City Manager James Keene feels the pain of "spillover" (or "overflow") parking from downtown Palo Alto.
Or at least he sees its impacts on a daily basis: He resides in "Downtown North," the residential area north of the downtown commercial/office district that stretches from El Camino Real to just past Middlefield Road.
There are no easy solutions to the spillover, which he calls a "system" problem -- meaning that one approach alone won't solve either the immediate short-term or long-term aspects.
"Parking is on everybody's radar," Keene observed in a recent interview. Yet the image of what to do about it remains as fuzzy and complex as in decades past.
Downtown North and its counterpart south of downtown, the "South of Forest Avenue" (SOFA) area, are the most heavily hit residential areas in Palo Alto.
People who work in downtown find it easier to walk several blocks rather than deal with (1) having to move their cars every three hours or so (and risk getting pricey parking tickets), or (2) deal with the city bureaucracy and cost of getting long-term parking permits for parking structures.
"Clearly downtown is the worst" in terms of overflow impacts, Keene said. Other impacted areas include the residential neighborhoods flanking the California Avenue business district, parts of College Terrace and, recently, streets near the Newell Road Bridge. The 1911 bridge leads to the "Triangle" area of East Palo Alto -- where apartment-parking fees and increased enforcement along Woodland Avenue have pushed up to 50 residents over the bridge to park.
Parking, and spillover parking, have been a Palo Alto problem for at least six decades, dating back to the fast-growth years of the late 1940s and 1950s. Former City Manager George Morgan said circa 1970 that when he first joined the city staff in the early 1950s (as an "assistant to the city manager") his first assignment from his boss Jerry Keithley was to "solve the downtown parking problem."
"It will never be solved," Morgan concluded from nearly two decades of personal experience.
Spillover became more serious as intensity increased, with the high-rise Palo Alto Office Center in the 1960s and other developments. Downtown Palo Alto surged from a sleepy place -- severely impacted economically by the opening of the Stanford Shopping Center in the late 1950s -- to a world hub of venture capital, money-management firms and start-up high-tech firms.
A downtown parking assessment district was formed early on to help finance parking improvements. For many years, parking meters lined the streets until they were replaced by color-zone limits with trendy names, such as teal, coral and others. Yet both meters and zones are designed to keep spaces turning over for shoppers, not for all-day parking.
In the late 1980s, an estimated 6,000 people worked in the downtown, but neither the city nor the Chamber of Commerce knew for sure. Neither kept a census of businesses, and the city had no business license tax -- still a touchy subject today.
In the late 1980s, I co-chaired a "Parking/Transportation Task Force" under the Chamber in an effort to improve the parking situation by developing a concentrated effort to encourage people to try alternative transportation. We sponsored one of the first "Leave Your Car At Home" days in the Bay Area. That day resulted in a lot of press, someone riding a horse to work (tying it to a parking-meter post).
Lacking a sustained effort, the long-term effects were minimal, with one exception: City staffer Marvin Overway took the initiative to re-stripe on-street parking spaces (dating from the big-car 1950s) to the smaller cars of the late 1980s. He produced about 140 "new" spaces at a minuscule cost.
Downtown-based developer Chop Keenan (deeply skeptical of alternative-transportation efforts) later headed a committee that pushed successfully for construction of new parking garages, at an assessment cost to businesses.
There actually may have been a time a decade or so ago when there was adequate parking downtown -- theoretically. Two major start-ups pulled out to grow big elsewhere, and the vacancy rate soared. But downtown workers still shied from the parking structures, due to cost and inconvenience.
Downtown recovered and again is booming and growing, with major proposals such as the four-building plan by Stanford benefactor and developer John Arrillaga. Increasing intensity of use of existing buildings is an unknown factor.
So it comes down to what to do.
Keene sees the challenge as a balancing act between the impact of overflow parking on residents and the cost of significantly improving parking downtown.
The assessment district is stretched to pay for past structures, and the city may have to take the initiative on its own for any additional construction of new spaces, Keene indicated. But the city has its own budget woes.
One possible step would be parking permits for residents of the heavy-impact areas, Keene notes. But permits have been suggested before, and a majority of residents back in the 1980s rejected them as cumbersome (and potentially costly from fees), while policing the streets for violators would add costs to the city.
Times have changed, and new leadership of the overflow-parking subject has emerged for both north and south of downtown: former longtime Mountain View planning official Ken Alsman in the south and former El Camino Hospital Administrator Neilson Buchanan in the north. Both have years of experience navigating bureaucracies, and are not about to let this challenge sit there like a parked car.
The city has placed a moratorium on TDM (transfer of development rights) for parking, and the need for more parking is clear.
"But how do we build it?" Keene asks.
"There's no way to build enough parking soon enough to redress the concerns. In similar situations elsewhere, there always comes a time when residential-permit parking comes along."
Keene is suggesting a pilot permit program, as a start.
And interested parties -- residents, business owners and employees, others -- should tune in to the City Council retreat Feb. 2 to "watch this parking space" for other new (or old) ideas.
Note: Former Weekly Editor Jay Thorwaldson can be e-mailed at email@example.com with a copy to firstname.lastname@example.org.