Palo Alto Weekly

Cover Story - January 10, 2014

The year ahead

Traffic, parking, new developments, infrastructure needs and an election will drive the City Council agenda

by Gennady Sheyner

Palo Alto's new year began with an election hangover — the same way it will likely end.

The City Council's inaugural meeting of the year, typically a jolly old affair, sounded a more somber tone this week. City Manager James Keene, who finds his city in the midst of unprecedented economic prosperity called the current climate "the best of times, the worst of times." Nancy Shepherd, in her first speech as mayor, alluded to the "challenges" ahead and quoted residents who say Palo Alto is "stumbling over our success."

Councilman Larry Klein observed that while past mayoral elections have functioned more as "coronations" or "parties," the Jan. 6 meeting was appropriately devoid of entertainment, given the "difficult issues" the council is now wrestling with.

These issues — too much traffic, not enough parking, a seismically deficient police headquarters and a citizenry upset about the height, density and appearance of new developments — will continue to hold the spotlight at City Hall in 2014.

The year will certainly be filled with surprises: city leaders emerging, public projects proposed, ambitious development applications filing into the city's Development Center. Undoubtedly, these factors will influence the council's work and bring with them a fresh slate of problems and solutions. But given how much unfinished business the council is carrying over from 2013 into 2014, and given the fact that the official priorities the council set in 2013 are scheduled to continue in 2014, it is safe to say that the new year will begin right where the old one left off — with a downtown Battle Royale over parking policies.

Here is a preview of the coming attractions.

Winter

Key issue: Parking

Key action: City Council is set to unveil in January a citywide framework for a residential parking-permit program.

Key question: Can Palo Alto get cars off residential streets?

"In a city of the future, it is difficult to find a space," the rock band Radiohead proclaimed in its 1998 song, "Palo Alto."

As Palo Alto kicks off 2014, the lyrics sound particularly prophetic. As the "year of the future" — then-Mayor Greg Scharff's phrase for 2013 — ticked down toward its final weeks, downtown's deepening parking shortages loomed as the city's most vexing problem.

The City Council's top priority of 2013, "the future of downtown and California Avenue," fostered much debate and plenty of data-gathering throughout the year, with city planners and citizen activists counting cars and crafting proposals for parking-permit programs. Yet when the ball dropped on New Year's Eve, solutions remained beyond the horizon and finding a space remained difficult, particularly during normal business hours in the residential neighborhoods of Downtown North and Professorville, which lie adjacent to downtown.

In the first few months of the year, parking shortages and their annoying cousin, traffic jams, will return to the spotlight at City Hall. This month, the council plans to launch what promises to be a contentious discussion of a proposed residential parking-permit program, which would set time limits on cars that lack permits and, in theory, provide residents with some relief from downtown employees who leave their cars in the neighborhoods to avoid the time restrictions in downtown's commercial core. Residents have been clamoring for a permit program for years and have argued persuasively that parking congestion will spill to other neighborhoods in the coming years, as more commercial developments come online. City planners note in a Dec. 16 report that community concern about parking supply and traffic congestion in and around levels have reached "critical levels."

Yet solutions remain elusive. While the permit program has yet to be presented to the council, early reviews suggest that City Hall may be heading for a winter of discontent. A coalition of residents from Downtown North, Professorville and Crescent Park argued in a memo that the proposed program is problematic for many reasons. Citing "unreasonable hurdles" for participation, residents urge a lower threshold for participation in the permit program (the approval of 50-percent-plus-1 residents in an area, as opposed to the staff's proposal of 70-percent-plus-1) and recommend that the program be implemented "block-by-block," rather than neighborhood-by-neighborhood.

Arguing the program is too complicated, they are requesting clear standards for determining when parking is considered to be intruding on a neighborhood.

Many downtown businesses are similarly displeased with the early offering. A group of about two dozen businesses and employees have been circulating fliers and voicing opposition on their website, PaloAltoParkingSolutions.org. Calling the program a "huge waste of money," they advocate as an alternative painting some curbs to reduce the number of parked cars on residential streets and designating some spaces as for residents only. The program, they argue, will push employees out of the neighborhoods without providing them with reasonable alternatives for parking.

"Employees have been parking on these residential streets for decades. It's simply unfair to suddenly evict them and give them no other workable alternative," claims the site, which has been endorsed by Whole Foods Market, Watercourse Way, Peninsula Creamery and a host of other businesses.

Key issue: Traffic

Key action: In February, the council is scheduled to consider a "transportation demand management" program aimed at getting drivers to switch to other modes of transportation.

Key question: Can Palo Alto become more like Google?

At the Dec. 9 City Council meeting, City Manager James Keene cited the Dalai Lama, who — when asked what the main problem in the world was — replied: "Too many people."

"What's the main problem with traffic?" Keene asked. "Too many cars."

From the city's perspective, the most beneficial way to curb traffic jams would be getting commuters out of cars entirely.

In recent months, city staff has been considering a host of "transportation demand management" strategies, including an expansion of the city's shuttle program, a program to provide Caltrain GoPasses (allowing unlimited rides) to downtown employees, and the use of car-share services such as Zipcar and City CarShare at local garages.

At the Dec. 9 meeting, council members heard from leading experts in the field — Stanford University, Google and the Contra Costa Transit Center.

But learning about initiatives is one thing, implementing them is another. Google, for instance, offers its employees a convenient (and, for some, foreboding) shuttle service, a plethora of car-share and van-pool programs, and "conference bikes" that can seat up to seven employees, according to Kevin Mathis, Google's transportation manager.

But Google, for all its feel-good frills and new-age amenities, is a benign dictatorship, with leaders at the top enjoying a monopoly on decision-making authority. Unlike the Mountain View giant, a Palo Alto transportation-demand-management (TDM) program would have to overcome a thicket of competing interests, including downtown employers, neighborhood residents, city workers and regional organizations, from Caltrains to the VTA.

In early February, city planners and the council are scheduled to consider a formal program, including the establishment of "TDM districts," which would require businesses to track metrics and meet traffic-reduction targets for their employees.

The districts will likely include the better parts of downtown, California Avenue and the Stanford Research Park. After that, the council will have to consider funding mechanisms (it's worth noting that deep-pocketed Google has 122 shuttle buses, while Palo Alto has two cross-town shuttles), traffic-reduction targets, and various carrots and sticks.

"It makes sense from a health standpoint, it makes sense from an environmental standpoint, makes sense from a stress standpoint," Councilman Marc Berman said Dec. 9, referring to a citywide TDM program.

Everyone on the council agrees. The big question is: How will Palo Alto get there?

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