When Palo Alto officials decided to ease the parking rules for downtown developers nearly three decades ago, they did not envision the drought of parking spots that today plagues the streets in the heart of the city.
The plan has worked a little too well. Today, downtown vacancies are nearly nonexistent, the city is awash with applications for major new office buildings, and residents in the downtown neighborhoods Professorville and Downtown North routinely voice exasperation at the flood of office workers whose cars now hog their once-plentiful street parking. The two inter-related trends -- more developments and less parking -- have prompted the council and planning officials to take a fresh look at the city's zoning ordinances and evaluate the need for additional parking facilities.
The first significant zoning change could be made as early as Monday night, when the City Council considers a proposal by planning officials to scrap the parking exemption that the city created in the mid-1980s. The exemption was invoked in recent months by several developers looking to construct office buildings downtown. These included the recently approved four-story Lytton Gateway pegged for the intersection of Lytton Avenue and Alma Street and for the proposed development at 135 Hamilton Ave. -- a building that would also be four stories high and that is currently undergoing the city's design-review process.
In approving the Lytton Gateway project -- which as a "planned community" project gave the city latitude in negotiating with the developer -- the council declined to give the builders parking exemptions and required the applicants to contribute funds for future parking improvements.
In the report, the Planning and Community Environment Department argues that while "the basis for those amendments is now outdated and downtown development is thriving, the provision remains in place and applicants are now invoking it to further exempt parking." Staff is urging the council to pass an "urgency" ordinance that would impose a moratorium on the parking exemption.
"Given the current parking deficits in the City's two assessment districts (downtown and California Avenue) and the outdated rationale for applying this exemption, staff has been discouraging recent applications since the 135 Hamilton Ave. and the 355 Alma (Lytton Gateway) projects from using this parking exemption," the report states. "To staff's knowledge, no project applicant has requested the use of the exemption for the California Avenue area. Staff believes it is appropriate to apply the moratorium to both the Downtown and California Avenue areas, as it will in both areas exacerbate parking deficiencies documented previously by staff."
The report by Planning Director Curtis Williams and City Attorney Molly Stump also argues that the ordinance is "now outdated, as downtown does not rquire encouragement to develop, and any equity issues have long been addressed."
The proposal to revise parking regulations is part of a wide range of reforms Palo Alto is considering to deal with the pesky parking shortage. In July, staff recommended instituting a residential permit-parking program in a section of Professorville, a proposal that the council rejected as too narrow. At that meeting, the council directed staff to consider a more "comprehensive" set of solutions to downtown's parking woes, which includes consideration of zone changes, new methods for increasing usage of existing garages and evaluation of the need for more parking facilities. The city's broad analysis of the parking situation is funded by a $250,000 contribution from the developers of Lytton Gateway.
The parking discussion is also occurring at a time when the city is creeping toward the 235,000-square-foot threshold for new downtown development, which the city established in 1985. Once the city hits the number, it is required to analyze downtown zoning regulations and consider the need for parking strategies.
The Lytton Gateway project pushed downtown development to 212,000 square feet, while Charles "Chop" Keenan's proposed 26,000-square-foot development at 135 Hamilton would officially push the city over the threshold.
At the same time, the city is considering approving another mammoth downtown development -- a proposal by billionaire John Arrillaga to build four office towers (the tallest of which would be 10 stories) and a theater at 27 University Ave., a site currently occupied by MacArthur Park restaurant.
If the council chooses to pass the "urgency ordinance" proposed by staff, it would be able to do so without holding a public hearing or vetting by the Planning and Transportation Commission. Passing such an ordinance requires support from eight of the nine council members.
If passed, the ordinance would take effect immediately. The council then would be required to hold a public hearing within 45 days to consider an "interim report" from staff. At that time, the council would also consider a request to prolong the ordinance for an additional 10 months and 15 days while staff evaluates additional zoning changes.