Parking woes don't stop History Museum

Planning and Transportation Commission approves permit for downtown historical facility

The planned Palo Alto History Museum received a vote of confidence from the Palo Alto Planning and Transportation Commission on Wednesday night (June 8), with the caveat that the museum pay $1,250 toward a study of parking issues that have plagued the adjacent downtown neighborhood.

The commissioners were considering an appeal by Professorville resident Ken Alsman to halt the museum project, which has been 10 years in the making. Alsman, who is concerned about parking problems in his neighborhood, was appealing the March 21 tentative approval of the museum's conditional-use permit by the city's planning director.

Commissioners Eduardo Martinez, Daniel Garber, Lee Lippert, Susan Fineberg and Greg Tanaka voted to recommend the permit to the City Council; Arthur Keller and Samir Tuma were absent.

The museum is to be located in the historic Roth Building at 300 Homer Ave. The 1932 Birge Clark-designed structure was purchased by the city in April 2000 in conjunction with the South of Forest Avenue redevelopment plan commonly known as SOFA 1.

The City Council approved a lease-option agreement with the museum in 2004; the agreement is good until June 30.

Historic renovation would include 19,182 square feet plus a 1,462-square-foot addition at the rear of the building. The addition would house the museum, gallery space and offices for staff; a community meeting room; a gift shop; and a cafe. Offices for another nonprofit tenant would be provided on the second floor, museum proponents said.

Speakers at Wednesday's hearing, including opponents, said they approve of the museum, but some faulted the city's homework regarding parking impacts and compliance with state environmental law.

Alsman, a former Mountain View city-planning official, is a founder of the nonprofit group Palo Alto Stanford Heritage and a former member of the city's Historic Resources Board. He said he objects to the city's approving projects in the downtown area without regard -- in his opinion -- to parking problems created for surrounding neighborhoods. Professorville is a National Registered Historic District, he said.

"I have no doubt you will approve it. If I were sitting here, I'd do the same. I'm a supporter of it, but I also feel that Professorville is an important part of our historical community," he said.

Joy Ogawa told commissioners the project violated the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) because the city did not do an environmental-impact report. There can be exemptions to CEQA but only in situations where renovations and usage are negligible and are not expansive, she said.

"This is a huge change in use. It's an expansive use," she said, adding: "I think it's a great project. I just don't think it's an excuse for shoddy environmental analysis and it wouldn't stand up in court."

But Assistant City Attorney Donald Larkin said courts have ruled parking is not an environmental issue and therefore can't be challenged under CEQA. Other avenues are available for addressing parking issues.

Several residents spoke in support of the museum, despite neighborhood parking issues they experience daily.

"The city has been working hard on this problem. Please don't let this last obstacle stand in the way," Chet Frankenfield said.

Steve Staiger of the Palo Alto History Museum said the construction still depends upon further fundraising, following approval by the City Council, which would bring far less traffic and parking than any other uses of the building -- a view that was supported through questioning by Lippert.

If the building were used for offices, it would require 80 to 100 parking spaces, staff said. The museum requires 68 spaces, contract planner Lata Vasudevan said.

About 60 parking spaces at 260 Homer Ave., across from the museum, are available. But staff acknowledged the spaces are for public use, not exclusively for museum visitors.

The spaces are available during evenings and weekends, and the times do not entirely coincide with the museum's proposed operating hours, staff noted.

Roth Building employees would be required to park in city parking facilities, staff said.

In response to Alsman, commissioners opted to drop the two-hour parking limit that staff was considering as a condition of the use permit approved March 21. The time limit would have applied to the south side of the entire block of Homer Avenue between Waverley and Bryant streets and along Bryant extending from the rear lease line of 300 Homer Ave. The limit could have prompted drivers wishing to stay longer to park in the neighborhood instead.

Residents have long complained about downtown employees parking on neighborhood streets, leaving no room for residents' guests. They say the commuters have also hit parked vehicles numerous times.

City officials approved a downtown parking study in March to identify the parking problems in Professorville and potential solutions. On April 26, the city held a community meeting to discuss recommendations from the parking study.

Commissioners agreed the parking problems in Professorville need to be addressed, but said the issues go beyond the scope of Wednesday's hearing.

Chief Transportation Official Jaime Rodriguez said the city has not managed parking well, and that he is trying to remedy the situation. He hired a downtown-parking manager and is looking at ways to restructure the parking-permit program and to publicize existing, underutilized parking structures.

The city has a number of parking spaces within private structures that are designated for public use as part of "public benefits" that were required when infill housing and high-density projects were approved.

Other parking lots that have limited use, such as one behind a nearby church, might be used through an agreement, commissioners said. Lippert also suggested diagonal parking as a way to increase existing spaces. Parking for people with disabilities is sorely lacking, he said, and striped zones must be configured into street improvements that are a permit condition.

The City Council is scheduled to consider the conditional-use permit on July 18.

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Like this comment
Posted by Time-Flies
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jun 9, 2011 at 10:53 am

> Steve Staiger of the Palo Alto History Museum said the museum would
> bring far less traffic and parking than any other uses of the
> building -- a view that was supported through questioning by Lippert.

