Proposed parking program a tough sell downtown

Residents, businesses concerned about Palo Alto's citywide permit program

Palo Alto's residents and business owners rarely see eye to eye when it comes to downtown parking, but the city's latest attempt to free up spaces for residents in their neighborhoods has achieved the seemingly impossible -- bringing the two camps together in vehement opposition.

In the early weeks of the new year, the city plans to unveil its proposed framework for a new "residential parking permit program" that would set parking restrictions on participating residential blocks. Once the program goes into effect, the only cars allowed to park on these blocks without time limits would be those belonging to residents who chose to buy permits -- or possibly a few non-residents with permits.

While the program has yet to be fleshed out, it is already facing fierce resistance from both neighborhood leaders, who say it is too complex, and from commercial property owners, who call it overly invasive and a "huge waste of money."

Property owners say they are concerned about where employees would park once the program starts. Downtown residents characterize the staff proposal as overly complicated and "doomed to fail," according to a memo.

Years in the making, the residential permit-parking program (RPP) is widely viewed as the most dramatic component of the city's multi-pronged response to parking shortages in downtown and around California Avenue, a problem that was exacerbated over the past few years by accelerating commercial growth in the two business districts.

In 2013, the City Council designated as its first of three priorities the "future of downtown and California Avenue," with parking atop the agenda. Over the past year, the council explored a wide array of initiatives, including new garages, valet parking at existing garages, and a robust "transportation demand management" program that would encourage downtown employees to ditch their cars in favor of bikes, trains, buses and other modes of transportation. The latest staff report on the subject describes community concerns about parking and traffic congestion as having "reached critical levels."

The problem will remain the council's top priority in 2014. The council was scheduled to discuss the proposed framework for the parking-permit program on Dec. 16, but with the meeting running late, members agreed to take it up at a later date, most likely early in 2014.

The framework outlined in the staff's December report wouldn't automatically pertain to any specific neighborhood. Rather, it would allow neighborhoods to enroll if they suffer from parking congestion, provided they can get at least 70 percent of the residents to agree. Only blocks with a parking-occupancy rate of 75 percent or more (as verified by an independent consultant) would be eligible.

Interested neighborhoods would have to submit an initial petition demonstrating support from 50 percent of the residents. The city would then conduct "occupancy surveys" to confirm the reported parking problem. Planners would then send all residents postcard surveys to gauge neighborhood support. At least 70 percent of the returned surveys would have to indicate support before the program is considered further, according to the report.

Public hearings would follow in front of the Planning and Transportation Commission and, ultimately, the council. Only then would the program be adopted on a trial basis. This would be followed by more data collection, further surveys and a decision by the council on whether the permit-parking district should be permanently established.

Staff is still wrestling with several big questions, including the number of permits that should be issued to residents and non-residents; permit costs; and the method of rolling out the program.

As part of the backlash against the proposed program, a coalition of more than two dozen downtown businesses have mounted the website, on which they call the proposed parking permit "massive, pervasive, and expensive" and warn visitors that a parking permit program "may be coming to your neighborhood soon even if you don't live near the Downtown." (It doesn't mention the rigid qualification requirements.)

"Do we really want to turn every neighborhood near businesses into an RPP zone?" the businesses ask. "If the Downtown area residents can demand RPP, why can't every neighborhood? Do Palo Alto citizens really want to pay for Parking Officers to patrol streets in every residential neighborhood that's near a business district?"

Instead of instituting a permit program, the businesses propose the city designate certain spaces on problematic residential blocks for residents only. They are also urging the city to mark the parking spaces on residential streets so that fewer cars can park on each street, alleviating the problem of overcrowding. This would allow residents and businesses to continue to park on the blocks without needing to buy permits, while reducing the congestion, the businesses argue.

The downtown businesses that support the marked-spaces proposal include Whole Foods Market, Watercourse Way, Palo Alto Creamery and Gordon Biersch.

A group of neighborhood leaders from Downtown North, Professorville and Crescent Park are voicing their objections as well. Though they argue that the city should pursue a city-wide parking-permit ordinance and adopt it by March 31, the new law should consider "quality standards." The city should come up with "objective metrics for quality of life in a neighborhood" and design a program around these goals, the residents wrote in a statement.

