Palo Alto Weekly

News - December 14, 2012

Palo Alto struggles with downtown's parking problem

City Council, planning commissioners seek solutions for dearth of parking spots

by Gennady Sheyner

With downtown residents up in arms about a dearth of parking in their neighborhoods, Palo Alto officials this week grappled with ways to solve the complex problem and came up with one solution: a one-year moratorium on a zoning exemption that lowered the parking requirements for new developments downtown.

The City Council and the Planning and Transportation Commission both discussed the pressing problem of insufficient parking this week and acknowledged that there are no quick fixes on the horizon. But the council took one step toward keeping the problem from getting even worse when it put the freeze on a parking exemption that staff and members agreed has become antiquated.

Even the moratorium proved to be a divisive item. While all council members agreed that it is necessary, they remained deeply split on the question of whether the moratorium should apply to projects currently going through the planning process and decided to revisit this question early next year.

The council's unanimous vote to extend the parking exemption for new buildings until the end of 2013 sailed through with little debate or disagreement. The exemption was initially adopted to give developers incentive to build downtown. These days, with downtown vacancies virtually nonexistent, large new office developments in the pipeline and residential neighborhoods suffering from an acute parking shortage, that incentive is no longer needed, the council agreed.

But while the decision was unanimous, members sparred at length over whether the new rules should apply to the two projects already going through the planning process — projects that together could add close to 100 cars to the already congested district.

Some council members, including Larry Klein and Sid Espinosa, argued that it wouldn't be fair for the city to change rules on the two developers whose projects are currently undergoing city reviews. Others, led by Councilman Greg Schmid and Councilwoman Karen Holman, sided with the residents in the impacted neighborhoods and said an exemption shouldn't be given to any project.

The three-hour debate ended in a stalemate, leaving the two projects in parking purgatory for the moment. Instead of ruling on the exceptions, the council voted 5-4, with Klein, Espinosa, Gail Price and Nancy Shepherd dissenting, to direct staff to consider ways to reduce the projects' parking impacts and to come back with a report within 60 days.

The disagreement focused on the mixed-use developments proposed for 135 Hamilton Ave. and 636 Waverley St., each of which would be dominated by office space and include two residential units. The parking exemption would reduce by 40 the number of parking spots the Hamilton Avenue development has to provide, bringing it down from 85 to 45 (a separate exemption that the developer is relying on would lessen the requirement by another 21 spots, to 23). The exemption would also bring down the parking requirement for the Waverley Street project from 40 spots to 25.

During Monday's long discussion, council members and residents agreed that the influx of workers at the new developments would further exacerbate what just about everyone recognizes as downtown's most glaring problem. Over the past year, the council has taken a series of steps to address concerns from downtown residents by pursuing a study to identify the city's need for potential for parking garages, reforming its parking-permit system and asking developers to make greater contributions to solving the problem.

The Monday action is the latest step in this broad and complex effort, though it's a step that is unlikely to satisfy either the residents or the developers. Several speakers at Monday's public hearing urged the council not to make any exceptions to the moratorium, noting that their neighborhoods cannot accommodate any more cars. Developers asked the council to respect the process and not to change the rules in "midstream."

Sally Ann Rudd, a Downtown North resident, is in the former camp. She said her neighborhood is already approaching "85 percent saturation" with parked cars and that parts of downtown are "100 percent saturation" (in other words, there are no open spots at all).

"Downtown is going to fill up like a bathtub full of water and there won't be anywhere to put the new cars," Rudd said.

Schmid and Holman were particularly sympathetic to her arguments, as well as those offered by other residents from Downtown North and Professorville, where the parking shortage is particularly acute. Schmid, an economist, argued that it is downtown's businesses, residents and customers who end up paying the price for the developers' parking exemptions. The only rational action, he said, is to require all new projects — including those already going through the process — to provide full parking.

"Exemptions are paid for by others," Schmid said. "They don't come out of some secret fund that the council has or the council's discretionary fund. They come out of the economic uses by others."

The discussion highlighted what has recently become one of Palo Alto's most pressing issues: a downtown that is struggling to accommodate rapid growth. In May, when the City Council approved the four-story Lytton Gateway development for the prominent corner of Lytton Avenue and Alma Street, the project's parking impact was by far the most controversial issue (the developers were required to fund a parking-demand study as part of the city's approval). Parking and traffic concerns have also featured prominently in Palo Alto's ongoing debate over whether to allow John Arrillaga to build four office towers and a theater near the downtown Caltrain station.

