Palo Alto beefs up rules for downtown parking

City halts parking exemptions for new developments downtown, near California Avenue

A Palo Alto law that relaxed parking regulations for developers with downtown projects began its transition from the city's zoning code to its history books Monday night after the City Council passed an "urgency ordinance" temporarily halting it.

The ordinance, which the council approved on an 8-0 vote with Greg Schmid absent, imposes a moratorium on the parking exemption granted to developers looking to build dense developments downtown and in the California Avenue business district. The city added these exemptions to its zoning code in the mid-1980s as a way to encourage downtown development after building regulations were tightened.

Since then, conditions have changed dramatically: Downtown vacancies are almost nonexistent; developers are filing applications at a brisk pace; and downtown residents are reporting a severe shortage of parking on neighborhood streets and urging the council to do something about it. A new report from the city's Planning and Community Environment Department notes that the parking exemption "is likely to immediately exacerbate parking problems without seeming to provide for any public purpose."

In recent months, several developers invoked the parking exemption as part of their applications. These include the recently approved four-story Lytton Gateway project on Lytton Avenue and Alma Street; the proposed four-story office building at 135 Hamilton Ave.; and a smaller office building at 636 Waverley St. The Lytton Gateway developers did not get the exemption because they applied under "planned community" zoning, which gives the council greater latitude to negotiate with the applicants.

The only thing the council didn't rule on Monday was whether the moratorium should apply to the other two projects, which are currently going through the approval process. The applicants for each project argued that it should not. Charles "Chop" Keenan, a prominent downtown developer, urged the council not to change the rules for his project at 135 Hamilton while he is going through the process.

"At the very last second, the rules seem to be changing," Keenan said. "I'm asking to be grandfathered the way you have grandfathered projects not just in the pipeline but way in the pipeline."

David Kleiman, the applicant behind 636 Waverley, made a similar argument and said it's not fair for the city to now demand fees for parking spots that he thought his company would be exempted from providing.

"We've spent a substantial amount of money and time getting the project ready to a state where it now exists," Kleiman said.

While staff had recommended applying the moratorium to these projects, the council decided not to do that just yet. Instead, the council directed staff to return within 45 days with a potential exemption proposal for the two projects. Staff would also consider strategies that applicants would have to implement to reduce the demand for parking spots.

Councilmen Sid Espinosa and Larry Klein both said that it wouldn't be fair to change the rules for Keenan and Kleiman.

"I'm a big believer in fairness and equity. I think we sometimes forget the amount spent in both time and cost to get projects through the city's system," Espinosa said.

Downtown parking has become one of Palo Alto's most controversial topics and a consistent source of angst in Professorville, Downtown North and other neighborhoods near the city's commercial core. After years of lobbying from Professorville residents, staff proposed in July implementing a residential-permit-parking program in a section of the neighborhood. The council rejected this pilot program and directed staff to seek more comprehensive solutions to downtown's parking woes, including a full analysis that considers zoning changes and assess the need for new facilities.

Ken Alsman, a Professorville resident who has been the neighborhood's leading advocate for parking relief, urged the council to adopt the moratorium and to apply it to all projects, even the ones currently going through the planning process. Exempting 135 Hamilton, Alsman said, would exacerbate downtown's parking shortage and lead dozens of office workers to park in adjacent neighborhoods.

"Seventy people looking for parking somewhere -- and there's no parking downtown," Alsman said. "I can only guess where it's going to go."

With the ordinance passed, the council now has 45 days to consider an "interim" report from staff. The moratorium, while temporary, could be extended by 10 months and 15 days (the maximum allowed after state law), while the city considers further revisions to its zoning code and other methods for alleviating downtown's parking woes, such as new parking facilities. The final proposal would be reviewed by the Planning and Transportation Commission and would be subject to a public hearing before it would be adopted, according to the new report.


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Posted by Parent
a resident of Charleston Gardens
on Oct 16, 2012 at 6:58 am

Now they need to beef up requirements with regard to traffic impact mitigation before our city streets become entirely gridlocked.

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Posted by Fairness and Equity
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 16, 2012 at 9:04 am

It always warms my heart when someone speaks for fairness and equity, as Sid Espinosa did. Especially when it helps billionaires make a few more millions.

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Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 16, 2012 at 9:14 am

Perhaps we should try and become truly innovative. Downtown parking is a mess and that should be acknowledged.

