Palo Alto Weekly

News - October 11, 2013

Program for disabled parking moves ahead

Split planning commission votes in favor of program that would allow residents to pay for disabled on-street spots

by Gennady Sheyner

Proposals to solve Palo Alto's notorious parking problems always cause a stir, even if the solutions would only apply to a handful of the city's neediest residents.

So even after the Planning and Transportation Commission signed off on Wednesday on the latest parking program, which would allow disabled residents who lack a garage to apply for designated on-street parking spots next to their homes, it did so only after an emotional debate and by a razor-thin margin.

The proposed policy, which the commission supported by a 4-3 vote, would allow a resident with permanent disabilities to buy an on-street parking spot for $250 a year. This spot would have to be located directly in front of the applicant's home and would only apply to areas where demand for parking on evenings and weekends is not excessive. An applicant would have to show proof of permanent disability (a state-issued disability plate and a matching registration address), proof of public-street residence and proof that they don't already have a usable garage space.

Commissioners Michael Alcheck, Alex Panelli and Greg Tanaka all dissented. While each called the goal of providing parking to disabled residents laudable, they criticized staff's specific proposal and favored sending it to the commission's parking committee for further refinement.

The new policy isn't expected to deliver the kind of relief from overall parking congestion that residents around downtown and California Avenue have long complained about. It aims instead to cater to the small number of residents who are particularly vulnerable to the steadily worsening parking shortages. Chief Transportation Official Jaime Rodriguez said Milpitas and Portland have similar policies already in place.

Rodriguez said the city has received four or five requests from disabled residents in north Palo Alto neighborhoods asking for designated on-street spots.

One Professorville resident on Addison Street has recently succeeded in convincing the city to install an accessible on-street parking spot, a project that Rodriguez said had been successful. The goal, he said, is to have a framework in place that would allow other residents to apply for such amenities without doing everything on a case-by-case basis.

"We want to close this loophole, so when people ask and have a demonstrated need, we could respond," Rodriguez said.

The parking spot wouldn't be limited to just the person who applied for it, but any other driver with a disability. The applicant would also have to demonstrate that a private driveway is unavailable.

The proposal encountered a wave of criticism on the commission, with Alcheck leading the way. Alcheck pointed to the empty Council Chambers and noted that not a single resident who would be eligible for the program was in attendance. The "irony" of the commission talking about this policy while Downtown North residents are counting parked cars to get a better grip on the parking problem in their congested neighborhood is "offensive," Alcheck said. Residents in older homes without driveways should be able to request curb cuts to prevent others from parking in front of their homes, he said.

"If you're hearing passion, it's because we have real problems with parking in the city, and this is not one of them," Alcheck said. "I can't imagine that we'd spend more time on this topic."

Panelli also warned against adopting the new policy and, like Alcheck, argued that it would distract from the broader effort of developing a Residential Parking Permit Program (RPPP) for neighborhoods suffering parking shortages. The program, which staff hopes to put in place early next year, would restrict parking to two hours for drivers without residential permits. Panelli invoked the old adage: "The path to hell is paved with good intentions."

"This could be a step toward the first level of Hades," Panelli said.

Tanaka's criticism focused on the program's potential impact on other homes on the block and noted that designating an area as a disabled-only spot would further exacerbate the already steep parking shortages. The city, he said, should consider other efforts, such as encouraging construction of driveways at homes that currently don't have them — an option that Rodriguez said would cost homeowners "tens of thousands of dollars."

"In general, I support the spirit of trying to help our disabled residents. That's a worthy goal," Tanaka said. "I don't know if this is necessarily the right solution.

"I can see the battles brewing with this coming online. Especially in areas where people really have problems with parking."

Commissioner Eduardo Martinez took the opposite stance. Given the very limited nature of the proposed program, he said he had no problem recommending its adoption. Waiting until the broader program is in place would unnecessarily slow down a very limited program that would only impact a handful of parking spaces throughout the city, he said. He disagreed with Tanaka about the potential for neighbors to fight over the disabled spot.

"Neighbors become very accepting toward things like this," Martinez said. "They know their neighbors. They know they have a need toward accessibility."

Chair Mark Michael agreed.

"This is something that Palo Alto, in addressing the needs of all its residents, should be prepared to do," Michael said.

Commissioner Carl King proved the swing vote in the discussion. After initially agreeing with Alcheck that the item should be deferred and aligned with the comprehensive parking program, he ultimately voted with Martinez, Michael and Vice Chair Arthur Keller to adopt the new program. The vote came after an emotional plea from Rodriguez, who said disabled residents have been asking him for help for more than a year. Even once the residential parking-permit program is in place, this program would offer a valuable tool for needy individuals, he said.

"It really kills me that I can't help the community when they ask me for help," Rodriguez said.

The city might get one application for this type of parking spot or it might get none, he added, but if it does, at least it will be able to help.

"We're pushing off one tool that I really think the community can strongly benefit from," Rodriguez said, just before the vote.

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

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