A Planning and Community Environment Department study that will be reviewed by the City Council Sept. 12 shows that despite an overabundance of spaces in the numerous parking garages and surface lots scattered around downtown, Palo Alto has a parking problem.
Even with more than 3,000 spaces, including 1,200 that are open to the public anytime, hundreds of city workers park in nearby neighborhoods every day, which upsets homeowners and leaves a large chunk of the city's high-priced permit stalls unclaimed and unused.
And to top it off, city officials say that despite the largesse of parking spaces, visitors often don't recognize the purpose of the "architecturally pleasing" garages, and pass them by. Many visitors also don't know that they can obtain an all-day parking pass at City Hall, so they either move their vehicle every two hours or risk getting an expensive citation. All this means that in many ways, the system has failed the very people it was designed to serve.
The staff study makes some excellent suggestions that we hope the council will carefully consider. With Palo Alto already suffering from being labeled as a city where it is difficult to find parking, nothing could be worse than sitting on a cache of unused spaces while employees crowd neighborhood streets and shoppers struggle to locate parking.
This predicament is underscored by a utilization survey of each of the city's downtown garages. A similar study is underway in the California Avenue shopping district. The survey shows that most of the garages are running far below capacity. For example, the huge, 688-space Bryant Street garage is woefully under-utilized, with only 16 percent of its spaces occupied from 8 to 10 a.m. and 53 percent during the lunch hour, from noon to 2 p.m. At lunch, when conventional wisdom would expect that one could never find a parking space downtown, on average there are more than 300 empty spaces at the Bryant Street garage alone.
The city's top transportation official, Jaime Rodriquez, believes part of the problem is that customers cannot find the parking garages, perhaps believing that the well-designed buildings could not be dedicated parking structures. To counter such a trend, the staff has recommended that the city mount "way-finding" signs downtown pointing to the public garages and showing the number of spaces available. The signs would be displayed throughout the downtown area and at strategic gateway locations.
The city is already moving ahead to purchase a better system to track and manage parking permits, and is proposing a new pricing structure that will begin the sale of monthly permits for $45, rather than the current minimum-buy of $135 for a quarterly permit. Roof-level parking would be a low $30 a month and fleet vehicles would pay $100 a month.
We also are encouraged by the staff's commitment to consider additional residential permit parking districts similar to the one now in place at College Terrace, next to Stanford. Daytime parking there is limited to two hours without a permit, and prohibits reparking within the same block following the two-hour expiration. The staff said that although the program has been in place for three years, three streets have either opted out or are completing a petition to do so.
The big question facing the council will be whether to install a College Terrace-type system in Professorville, which residents petitioned for in July. Permits could ward off what resident Ken Alsman called "... the ever increasing problems caused by commercial district employees who use our neighborhood as their daylong parking lots." In a letter to Planning and Transportation Commission members, he said, "Our neighborhood is losing its intrinsic character with residential streets now lined bumper-to-bumper with employee cars from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. We are directly being asked to subsidize the success of the nearby commercial districts with the quality and value of our homes and neighborhood."
Before the city adds another permit system the staff study suggests that basic questions must be answered by the city and the neighborhood. For example, a process must be created for a neighborhood to file a request; thresholds for neighborhood participation must be established; a decision will be needed on whether to establish a block-by-block or neighborhood-wide district; and the cost of the permits must be determined.
If a permit system was established in Professorville, an added benefit could be to push the current all-day parkers to use city facilities. That could do more than anything to help fill up the vacant spaces in the city's garages.