And empty buildings generate no traffic ..

Like this comment
Posted by Barbara
a resident of Professorville
on Jun 9, 2011 at 1:22 pm

I'm very pleased the PTC recommended approval of the conditional use permit and hope to see the museum move forward.

The article indicates the project has been "10 years in the making." A timeline would give a clearer picture of the project so far. Though the city has owned the Roth Building since 2000, the museum entered the option agreement in 2007. It received nonprofit status (501c3) also in 2007. Architectural planning and fundraising began in earnest 2007.

As a neighbor of the museum project, I understand parking impacts in Professorville. I watched the meeting with appreciation that the PTC allowed discussion of downtown and neighborhood parking issues beyond those connected to the project being appealed. They didn't have to do that, but it is by taking a serious view of the broader problem that solutions may be found. The PTC and city staff get my thanks.

Like this comment
Posted by YIMBY
a resident of University South
on Jun 9, 2011 at 3:53 pm

YIMBY is a registered user.

Me too - I'm relieved that the museum won't be held up by what essentially was an opportunity by Mr. Alsman to press his concern on the parking problem in Professorville. I think it was a terrible waste of staff time though, and did not serve him, nor his cause well.

Like this comment
Posted by Joy Ogawa
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jun 9, 2011 at 5:12 pm

Correction to the article: I did not say the project required an Environmental Impact Report (“EIR”). I said that the City did not do an environmental review, relying on a specific exemption (Section 15301 of the CEQA Guidelines) – an exemption that this project doesn't qualify for. CEQA requires an environmental review (an initial study, not necessarily a more extensive EIR) unless a specific exemption applies. In this case, the exemption claimed by the City does not apply, and the City should have done an initial study.

It is irresponsible of the City to brush-off an environmental review the way it did. This cavalier approach does the project no favors because it makes the project more vulnerable to a lawsuit, and all the City needed to do was to go through the environmental review checklist to show that there are no significant environmental impacts, or that any potentially significant impacts will be mitigated to less than significant. In my opinion, it comes down to laziness on the City's part, and an arrogant attitude that it can do anything it wants, or skip anything it wants, and get away with it. This cavalier approach to dealing with the project's impacts has unfortunately resulted in some unhappy neighbors and hasn't helped to start the History Museum off on the positive note that it deserves.

The City may feel it can dismiss parking as an environmental issue, but lack of parking results in wasted driving as drivers search for parking, and it can lead to unsafe, illegal and erratic behavior by drivers. Wasted driving means wasted fuel and emissions, and means more wear-and-tear on streets – streets that the City admits it cannot afford to keep up re-surfacing, as it is.

In any case, whether or not parking qualifies as an environmental issue is not an excuse for skipping an environmental review required by CEQA.

Unfortunately for the Professorville neighborhood, all the neighborhood residents got, in my opinion, was the usual rhetoric and hand-waving from staff: more studies and meetings. The typical response from a City that just puts off dealing with the problem in hopes that it will go away, or that it can be kicked down the road until the current officials are out of office and it becomes somebody else's problem.

Like this comment
Posted by Ann
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Jun 9, 2011 at 6:12 pm

The museum will generate less traffic than the traffic that was generated when the Roth building was used as part of the Palo Alto Medical Clinic. Patients were coming and going in their automobiles all day long back then. If you live downtown, you know in advance of purchasing your home that there will be cars parked on the street much of the time.
The people who objected to the Roth Building becoming a museum remind me of the people who tried to shut down the Winter Lodge ice skating rink in Palo Alto. The complainers bought their condos knowing an ice skating rink was next door. Yet after they bought their condos, they complained about the ice skating rink making noise, etc., and they tried to close it down.

Like this comment
Posted by Leland J. Francois
a resident of East Palo Alto
on Jun 11, 2011 at 3:46 pm

Leland Francois of the Ravenswood Community History Project

I remain very concerned regarding the questionable mis-communcations
between the Palo Alto History and Preservation efforts and what remains from the former East Palo Alto Historical and Agricultual
Society and referenced to their immense losses as a direct result of
the major redevelopment projects initiated within this Ravenswood
Community in the latter part of the 1990's...

After I attended the June 1st meeting of the Palo Alto Historical
Resource Board, I followup with a written communications directed
to the City of East Palo Alto officials and Ravenswood Community

I would really appreciate if individuals would quite making reference
to the California Environmental Quality Act and by reasons this
piece of legislation has monumentally failed the citizen of Palo
Alto's counter part East Palo Alto.....

I really have my regrets that Mr. Trevor Borrow's was forced to vacate his wonderful efforts to compliment the United Nation's
forth coming, [UN Assoc. of Oakland] Documentation, Archiving, Records and Preservation Program and its efforts to hold the
second decade regional meeting of Mid-Peninsula historians.

Thus far, I must express my immense dissappointment regarding the
apparent historic conflicts of interest that has become very
visual between that side of San Francisquito Creek and this
side of San Francisquito Creek..its very unfair and unfortunately,
the children on either side will never really know the historical
truth or the rest of the story.

Ravenswood History Project

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