two cats.

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