Palo Alto has ample vacant parking spaces

City analysis of downtown parking facilities cited by Professorville residents petitioning for relief

Professorville residents who for years have borne the burden of clogged streets and fender benders from all-day employee parking have petitioned the City of Palo Alto to implement a residential-permit parking program.

Now, they're citing a city parking study that showed hundreds of spaces are vacant during the day as justification for their petition.

The 147 residents submitted their petition to the city and a multi-page letter that they hope Planning and Transportation commissioners will consider when they study parking management strategies next Wednesday (Aug. 24).

The city's Transportation Division began analyzing its parking management in April as part of the Transportation Work Plan for 2011. The analysis includes a focused review of parking strategies in the Downtown and California Avenue business districts. Several citywide parking policies are also being explored, including bicycle parking, on-street disabled parking, electric-vehicle charging station and residential permit parking, according to a staff memorandum.

Hundreds of permit-parking spaces remain vacant, according to the recent analysis of how -- and whether -- drivers are using off-street parking facilities. It studied 12 surface lots and five city parking garages: Alma and High North, Alma and High South, Bryant Street, Cowper and Webster and City Hall.

The city has 2,328 downtown garage parking spaces, of which 1,567 are designated as permit parking and 711 surface-lot spaces, with 186 for permits, according to the analysis. In four out of the five garages, use of permit spaces ranges from just 13 percent to 26 percent, according to the analysis. The numbers jump during midday, but 424 permit spaces are still unused. In city lots, 106 out of 186 permit spaces are unused in the morning and 76 spaces are unused during midday.

Professorville resident Ken Alsman wrote to the commissioners that despite the 300 to 400 empty permit spaces "the city will not issue new permits to persons on the waiting list."

Alsman said the spaces might better be filled if the pricey permits are reduced to a cost that is affordable for employees. A yearlong permit costs $420 for a 5-day work week, or about $1.75 per day.

If the city allowed employees to break the fee down rather than paying a lump sum and reduced the bureaucracy, more employees could utilize the permit spaces, he said. The city could still make money and there would be ample parking for customers, he said.

The staff memorandum from Chief Transportation Official Jaime Rodriguez, states the city has begun to free up more spaces.

Staff immediately began locating places where more on-street spaces could be found and to convert underutilized red curb and loading zones to parking. Eighteen new spaces have been created or are planned. This represents the equivalent of $1.8 million in parking improvements if new garage spaces were constructed, he said.

Staff also converted the fourth floor of the Bryant Street garage from hourly parking to permit parking, providing 104 additional permit-parking spaces. This allowed he city to issue permits to everyone on the waiting list for a permit at that garage, according to the staff report.

Currently if a permit is not renewed, it takes three months for permit holders to be notified to return their permits. This represents a significant loss in revenue and a delay in distribution of permits to those on the waiting list, he said.

A new permit-management computer system will help streamline the process and a tier-pricing permit structure for downtown would include monthly permits and less expensive hardship ($30 per month) and fleet-vehicle permits.

Day permits, which are available for $16, are often altered by users, who add other dates. Starting in September, the day permits will be sold as a "scratcher" type of permit that can be only changed once, according to the report.

The city is also looking at developing additional residential permit-parking districts that would include amending a city ordinance that only allows the program in College Terrace.

The report suggests developing criteria for neighborhoods to apply for the program. Staff plans to present the outline to Professorville and other neighborhoods and return to the planning and transportation commission within 90 days with recommendations.

The current parking-management program was adopted in 1996, Rodriguez noted, and the color-coded zoning was updated in July 2011 to include the Main Library parking lot and its Bryant Street frontage.

But Alsman said as much as the trasnsportation division's efforts are appreciated as a first step, even the most successful efforts of the management plan will eventually fall short due to growth and use changes taking place under the current city land use and entitlement policies.

Parking exceptions and incentives granted to downtown development for offices, retail and housing have exacerbated the situation and the city has not taken into account the wave of start-up businesses coming into downtown, he said.

"Traditional assumptions about parking standards are no longer valid, where the typical office module of a few years ago gave employees each about 250 square feed of space, leading to a requirement of one parking space fore every 250 square feet of building area for parking. The current trend is to put many more employees in the same space -- clusters of people working with their laptops around a table at three or four times the employee density once considered standard," he said.

Other "nonconforming conversions" have upped vehicle density. A space at 818 Emerson Street that was formerly occupied by a furniture store with one or two workers and a few is now occupied by a start-up firm with 30 or more employees, he said.

"By our estimate every 12 to 15 employees without a designated parking space in the commercial district pushes the parking one block further into the low-density residential neighborhood," he said.

Related material:

Downtown parking map

Chart detailing use of downtown garages and lots

Maps showing downtown parking usage, surveyed by time of day

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Like this comment
Posted by Just wondering
a resident of Downtown North
on Aug 19, 2011 at 11:26 am

Why is the huge public garage under 800 High St excluded from the area defined for the survey?