"A permit program for any residential neighborhood must be based on quality standards such as degree of commuter intrusion, traffic, safety, etc.," the statement reads. "A residential is not a commuter parking lot with homes."

The residents argue that the program designed by staff has "too many unreasonably hurdles and thresholds." The program, they say, should be designed on a "block-by-block" basis (rather than by neighborhoods), and the opt-in threshold should be 50 percent plus one.

Though they are coming at the parking issue from the opposite side, the residents are just as clear as the businesses about their stance on the permit program currently on the table. The group includes Crescent Parks' Norman Beamer and John Guislin; Downtown North's Meilson Buchanan, Eric Filseth and Mac Beasely; and Professorville's Michael Hodos and Richard Brand.

"Leaders from three neighborhoods are completely unified in opposition and are prepared to speak out aggressively within the University Avenue neighborhoods and take the issues to four California Avenue residential neighborhoods and beyond," they write in the statement.

The proposed permit-parking framework isn't the city's first stab at such a program for downtown. In June 2012, planners unveiled a similar program limited to a section of Professorville. The council ultimately rejected this proposal, with council members and numerous residents arguing that this solution would only push the problem to other sections of downtown. At that time, the council directed staff to consider more comprehensive solutions.


Like this comment
Posted by Judy
a resident of Midtown
on Dec 31, 2013 at 12:46 pm

Before any of this happens wouldn't it make sense to require all new buildings to provide the legally required amount of parking per building? As for the buildings that the Council has already allowed to have less parking than they should have, perhaps we should require them to work out more parking on an individual basis until they have met the amount of parking they should have provided in the first place.

I wonder if the existing buildings that do not have enough parking might rent some of the spaces in front of the downtown homeowners or even in their driveways. Since this problem appears to have been almost entirely created by our city leaders, I fail to see why the residents should have to buy "permits" to park in front of their own homes.

Like this comment
Posted by Gethin
a resident of Midtown
on Dec 31, 2013 at 12:56 pm

Gethin is a registered user.

Forget all these rules and regulations, they are unnecessary and probably useless. Parking outside your home is not a right of any kind. I have had to deal with this kind of inconvenience at several places I have lived as have many others - you just get on with it. This is a free country, let people park wherever they can. These are public streets - anyone can use them.

Like this comment
Posted by Gethin
a resident of Midtown
on Dec 31, 2013 at 12:56 pm

Gethin is a registered user.

Forget all these rules and regulations, they are unnecessary and probably useless. Parking outside your home is not a right of any kind. I have had to deal with this kind of inconvenience at several places I have lived as have many others - you just get on with it. This is a free country, let people park wherever they can. These are public streets - anyone can use them.

Like this comment
Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Dec 31, 2013 at 1:19 pm

This is not a good idea.

The cars that park in the residential streets need to park somewhere. Unless somewhere is provided for them to park, then many will not be able to afford to keep their jobs, or be able to come downtown for occasional business meetings or occasional all day parking.

Unless the complicated color coded parking in city garages are simplified and unless there are pay per hour machines in all city lots and garages, and unless we have satellite parking lots with regular shuttles, it will not work. We need to simplify parking downtown, not make it more complicated. We need to attract people to downtown, not scare them away. We need to be realistic not idealistic.

Many people coming to downtown on a semi regular basis who need to park for more than three hours are not able to use public transit, bikes or walk. Some come for business from out of town. Some may frequently use bikes, Caltrain or carpool, but not always able to do so. Some may just turn up expecting to park all day and can't.

There is absolutely no simple way for anyone wanting to park for more than 3 hours in Palo Alto downtown to do so.

Simplify not complicate it.

Like this comment
Posted by Crescent Park Dad
a resident of Crescent Park
on Dec 31, 2013 at 1:46 pm

@ Judy: the city has (finally) stopped allowing the exception for under-parked buildings. Unfortunately that only applies to new proposals. The new buildings for Cowper/Hamilton and Forest/Ramona will skirt the rule since the proposals were in before the CC finally rescinded the blanket waiver.

Sure wish the CC would partner with Caltrain and build a garage on the parking lot between the hotels and the tracks...

