After years of frustration about severe parking shortages on their blocks, Palo Alto residents got their first peek Tuesday night at what many see as the most promising solution — a permit program that would set time limits on visiting cars.
The long-awaited Residential Parking Permit Program, which the city unveiled at a community meeting in City Hall, seeks to change the rules for parking in downtown neighborhoods, which allow all-day parking and which get saturated with cars during business hours. Many cars belong to downtown workers, who prefer parking for free on residential streets over the other two alternatives: paying for garage permits or moving their cars every two hours.
The new program effectively extends the color parking zones that already exist in the downtown core of University, Lytton and Hamilton avenues to just about every downtown road, from Alma Street to Guinda Street. Most zones would allow two-hour parking for cars that don't have a permit on a hanger dangling from a rear-view mirror. Those that do have the permit would be able to park at the specified zone without a time limit.
At Tuesday's meeting, which attracted more than 40 people, city staff presented two concepts, with the main difference being the number of color zones. Concept A would add 10 zones to the downtown core, while Concept B would add 17 zones. The latter concept is based on a proposal the city was considering in 2000. That proposal ultimately failed because it proved too expensive to implement.
This time things are different. Parking is now one of the City Council's top priorities and a frequent topic of heated public discussions. Last year, the council rejected a proposed pilot program in a portion of Professorville, with most members agreeing that it would simply shift the problem to another part of downtown. The new program encapsulates the entire downtown.
The costs also don't loom as large. While the city still hopes that it will recoup some of the expense through permits, it will not base its decision on money alone. Interim Planning Director Aaron Aknin said that cost recovery is a goal but not the only one.
"It's a component and a detail, but not the bottom line," Aknin said.
Though the program is primarily designed to bring relief to residents, who have said they currently end up parking blocks from their homes, it will also provide some permits for employees, Aknin said. Though the exact ratio is yet to be determined, up to 40 percent of the parking permits could be allocated for non-residents, he said.
Under the proposal, each residence could get up to two permits, with the price to be determined. There would also be one four-hour parking zone, on sections of Alma and High Streets north of Lytton Avenue.
Staff plans to solicit feedback in the next two weeks and to then send out surveys to gauge residents' interest. Provided more than 50 percent of residents in a neighborhood support the program, staff would bring it to the City Council for approval before the end of the year, Aknin said.
Residents and business owners had plenty of questions about the new program, with some asking about the city's goals (about 85 percent of parking spaces used) and others worrying about the impact on downtown's service employees, many of whom might have a hard time affording the permits.
Russ Cohen, who heads the Downtown Business and Professional Association, suggested that the program might drive employees to park in two-hour zones, creating a parking shortage for customers. He warned city officials about the "unintended consequences" of the proposal.
Cohen also warned that downtown businesses would not be happy about shouldering too much of the financial burden for the new program. Ken Alsman, a resident of Professorville and leading proponent of the program, countered that developers already get "subsidized with multimillion dollar grants because they don't provide parking" for their tenants.
Jeff Selzer, general manager of Palo Alto Bicycles, said everyone deserves some share of the blame: businesses for parking on residential streets; residents for sometimes choosing not to use their off-street parking; and the city for allowing new developments that don't provide sufficient parking.
"There's not one vilified group here," Selzer said. "I think collectively we've all got to figure out how to get this solved."
Aknin emphasized that this would be a pilot program, subject to revisions based on results. The city, he noted, "can tweak it along the way."
"I promise you we won't get it 100 percent right tonight, on our first proposal, but we're working toward that."