Like this comment
Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Aug 19, 2011 at 11:35 am

Personally, I would like to see more pay per hour machines in city lots and garages. I occasionally need to park for more than a couple of hours and find it really hard to know where to go to find pay per day (or half day) parking and I live here. How can visitors (we want visitors, right) find somewhere to park.

I feel sure that if we had pay and display machines in all lots they would be well used and would possibly help the residential areas near downtown have less street parking.

Redwood City has parking meters which cost quarters for an hour and it is always easy to find somewhere to park. Why not in Palo Alto?

Like this comment
Posted by 94025
a resident of Menlo Park
on Aug 19, 2011 at 1:39 pm

Downtown Palo Alto years ago did away with parking meters to increase business, and to encourage shoppers to come shop downtown rather than just Stanford Shopping Center.

Like this comment
Posted by Too much traffic
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Aug 19, 2011 at 1:45 pm

"How can visitors (we want visitors, right) find somewhere to park."
Do we want visitors really?? I though that even one additional car trip in Palo Alto is too many. Shouldn't we then discourage driving, by getting rid of downtown parking. We want visitors, but they should walk, bike or take public transit. Everyone should bike according to Ellen Fletcher.

Like this comment
Posted by P.A. downtown parking
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Aug 19, 2011 at 4:56 pm

About 20 years ago a P.A. developer requested from the City Council and was allowed to build 7 levels of parking: the Cowper- Webster parking lot for his own use and all of his renters. He would keep it for 15 years. He committed to giving it to P.A. 15 years later for public parking. Well, 15 years later( about 5 years ago)that garage did not become all public parking as was originally promised. Three levels are for the public and the rest is for permit parking. I would assume that he and his renters have a large number of these permits. When I contacted the Building Department about this, he looked it up and agreed with me that this was to be the arrangement. But sometimes unfortunately, cities do not keep current with these agreements.

Like this comment
Posted by Me Too
a resident of Midtown
on Aug 19, 2011 at 6:00 pm

I permit park in the Cowper garage. The 2.5 public parking levels never come close to filling up during the day. In the evening they do - though at that time the permit areas are also available for public parking, so that seems to work out ok.

Like this comment
Posted by Just wondering
a resident of Downtown North
on Aug 19, 2011 at 10:02 pm

Agreements should be kept, not modified at the whim of the developer who received valuable privileges. Same seems to apply to the huge lot under 800 High Street. That was supposed to be free and open to the public but it is mostly empty now and the surrounding streets are jammed.
These are legal agreements that the city does not obey.

Like this comment
Posted by chris
a resident of University South
on Aug 19, 2011 at 10:05 pm

As noted, retail stores are being replaced by start-ups.

The need is not for 2-hour parking, but for all-day parking.

Are these start-ups really going to desert Palo Alto if their employees have to pay for parking?

Like this comment
Posted by Chris Gaither
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Aug 20, 2011 at 10:06 am

Whatever happened to encouraging as many people as possible who work close to the train station (such as downtown Palo Alto) to commute to work via the train with the enticement of work issued Cal train vouchers to load on the Clipper cards, or other types of passes? And, the city of Palo Alto could learn a thing or two from Redwood City and the way it conducts its downtown parking area. Downtown Redwood City has retail businesses, including eateries, office businesses, as well as Administrative and Court facilities. That city charges visitors for parking via meters, and the meters are not expensive. One quarter will get you one hour of parking!!! That's a bargain. Redwood City gets the revenue, and a more manageable parking citation/meter oversight system. A visitor to Redwood City can park for 4 hours, get lots accomplished and spend only one dollar for parking. Certainly folks visiting downtown Palo Alto could afford 25 cents for one hour of parking. In addition, downtown Redwood City has a Cal Train stop to support public transportation to the area for workers, shoppers, or to conduct other business.

Sometimes change and experiment is necessary to move forward.

Like this comment
Posted by aw
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Aug 20, 2011 at 11:00 am

Chris makes a really good point: the business mix in downtown and California Street isn't all retail and professional services anymore which is why Professorville, Downtown North and Old Palo Alto all need resident permit parking.

2 hour business district parking is plenty for retail, but doesn't work for business meetings or commuters.

If you break down a 1 hour business meeting - park 15 minutes before start of meeting, 1 hour meeting that starts 5 minutes late and runs 10 minutes over, 15 minute debrief after the meeting - you're at 1:45 and have to move the car to grab coffee or lunch. If the next meeting is in Santa Clara or Belmont – bike or Caltrain is just not a realistic option.

Modern web, software and design companies pack in more people per floor than Sun, Intel and HP ever did. A converted retail storefront that old school would fit 10 people with 1 on Caltrain and 9 driving now has 20 people with 4 on Caltrain and 16 driving.

It’s great to have the businesses. Let’s make sure there’s adequate business parking in the business districts.

Like this comment
Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Aug 20, 2011 at 11:39 am

Chris and Aw

Just what I have been saying for years. There is no way a business visitor to downtown can find available parking for 4 hours. I firmly believe that if we had meters or pay per hour in all lots, that the residential areas near downtown would not have the parking problems they have now.

Many visitors don't mind paying for parking, but they just can't find out how. All they see is 2 hours free parking signs. Then what?