Like this comment
Posted by stephen levy
a resident of University South
on Dec 31, 2013 at 1:50 pm

stephen levy is a registered user.

CPD again with facts and a great idea!!

Like this comment
Posted by Worker's Mom
a resident of another community
on Dec 31, 2013 at 5:39 pm

Many workers in Palo Alto work for just over minimum wage. And they do not live close enough to walk, bike, or commute by train. If Palo Alto wants to maintain any retail business in the town they need to not penalize the people who stock shelves, work cash registers, and bag groceries. Putting the burden of lack of foresight in the parking situation on the people least able to fund it is cutting off your nose to spite your face.

Clearly there is a parking problem. But there is also a retail problem--many businesses have been forced out because of rental increase. If hourly workers have to pay hundreds of dollars to park, their wages will have to rise, and store prices will have to be raised to cover those costs. This can easily spiral. This will give some businesses another reason to leave the city--free parking for their employees!!!

Like this comment
Posted by Crescent Park Dad
a resident of Crescent Park
on Dec 31, 2013 at 6:25 pm

Of course the businesses and restaurants could offer to pay for their employees' parking fees. Just a thought.

Like this comment
Posted by Ben Lerner
a resident of Palo Verde
on Dec 31, 2013 at 6:53 pm

I agree with the post above, that the City Council screwed-up and should not try to fix the problem of under-parked businesses on the backs of residents by making them buy permits to park in their own neighborhood. If Council had listened to those residents, this problem wouldn't exist. I think the ultimate solution will be to pass an "under-parked business tax" to fund a new downtown garage.

To protect neighborhoods, parking over 2-3 hours should be restricted to residents only. Residents' cars can be identified by free city-stickers, or perhaps by registering their license plates online. I'd also like to extend this parking privilege to all Palo Alto residents, so that if you live in Palo Alto you can park as long as you like near a business district. I doubt this will add many cars to affected neighborhoods, but will keep our town unified and provide a nice perk to those who live and work in town.

Like this comment
Posted by pitch in
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Dec 31, 2013 at 7:16 pm

Downtown business owners need to pitch in and build a new private parking garage. Let them charge whatever the market will bear to break even or earn a profit. It is really unfair to make residents subsidize businesses with publicly funded money-losing parking garages.

Like this comment
Posted by Resident
a resident of Professorville
on Dec 31, 2013 at 7:24 pm

I feel for the downtown employees: they should be able to pay a nominal fee, say $15 per year, to be able to park in public parking for 8-10 hours per day. As it is they have to move their cars every 2-3 hours, which is impractical and time consuming, OR park 8-10 hours in a residential spot. Neither is a good choice.

Like this comment
Posted by pitch in
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Dec 31, 2013 at 8:39 pm

Why should employees be able to pay a token fee for an expensive benefit? Why not charge them the full cost of providing parking? I can see charging per day instead of charging per month since not everyone works every day or drives every day.

Like this comment
Posted by Sunshine
a resident of Barron Park
on Jan 1, 2014 at 4:11 pm

First, the City of Palo Alto must hold all developers to the rules and enforce the number of parking spaces that each new building must provide for workers and customers. Since the city has allowed many developers to get by with fewer spaces, perhaps some of the "reserved" spaces in lots and garages (especially under city hall) should be eliminated until there is sufficient parking downtown.
Any permit system that does not allow for parking by anyone will drive shoppers away from downtown businesses. Occasionally a friend and I go downtown to eat lunch and go to a movie. We might also spend a bit of time shopping. The time required for this is far in excess of the 3-hour limit in any garage. A pay system would only be acceptable if the fee is charged when you leave, not at the start.
I have walked along many of the downtown area streets and the nearby neighborhoods. Most of the homes I see in this area are on large lots with a driveway. Residents can easily park off the street. Shoppers are the ones who need space to park. Without parking many will simply go to a shopping center instead of frequent the small businesses downtown.

Like this comment
Posted by Eric F
a resident of Downtown North
on Jan 1, 2014 at 8:00 pm

People need to understand this is not about public vs private streets. If it were a few cars from restaurants etc it would not be an issue for anybody. However at a large scale -- which is where we are now -- it is a city planning and zoning issue.

