Palo Alto Weekly

Spectrum - November 23, 2012

On Deadline: 'Spillover parking' has plagued some neighborhoods for decades

by Jay Thorwaldson

Long-ago City Manager George Morgan summed it up about 40 years ago:

"There will always be a parking problem" in downtown Palo Alto, he told me during one of our regular briefing sessions.

Morgan added that when he was hired as assistant to the city manager in 1952 that then-City Manager Jerry Keithley assigned him to "fix the downtown parking problem." (See "No quick fixes" story at www.paloaltoonline.com/news/show_story.php?story_id=27562 ).

Despite Morgan's best efforts, the problem was still there 20 years later. Growth in jobs and new developments overwhelmed efforts to alleviate the parking situation.

And the problem's still there, as the City Council acknowledged at its Nov. 13 meeting. Council members sent city staff back to the "more study" school with a three-month timeline to return — with some brilliant solutions.

Several council members cited an urgency to do something, and the council voted 8-to-1 to move forward. The lone dissenter was Councilwoman Karen Holman, who objected that there were no firm deadlines attached.

The problem has multiple facets, some dating back decades, particularly (but not exclusively) in the hard-hit "Professorville" area south of downtown.

First, there have nearly always been more employees in the downtown area — once estimated at about 6,000 in the mid-1980s — than there are long-term parking spaces. Time limits become their own problem.

Employees either have to rush out every two or three hours to move cars, at significant cost in productivity for their company and at a high risk of getting an expensive parking ticket if their timing is off. Permit parking is available, but it's pricey and (shudder) involves dealing with city bureaucracy.

Second, shoppers from all over Palo Alto and neighboring communities regularly complain about finding parking when they want to go to stores or restaurants in downtown. Being Americans, many find walking more than a half block to be unacceptable — eliminating use of the parking structures sprinkled around the area.

Some shoppers or diners have vowed never again to visit downtown Palo Alto after they were caught by the time limits or parking restrictions of the color zones with odd color names, such as teal, coral and others. For many years, parking meters were used to keep spaces turning over, but those were removed years ago and replaced with color zones. Some merchants used the posts to support flowerpots.

Third, many employees (and owners) of the 800 or so businesses estimated in the area have discovered that walking isn't so bad if you can park all day for free in an adjacent neighborhood, without risking a parking ticket — which seem to have inflated over the years greater than gasoline. Some persons have reported spending up to $100 or even $200 some months on parking fines. That makes walking look better and better.

Fourth, but parking in neighborhoods and walking to work doesn't look so good to residents in single-family residential areas of Downtown North or South of Forest Avenue (SOFA). During some periods of severe spillover there have been confrontations between residents and parkers, and residents have left testy notes on windshields. In some areas, small homes lack offstreet parking or garages, making the problem particularly irritating.

Years back, residents were polled on whether they wanted to have "resident permits" for curbside parking, but so far most residents have resisted that concept.

There's a smaller scale but just as stubborn spillover-parking problem in the California Avenue business district between El Camino Real and the CalTrain tracks — and there are pockets of spillover cars parked elsewhere in town.

Finally, there's an underlying issue of city approval of large developments, one of the largest of which is still pending: the Arrillaga proposal for office towers and a live-theater complex.

Past efforts to address the problem have included a 1980s "Parking/Transportation Task Force" under the Chamber of Commerce and a follow-up committee to advocate adding new parking structures.

The idea of the task force, which I co-chaired, was that parking overflow and how one gets to work are opposite sides of the same coin and need to be addressed as one problem. City staffer Marvin Overway had crews restripe the 1950s-size on-street parking spaces to smaller-car spaces, creating about 140 new spots at virtually no cost.

The parking-structure initiative was pushed by developer Chop Keenan, who was skeptical of "alternative transportation" efforts. He aggressively and successfully pushed for new structures, and remains a strong advocate.

Two residents in particular — one each from north and south of downtown — have raised critical voices about the city's approach this time around.

Ken Alsman of Professorville, a professional planner by background and current owner of an antique store, says the effort to find solutions "has been horribly mismanaged and horribly planned." He says there is a "systemic deficit" with "no viable data" about it.

Neilson Buchanan, a resident of the 100 block of Bryant Street north of downtown, questions the adequacy of staff efforts to address, or even define, the systemic deficit. A parked-vehicles study is underway this month (November) that could give some answers, but perhaps not enough. And the area studied should be extended, he advocates.

An informal "parking committee" of residents who are working with city staff needs to be formalized and strengthened, he says: "If the traffic and parking situation is as critical as some council members indicated (Nov. 13), then the informal parking committee is an example of inadequate due process being applied to a major public issue."

And he feels the city should link parking-overflow to approval of new projects, through assessing the "parking impact of every new development project."

Ironically, both Buchanan and Alsman have past experience with spillover parking on neighbors. Buchanan was once CEO of the El Camino Hospital District, and Alsman worked with him as a Mountain View planning-staff member on parking issues relating to the hospital.

But the overriding question remains: Can the city this time prove George Morgan's prediction wrong?

Or will there always be a downtown parking problem?

Former Weekly Editor Jay Thorwaldson can be emailed at jthorwaldson@paweekly.com with a copy to jaythor@well.com. He also blogs at www.PaloAltoOnline.com (below Town Square).

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