Like this comment
Posted by Me Too
a resident of Midtown
on Aug 20, 2011 at 3:29 pm

I agree that the "four hour" problem is real, though not sure how big an impact it has vs. all-day employee parking. In Cowper garage there is a day-permit machine, though only the "experienced visitor" knows how to find and use it (or even that it will be there). A four-hour parking section, with its own pay machine (kind of like the ones in RWC), in major garages might help do the trick .

Like this comment
Posted by aw
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Aug 20, 2011 at 3:54 pm

Sounds like we've identified three categories of parking demand: under two hour for shopping, 4 hour for meetings, all-day for employees. Currently the downtown business district offers free two-hour, obscure 4-hour, and just expensive enough all-day to push many employees into the neighborhoods.

There's nothing unfair about charging $500 per year for downtown parking. Stanford charges their faculty and staff $747 per year for an "A" permit. I suppose we could do a $200 permit to park at the end of Embarcadero by the treatment plant and run a bus to downtown, but I doubt we'd get enough demand to make it work.

Let's set up resident permits in the neighborhoods (for all neighborhoods), keep curbside at 2 free hours and meter the lots for day and annual passes. How hard can all this be?

Like this comment
Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Aug 20, 2011 at 6:51 pm


I agree with a lot of what you say, but not on the residents permit. I would much prefer to see all day parking discouraged in other ways.

Making annual permits affordable are one way to go. After all, at present every extra permit bought is better than having all the empty permit spots in the garages which bring in no revenue.

But I question the annual permits completely. Getting anything over 2 (or possibly 3) hours paid for makes sense. Many employees may not want an annual permit, but may like to park for a whole day. Some may like to walk, bike or use Caltrain or the shuttle most days, but on other days like to use their car because they are not going straight home from work, or the weather, or because of other reasons. At present, for these employees, they look for free parking in residential areas rather than a permit.

As Chris, above, says, keeping parking really affordable will make it more attractive than walking from residential areas. Redwood City is a great example of this. I have used metered parking there and always find parking close to my destination and only use loose change to pay for it.

Residential permit parking usually ends up being a pain for the residents, their social guests, as well as anyone needing to work on the house. Discouraging parking there by getting the cars into the city lots and garages is a better option.

Like this comment
Posted by Rub-A-Dub-Dub-10-Web-Developers-In-A-Tub
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Aug 22, 2011 at 7:24 am

Comments about Internet/web-developers having higher occupancy rates than more traditional business uses raises some interesting issues. These companies bring little of value to the downtown area, and seem to be creating problems. Maybe its time to study their impacts, in terms of parking, revenue generated for merchants, revenue generated for the City, long-term value of these companies in Palo Alto. The goal would be to consider creating fees of some sort to mitigate parking/traffic in the areas where these companies operate. The additional costs might be enough to cause these people to encourage working at home, and/or not locating in Palo Alto.

At the moment, there does not seem to be a lot of data on the table as to how big a problem this might be. And there is also the enforcement issue. Virtually every solution proposed requires robust parking enforcement--meaning more people to be hired by the police department, no doubt.

Like this comment
Posted by Just wondering
a resident of Downtown North
on Aug 22, 2011 at 11:11 am

Setting up a permit parking group is expensive and is a bureaucratic growth measure. It's a career building strategy.
Better to try some solutions before adding to the city payroll and complexity. As has been shown there are lots of empty spaces all over downtown. I didn't know there was a day-permit machine in the Cowper garage and I park there frequently. Where is it?
The city should make the spaces available and publicize the availability rather than create more studies and reports and bureacratic bloat.

Like this comment
Posted by Actually-lives-in-the-area
a resident of Professorville
on Aug 22, 2011 at 3:31 pm

I live in the area, and I can assure you that there is zero street parking available to residents of these neighborhoods during much of the day.
This isn't being requested because of a career building opportunity, it is being requested because we want to be able to park in front of our houses from time to time, or have friends do the same from time to time.

Like this comment
Posted by Me Too
a resident of Midtown
on Aug 22, 2011 at 4:25 pm

@Actually - is this a change from, say, 10 years ago? If so, why do you think it has changed? If it is not a change, then it seems reasonable that there is a trade-off - you live walking distance to downtown, but whadya know, there are people who want to park on your street in addition to you. If it has been that way for a while, then not sure why it should change now - it trades off the needs of one set of city users for another.

It reminds me of, in another town, some residents circulated a petition looking to put stop signs on a main cross-town road to discourage drivers. The answer there - they should have bought on a less busy street.

Like this comment
Posted by Business Owner
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Aug 23, 2011 at 12:16 am

Looking at the survey, it's clear that the lots and garages are pretty full in the middle of the day. This suggests that many people are coming to Palo Alto for lunch and shopping. I'm worried that messing around with the parking is going to prevent customers from coming downtown to eat and shop. I'm sure I speak for most of my fellow business owners in the downtown area that we are struggling and need to be very careful to make sure people continue to frequent our businesses. I'm also concerned from checking the PA website that the survey that was conducted was done one only one day.

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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