Palo Alto Weekly

Spectrum - August 22, 2014

Off Deadline: 'Parking' becoming main battle cry of no-growth, 'residents first' movement

by Jay Thorwaldson

There's nothing new about parking problems in and around downtown Palo Alto — except that they have grown more intense and spilled more and more heavily into adjacent residential areas.

City officials are scrambling to provide relief for the neighborhoods directly affected, although no one seems exactly sure yet what can be done after years of buildup from intensification of commercial space in downtown. Such intensification comes both from new office/commercial developments (more workers needing all-day parking) to more intensive use of existing space (meaning more shared offices and smaller cubicles).

Some spillover extends beyond adjacent neighborhoods, as Neilson Buchanan, a former hospital administrator who resides in the Downtown North neighborhood, demonstrated recently to the City Council.

Buchanan presented a color-coded graphic showing the extent of the overflow from the downtown core, with numerous residential blocks in the "red zone" of 90 to 112 percent saturation from cars parked by non-residents. The beyond-100 percent stats are from people crowding into spaces that shouldn't be spaces, encroaching on driveways and other intrusions, he explained.

Then there are yellowish-orange blocks where 70 to 80 percent of spaces are taken, according to specific counts by a neighborhood "parking squad" of counters.

Other colors show lesser degrees of impact, stretching east to Middlefield Road.

Why would this local "saturation parking" take on citywide political significance as we approach a City Council election in November?

I recently noted in a column (published Aug. 1 in the Weekly) that there is a rise of what might be called "neo-residentialists," borrowing a term that dates back to major community-wide battles in the 1960s and early 1970s over growth. Those residentialists, some of whom are still active watchdogs, were roused by a series of proposals for high-rise intensive developments in different parts of town.

Creating Oregon Expressway coalesced concerns in a bitter 1962 election.

Traffic was the big issue at the time. It launched political careers, local and state-level.

But there's a significant difference with today's neo-residentialists. There seems to be a shift from a predominant concern about traffic to one about parking. Where do you put all those cars that folks drive to work, usually solo? Traffic is still a concern, especially as it has been reported that the city's super-high jobs-to-housing ratio has grown to about 3.14 jobs per household, up from a high 2.4 jobs per household in the late 1960s despite much lip service to controlling jobs.

Yet today, energy seems to be focused on alerting neighborhoods well beyond neighborhoods flanking downtown to the "saturation parking" threat. There is spillover parking from the California Avenue commercial strip, for instance, and in some other pockets.

Traffic and parking impacts on the neighborhood were dual issues in the Measure D defeat of the plan for low-income housing for seniors in Maybell Court.

Veterans of Measure D have launched campaigns for City Council in November.

So one proposal, approved last week by the City Council, is to create parking areas for downtown employees out along Embarcadero Road, near the city's sacrosanct baylands preserves. A shuttle would move people downtown and back. That raises the ire of baylands protectionists, as well as concerns about the cost of running a dedicated shuttle service and whether such a service might cause other neighborhoods along the route to be impacted by "foreign" cars taking curbside spaces.

Some propose building additional parking structures downtown, but the estimated $60,000 per parking space becomes a major factor, along with years of delay during construction. City staff members are restriping some curbside parking spaces in downtown Palo Alto to match today's smaller cars and have created about 30 such "new" spaces recently, according to Jessica Sullivan, the city's parking manager.

She will be in charge of a new city-backed effort to get people out of cars, a process known by an impressively bureaucratic term of "transportation demand management," or TDM, in addition to spearheading efforts to figure out the best solutions to a decades-old dilemma, dating back even to the early 1950s. The city is seeking consultant help.

The City Council took a big initial step toward curbing the overflow parking problem in January when it unanimously voted to create a framework for a "residential parking permit" program that would end free all-day parking in neighborhoods. Details are still being hashed out. In past years some neighbors have said they don't want such a program adding one more hassle to community life.

But things have gotten worse. There is still concern about how bureaucratic (or expensive) such permits would be.

No one has yet effectively answered a key question: Where would those hapless downtown (or other commercial area) employees go to park? Would they become a new breed of "spaceless" roaming the streets? Carpooling? Vans? Trains? Buses?

Hence the proposal for a shuttle to the baylands, or someplace else. And there are vacant spaces in upper levels of existing parking structures, Buchanan has found.

And there's a new concern: What if all those invading daytime parkers are from someplace else than the downtown commercial area? Are some spilling over from Stanford University, where new parking restrictions and fees have been introduced as a result of county approval of the university's general use permit?

Or they could be people from Menlo Park and other communities parking in Palo Alto to catch CalTrain's "bullet" train, as it doesn't stop in Menlo Park (not to be confused with the proposed high-speed rail streamliner).

Neighbors, of course, can't track license plates. But Palo Alto police or city officials could.

Watch for some council-level discussion of tracking down who may be parking in Palo Alto, and what to do about it.

Former Weekly Editor Jay Thorwaldson can be emailed at jthorwaldson@paweekly.com and/or jaythor@well.com. He also writes periodic blogs for PaloAltoOnline.com.

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