At the Monday meeting, Holman characterized downtown's parking problems as a "hole in the bucket." If the city continues to put more into the bucket, she said, it will continue "leaking out of the bottom."

"What we need to do instead is to plug the hole in the bucket, and that's what this motion does," Holman said of Schmid's proposal not to grant any exceptions. "Our job is to work in the public's best interest and do no harm."

Klein strongly disagreed and said it would be "a blot on the character of our city" if the council were to take away the exemption while the developers are in the middle of the planning process. Changing the rules in the middle of the game wouldn't be fair and would be damaging to the city's reputation, he argued.

"Our first obligation is to the people, but we have a higher obligation in a sense and that is to act ethically," Klein said. "I don't think this is an ethical motion. We have an obligation to treat people fairly, whether it's developers or homeless people or whoever comes before us."

Price and Espinosa both sided with Klein, with Espinosa lamenting the fact that the parking debate has been pitting downtown residents against developers. All Palo Altans, he said, "want to see a vibrant downtown and we want to see exceptional neighborhoods."

Charles "Chop" Keenan and David Kleiman, the developers behind 135 Hamilton and 636 Waverley, respectively, also urged the council to respect the rules that were in place when each began the journey through the planning process. Keenan said he wouldn't have pursued the project under the revised conditions.

"We spent a lot of time and money in reliance on your rules and regulations," Keenan said. "I won't use the term bait-and-switch, but we're on the one-yard line. Whatever metaphor you want to use, here we are."

Kleiman said he would be willing to go along with a staff recommendation that the developers, instead of providing parking, contribute to the city's parking-assessment district. Even so, he said he's not sure that there's "a legal or moralistic justification" for this requirement.

Vice Mayor Greg Scharff said he was split between his desire to do right by the developers who play by the rules and his duty to protect the city's quality of life. Ultimately, the latter trumped the former for Scharff.

With the council split, Mayor Yiaway Yeh suggested coming up with other ways to reduce the parking demand from the two new developments, including exploring new transportation-demand management strategies. The council ultimately narrowly approved Yeh's proposal, which means it is now scheduled to revisit the issue of exceptions within 60 days. Meanwhile, the city is proceeding with a "downtown cap" study aimed at exploring the area's capacity to absorb more development. This study will be performed in conjunction with the parking-garage analysis.

The council had initially adopted the moratorium through an emergency ordinance in October and last month agreed to extend it to December of this year. With the Monday vote, the moratorium will now be in effect until Dec. 28, 2013.

The city's Planning and Transportation Commission had its own views on downtown's parking problem, which it discussed Wednesday night. Among the speakers at the Wednesday meeting was Ken Alsman, a Professorville resident who has been lobbying the city for years to improve downtown's parking situation. Alsman called the parking situation in his neighborhood "disturbing."

"I used to live in a wonderful neighborhood with qualities that I thought were what neighborhoods should have," Alsman said, "Now, I live in what I cal a quasi-Costco parking lot."

Commissioner Arthur Keller argued that new developments should be asked to do more to provide a solution, comparing them to the proverbial "straw that broke the camel's back." Commissioners and Chief Transportation Official Jaime Rodriguez agreed that downtown has a supply problem when it comes to parking. While the parking study is expected to shed some light on this problem, Rodriguez said the city can take other steps to make things easier in the near term. This includes a greater reliance on technology, particularly at parking garages that have been shown to be underutilized even as residential streets fill up like parking lots.

"Our parking program is antiquated in a sense that we don't use our supply very well," Rodriguez told the planning commission Wednesday. "Our structures are beautiful, but we don't do anything to provide information to the public on how many spaces are open."

While the commission lauded staff's efforts, members also expressed a desire to have a greater involvement in solving the problem. Chair Eduardo Martinez and Vice Chair Mark Michael both said they'd like to see the commission play a more active role in coming up with answers, including more public meetings and consideration of a more comprehensive solution. Everyone agreed that the problem isn't going to go away any time soon.

"There are no easy answers because if there were easy answers, we would have solved them by now," Keller said.

Staff Writer Gennady Sheyner can be emailed at gsheyner@paweekly.com.

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