Today every neighborhood street near University and California avenues is completely filled on both sides with unbroken lines of parked commuter cars, all day long. Many streets were narrow to begin with, and become effectively one-lane streets during the daytime, with poor visibility on curves or in shade, and which don't meet California state code for emergency vehicle access (20 feet wide).

At least 1500 commuter cars park in the near-University neighborhoods every business day. That means at least 3,000 commuter car trips in the neighborhoods each day, through these narrowed streets. These are residential streets, used not just by cars but by bicycles, joggers, pedestrians at corners. Children ride their bikes to school on these streets, and play in the sidewalks and yards that face them.

If you want to see what streets like this look like, click here:

Web Link

This is not what residential neighborhoods are supposed to look like, and indeed is not what they did look like until the last decade or so. The source of the problem is that the City has not required businesses, particularly dense office development, to provide parking for tenants. As a result, downtown developers got a gigantic freebie -- free parking in the residential neighborhoods. On a small scale, it wasn't an issue; but as office density grew and as the City handed out huge numbers of "Planned Community" and other high-rise development waivers over the last two decades, the neighborhoods have been de facto rezoned into commercial parking lots.

Business parking is an operating cost of doing business. Most American cities with this issue established mechanisms some time ago to keep commuter parking/traffic and residential neighborhoods separate. Palo Alto is an anachronism in this respect, lagging behind other cities in the Bay Area and elsewhere in the country.

@CPD above isn't exactly correct; the City has in fact not done very much. Yes the Council closed a few exemptions, but left many others intact. Even now the City continues to approve large "mixed-use" developments (that is, offices plus a couple of apartments in order to qualify for a variety of spiffs) that don't have enough parking. In addition to exemptions and allowances, the City continues to use outdated formulae for calculating parking demand that even the city's own Planning and Transportation Committee has stated are too low.

For example, the so-called "glass box" 240 Hamilton development approved last month has an estimated 46 fewer parking spaces than it needs for its tenants. The proposed 500 University office project, up for review this month, has 66 fewer spaces than cars. Where will all these cars park?


The City struggles to reconcile the human concern of residents with the understandable liking of developers for free parking. Meanwhile, the problem continues to spread into more residential neighborhoods around Palo Alto. To see an model of the expansion trajectory, see the link above.

Finally, there is a real case to be made that limited parking access actually might make sense as part of a larger Traffic Demand Management program; that is, it would force people out of their cars and into public transit -- a result which most of us would see as good. However, even that will not happen as long as businesses continue to get free parking in the residential neighborhoods.

Like this comment
Posted by Safety First
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jan 1, 2014 at 9:19 pm

I wrote a state official to find out why our Comprehensive Plan does not have a Safety Element as mandated by the state, and why it doesn't seem to address the connection between safety and traffic. I was told "The circulation element requirement was recently revised to require planning “for a balanced, multimodal transportation network that meets the needs of all users of streets, roads, and highways for safe and convenient travel in a manner that is suitable to the rural, suburban, or urban context of the general plan.”"

Circulation Element?! Wha?!

In the next revision of the Comprehensive Plan, we should insist that the state-mandated Safety Element and Elements related to traffic such as circulation, be separated into their own distinct elements, rather than treated as afterthoughts in other parts of the Comprehensive Plan, the way safety is now (it's part of the "natural environment" element, almost an afterthought and certainly not in a way that prioritizes safety).

Many of the circumstances you mention, such as emergency vehicle access, just don't even register with our City, much less as priorities. The departments concerned with safety are subordinate to those that prioritize developer project approval -- the fire department takes its cues from the politically-driven transportation people who find no development no matter how dense has any impacts.

Prioritizing the safety issues could help bring some sanity to the overdevelopment issues. Certainly if egress and flow were addressed as part of safety, the parking problems would likely never have gotten to this stage. Prioritizing safety in the Comprehensive Plan by making a distinct Safety Element would go a long way to putting us on a better path. Also making our CP mandatory like in most cities. Right now our City Council treats the CP like TP, though. If we want a better CP -- as opposed to one corrupted and booby-trapped to aid and abet the current overdevelopment -- we need to vote in a better City Council ASAP.