One idea mentioned by someone is worth considering. How about the idea of having cheap/free parking in the Baylands, say beside Mings, with fast shuttles to downtown every 10 minutes during commute times and 30 minutes at other times. How about trying to alleviate the daytime parking problem in other ways.

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Posted by commuter
a resident of Crescent Park
on Oct 16, 2012 at 10:30 am

Wasn't a bike share program supposed to start this fall? Commuters could take Caltrain to downtown Palo Alto, then bicycle the last mile to any downtown destination. What happened to that?

Some parts of downtown are more than a half hour walk from the train station, but only a few minutes by bicycle. The ultimate way to eliminate traffic congestion is to encourage (some) commuters to not bring their cars.

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Posted by chris
a resident of University South
on Oct 16, 2012 at 10:44 am


Why would someone park in the Baylands when they can park for free near downtown?

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Posted by Tiger Attitude
a resident of Barron Park
on Oct 16, 2012 at 11:34 am

Not for Mercedes drivers though, right? I mean, we're special aren't we?

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Posted by Enough!
a resident of Charleston Meadows
on Oct 16, 2012 at 12:29 pm

The parking situation scares away at least a third of Palo Alto residents from going downtown, especially the elderly, handicapped and the rushed.

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Posted by curmudgeon
a resident of Downtown North
on Oct 16, 2012 at 2:01 pm

Moratorium schmoratorium. The parking problem is here, right now. Only a massive parking space construction effort could fix it, and that ain't gonna happen, folks. Nor are those commuters gonna switch to bus, train, or bikes for our convenience. We're flat stuck with the fruits of our City Hall's past stupidity and wishful thinking, not to mention our own election day carelessness.

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Posted by John
a resident of Fairmeadow
on Oct 16, 2012 at 4:52 pm

Tried to go do downtown for dinner--gridlocked. Went to Castro.

Anybody try getting off to Page Mill to 280 at commute time?

How about 101 to Oregon than oregon to El Camino?

Yes the price we pay for our election day carelessness, and I'm afraid we are going to repeat the same old thing.

And poor chopper-the gravy train might be derailed for of all things-parking!

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Posted by George
a resident of Downtown North
on Oct 16, 2012 at 10:17 pm

Council will grant exceptions to the projects in the pipeline right after they make speeches about how much they care about the people that live here. Talk is cheap!

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Posted by Max
a resident of Professorville
on Oct 16, 2012 at 11:55 pm

I live on Addison in Professorville and beginning early weekday mornings, I watch all the parking spots on my street get taken up with people who work downtown--food servers, employees at Flipboard and Whole Foods--who park all day long. By 8AM, there is no parking on my street. Why can't downtown employers pay for parking permits for their employees or give employees a credit for taking public transportation to work. I work from home. No clients or co-workers can park within 2-3 blocks of my house and I purposely keep meetings short so that those meeting with me can utilize the 2hr parking zones near my house. I don't have friends visit during the day because there is no where for them to park. Something must be done. I have had people blocking my driveway, completely oblivious to the fact that there is a car there. I have had cars parked in front of my house for days and days on end. I expect this kind of density in a big city like San Francisco, not in Palo Alto. It directly affects the quality of our lives. I support residential parking permits.

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Posted by Garrett
a resident of another community
on Oct 19, 2012 at 10:30 am

More parking, more free parking without parking tickets. Excellent. Finding a way to pay for, buy land and build parking spaces to keep everyone happy.

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Posted by palo alto mom
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Oct 19, 2012 at 11:44 am

Some solutions are obvious -

Require developers to build a realistic amount of parking for any office buildings. Do not buy-in to the "public transportation" myth. People drive to work.

Increasing the PA shuttle routes is one way to really reduce some of the cars on the road, but the shuttle needs to go more places in Palo Alto. Charge a nominal fee for a shuttle pass and use the $$ for more shuttle routs.

Establish resident only parking on at least one side of the street in Downtown, Professorville, etc. While people shouldn't be guaranteed a spot in front of their house, it is reasonable to expect to be able to park near your home.

Make the parking garages easier to use with pay parking machines in the garage.

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Posted by GG
a resident of Stanford
on Oct 25, 2012 at 10:12 am

Over $1000 in parking tickets in the last 3 years have FORCED me to take Caltrain and bike to work on Cal Ave. Thank GOD my employer pays for commuter. Where is all the parking ticket money going, btw? The train is getting crowded, btw.

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a resident of Southgate

on Jun 6, 2017 at 5:18 am

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Posted by Name hidden
a resident of Terman Middle School

on Sep 26, 2017 at 3:52 am

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