Lack of parking, people living in cars top neighborhood concerns
Plans for a proliferation of wireless antennas also divided opinion in 2011
Wireless antennas, intrusive parkers and homeless people who live in their cars pushed the buttons of Palo Alto residents in 2011.
Concerned about preserving the sanctity of their neighborhoods, some residents spoke out. By year's end, there had been movement, although not resolution, on all of the issues.
For years, residents of the College Terrace neighborhood near El Camino Real and Stanford Avenue have tried to focus the city's attention on the problems of trash, belligerence, public urination and drug use among some people who were living on the streets in their cars, vans and motor homes.
Police estimated there are about 20 vehicle dwellers scattered throughout the city, but those who live on the streets estimated the number is closer to 100, according to a city staff report. Palo Alto is the only Peninsula city without a car-dwelling ordinance.
City staff prepared an ordinance banning "human habitation of vehicles" in July, triggering an outcry from the homeless and their supporters. In response, the city sponsored a working group that includes vehicle dwellers, residents and businesses to hash out a compromise plan.
At a community forum in September, some vehicle dwellers suggested an ordinance modeled after the Eugene, Ore., camping law. Palo Alto's ordinance would allow private businesses, places of worship and government facilities to designate parking to accommodate three medium vehicles or one large vehicle on the property. Those providing the parking spaces would govern their property and issue approval letters with a set of conditions.
While an ordinance that is similar to the ban proposed in July is also still being considered, some vehicle dwellers on Dec. 19 presented the city with an "Unsheltered Bill of Rights" and amendments to the city charter and municipal code that would codify living in vehicles on public streets and parks as a fundamental right to housing that cannot be discriminated against.
The working group expects to meet at least twice more and sponsor a community meeting before presenting a recommendation to the City Council's Policy and Services Committee in February or March.
A towering controversy also emerged regarding adding antennas that service wireless devices in neighborhoods. Service providers such as AT&T and Verizon said the installation of additional cell-phone towers and transmitters are necessary to keep pace with exponential demand of video, music and other digital content.
But some residents opposed the antennas, citing health and aesthetic concerns.
The debate became complicated when Stephen Stuart, a Palo Alto resident who provided the City of Palo Alto with a free connection to the Internet for 17 years, on March 29 gave notice that he was cutting the city's service. Stuart, whose home was across the street from St. Albert the Great Church, was dismayed that the city's planning department gave conditional approval for a 50-foot tower and nine antennas at the church.
In the end, the city's Internet connection stayed on, but St. Albert officials on April 18 withdrew their application after two-thirds of nearby residents said they opposed the project.
Residents living in the six-story Hotel President apartment building on University Avenue also battled AT&T, which wanted to place a Wi-Fi antenna on the building's balcony. The tenants cited health fears and maintenance issues that would intrude on their privacy.
"We are troubled ... about giving permission in perpetuity to a corporation ... to enter our homes whenever AT&T wants or needs to, to maintain a commercial service," residents wrote in a Feb. 16 email to city planners.
But the City Council in March approved the plan, enabling AT&T to announce its Wi-Fi "hot zone" in downtown Palo Alto in September.
Curtis Williams, the city's planning director, in May estimated the city would receive nearly 50 applications for wireless-communication facilities in the next two to three years. In response, the City Council devoted most of its May 16 meeting to discussing issues around a flood of applications. The council agreed the new infrastructure is necessary to improve the city's wireless service and several members called it a high priority.
That infrastructure is coming online. The city's planning department on Dec. 16 approved an AT&T proposal to install antennas on 19 utility poles —the first installment of a plan to add 80 antennas. AT&T is to test the radio frequency and decibel levels of the equipment to make sure they don't exceed city regulations. Opponents have until the end of December to appeal.
Palo Alto's downtown neighborhoods are feeling the impact of another kind of intrusion — employees of nearby businesses parking all day along their residential blocks. Fed-up residents in Professorville, which lies south of downtown, asked the city to develop a parking-permit program or other parking limitations to ease congestion.
In March city officials launched a parking study and hired a new parking manager to work on the issue. The parking study found that hundreds of permit-parking spaces in downtown garages remain vacant. In four out of five garages, use of the permit spaces ranged from 13 to 26 percent, according to the study.
City staff began locating more on-street spaces and converting underutilized red-curb and loading zones to parking spaces. The fourth floor of the Bryant Street garage was also changed from hourly to permit parking to eliminate a backlog of permit applicants.
City planners also began working on a set of guidelines for a residential parking-permit program that could be applied to any neighborhood in the city.
Last week, the city's new Downtown Parking Community Group, which includes business representatives and Professorville residents, met to develop a potential residential parking-permit program. City staff members said they plan to bring a "revenue neutral" plan before the council in July 2012.
The city established a residential parking-permit program in College Terrace in December 2010 to manage parking from Stanford University and the Stanford Research Park. Residents reported the program has been successful.
But council members have expressed concern that a parking program in Professorville could shift parking to other downtown neighborhoods.
Staff Writer Sue Dremann can be emailed at email@example.com.