Like this comment
Posted by resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jan 1, 2014 at 10:06 pm

Eric F summarizes the issues very well. Also, consider that the parking
deficiencies in the mixed-use buildings are in practical terms probably
even greater because I assume that a certain number of spaces must be
designated as "handicap". Often these go unused. And not only are the
narrow residential streets dangerous when used as parking lots but also when used as cut-through routes.

Where I disagree with Eric F. is when he says "the City struggles to reconcile the human concerns of residents with the liking of developers for
free parking". The City hasn't struggled at all with this issue- it's been
a totally one-sided affair for years while the problem grew and became a
crisis which now is completely out of control just as new projects such as
611 Cowper, 53 spaces underparked, are under construction.

Urban design issues, displacement of existing businesses, increasing sign clutter in the street corridors, can be added to the parking, traffic congestion and public safety issues.

Like this comment
Posted by Wondering?
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jan 2, 2014 at 1:02 pm

Wonder if the City will ever publish a list of buildings in the downtown area, with the number of people working in each building, as well as the number of parking spaces required by the City?

It would also be nice to have the year that the parking space count was authorized, so that we could link any under-parking actions to specific Councils.

Like this comment
Posted by SteveU
a resident of Barron Park
on Jan 2, 2014 at 3:33 pm

SteveU is a registered user.

I had to do some work downtown a while back.
The permit is $15 PER DAY to park in a permit lot.

Pitch In;
Businesses are usually Tenants (who pay HUGE rents). Expecting the Tenant to fund the parking structure that the Property owner got an exemption from building is ludicrous.

Like this comment
Posted by Eric F
a resident of Downtown North
on Jan 2, 2014 at 10:42 pm

@Wondering's question, how many people actually work downtown, is an important piece of this puzzle.

Unfortunately this is another area where Palo Alto lags other cities. Many other cities in the Bay Area and elsewhere have a Business Registry, basically a census, which enables them to answer that question. Palo Alto doesn't have this, so nobody actually knows how many people work here, or how fast this changes.

Establishing a Registry for Palo Alto has been suggested from time to time by various City Council members, but as of now there is no plan for one.

Like this comment
Posted by common sense
a resident of Midtown
on Jan 2, 2014 at 11:39 pm


Before a business can move in, they need to file for a certificate of occupancy. If "tenant improvements" are needed, (like cubicals) then they need to submit a building permit.

The county also needs information to do "personal property" tax assessment on businesses, from which one can derive an approximate number of workers.

Finally, there would be safety issues if the occupancy were to exceed a certain limit (for example the occupants being able to exit in a timely fashion in case of an emergency). If the city is not regulating this, and asking businesses to supply this information, they are being derelict in a basic governmental function.

Like this comment
Posted by Maybell neighbor
a resident of Green Acres
on Jan 4, 2014 at 1:46 am

"If the city is not regulating this, and asking businesses to supply this information, they are being derelict in a basic governmental function."

Safety seems to come last with this bunch. I think in this revision of the Comprehensive Plan, residents should demand separate Safety and Traffic Circulation elements, so those things are no longer treated as afterthoughts.

Like this comment
Posted by ken again
a resident of Professorville
on Jan 4, 2014 at 12:35 pm

A decade ago the owners downtown promised to pay for and build parking for their uses at a rate of one space for every 250 square feet (1:250)of building but have only provided 1/10th that amount, 1:2500 square feet. They still owe the community over 2,000 spaces or the equivalent in other solutions. That means they are have gotten, are getting, a subsidy of over $14 million. Yet your staff and City Council still approves building woefully short of the parking needed to support new uses. The measures taken so far will do little to help. It is time to 1. Stop all new office development and 2. Make the City Council Member's favored development sons come to the table and repay their debts to the community. No other area of this town or our neighboring towns allows development without adequate parking. This is a corrupted system.

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

Burger chain Shake Shack to open in Palo Alto
By Elena Kadvany | 18 comments | 5,007 views

The Cost of Service
By Aldis Petriceks | 1 comment | 1,214 views

This time we're not lying. HONEST! No, really!
By Douglas Moran | 11 comments | 847 views

Couples: When Wrong Admit It; When Right; Shut Up
By Chandrama Anderson | 0 comments | 738 views

One-on-one time
By Cheryl Bac | 0 comments | 565 views