Palo Alto boasts no shortage of downtown parking garages, including one that hulks over Bryant Street, one buried under City Hall and one that glows like a lantern after sunset on High Street.
The problem is that several of these structures are so attractive or discreet that many downtown visitors don't even know they exist. As a result, empty spaces abound at these garages even as residents in nearby neighborhoods find their streets overrun by cars belonging to downtown employees.
Now, city officials are hoping to change that. After extensively analyzing the parking situation in downtown and around California Avenue, staff is proposing a new system of signs directing people to garages and a pricing structure for garage permits that would lure more downtown employees to garages and appease the residents of Professorville, a neighborhood next to downtown where residents have long complained about their streets being clogged with parked cars. The Planning and Transportation Commission heard and discussed these proposals Wednesday night but did not take any votes.
The new analysis has largely confirmed what many residents and city officials have long suspected: Downtown garages are grossly underutilized. The garages on Bryant Street and on Cowper Street, for example, have occupancy rates of 53 percent and 66 percent, respectively, for their permit spaces in the middle of a weekday. On Saturdays, the occupancy rates at these two garages plummet to 27 percent and 26 percent, respectively, the study showed.
Jaime Rodriguez, the city's chief transportation official, said he has been hearing from business owners that many visitors to downtown don't know where to park. Some of the city's garages, he said, are so "architecturally pleasing" that many drivers assume they are other types of buildings. He proposed a network of signs at garages identifying these buildings as parking facilities, along with information such as pricing and the number of spaces in each facility.
"We want to put those banners on street lights so that people realize this is a parking place that can be used by the public," Rodriguez said.
Rodriguez also proposed making changes to the city's pricing structure for parking permits. Under the proposal, residents would be able to buy a monthly permit for $45. Roof parking at the Bryant and Cowper garages would go for $30 per month. Downtown parking permits currently sell for $420 per year or for $135 per month.
The commission generally supported the staff recommendations, though some members pressed staff to gather more information about drivers' behaviors and consider simpler solutions to the problem. Commissioner Eduardo Martinez also encouraged staff to consider technology, such as iPhone apps, that could help residents find parking.
Chair Samir Tuma called the parking situation downtown and around California Avenue an "anomaly" and said the city's garages are "dramatically underutilized." He guessed that this is because the permits are "way too cheap" and that many people who buy them only use them a few times a month.
"I park in one of the garages on California Avenue," Tuma said. "It's wildly underutilized during most hours of the day, many days of the week, on the top floor."
Tuma said he supports the proposed way-finding signs and encouraged staff to gather more data to figure out why people aren't using the garages.
Commissioner Susan Fineberg was more skeptical and called staff's proposals too complex. She recommended simpler structures such as flat fees for people parking their cars.
"I fundamentally think this is the most complicated parking mechanism I've ever seen in any community, and I don't know if we're benefiting from it," Fineberg said.
City officials are also proposing to increase the city's stock of permit-parking spots. The tentative plan calls for switching 46 spaces in the High Street garage and 40 spaces in the Cowper Street structure to permit spots.
Faith Bell, owner of Bell's Book on Emerson Street, criticized this plan. She said her customers rely on these garages and encouraged the city not to restrict the parking spaces to permit holders.
"I think we have a right to feel that we have customer parking in our area," Bell said. "We should not have to pay to subsidize office parking."
City officials are also in the process of drafting an ordinance that would facilitate the development of new residential parking-permit programs, which limit the amount of time visitors can leave their cars in participating neighborhoods. College Terrace is currently the only neighborhood in the city to have such a program in place.
Ken Alsman, who lives in Professorville, argued in a letter to the commission that a residential parking-permit program is the only way to alleviate the parking problems in the historic district.
The neighborhood, Alsman wrote, is losing its "intrinsic character" because its residential streets are "now lined bumper-to-bumper with employee cars from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m." Professorville, he said, is being asked to subsidize the nearby commercial districts.
"Yes, it is inconvenient for us to have to drive around looking for parking," Alsman wrote. "But it is much more than inconvenient.
"We are now inundated with strangers everyday; we question our safety; we remove their litter; we don't recognize what was once, just a short time ago, an absolutely wonderful area that we have all worked to restore."
The commission will continue its discussion and issue recommendations in the fall. The City Council is scheduled to discuss the new parking study and staff recommendations on Sept. 12.