It took decades of dreaming, years of complaining and months of painstaking negotiations, but a residential parking-permit program is finally starting to take shape in downtown Palo Alto, with implementation eyed for early next year.
The details of the proposed program were released this week and are subject to tweaking in the next two months, based on feedback from the Planning and Transportation Commission and the City Council. Even so, the proposal that was made public on Tuesday and that the city's Planning and Transportation Commission discussed Wednesday has already achieved one notable accomplishment: bridging the heretofore wide gap between downtown businesses and residents.
The program, a product of years of lobbying by residents of Professorville, Downtown North and other downtown neighborhoods, aims to bring some relief to the residential streets around downtown's commercial core, which currently lack parking limits. For years, the City Council has been fielding complaints about downtown workers completely filling up neighborhood blocks during business hours, a problem that has gotten more severe in the past few years as the pace of development has quickened.
Michael Hodos, a Professorville resident who serves on a stakeholder group that has been working with staff to design a new program, noted at Wednesday's meeting that between 2011 and 2014, about 30 blocks have become completely "gobbled up" by commuters' cars. For neighborhoods like his, this often means blocked driveways, trash in the parkways and no place for guests to park.
"We have vendors who won't even come to the neighborhood anymore because they can't find parking and they don't want to carry their tools from three blocks away," Hodos said.
Yet coming up with a proposal has been difficult. In 2012, city staff proposed a permit-parking program targeting a small area around Professorville. The council ultimately rejected this proposal, with members arguing that this solution would merely kick the parking problem over to more distant blocks. They called for a more comprehensive solution.
The new permit program has a much broader target area, stretching from Palo Alto Avenue in the north to Embarcadero in the south and from Alma Street in the west to Guinda Street in the east. Early signs suggest that it also has a broader base of support from the downtown community. The stakeholder committee, which includes six business representatives and five residents from different parts of downtown, have reached a general consensus on several contentious points.
They have agreed, for instance, that about 20 percent of the parking spots on residential blocks should be available to businesses, with priority going to low-income employees from business like Whole Foods Market and downtown restaurants. Everyone also agreed that the threshold for opting into the program should be the support of a simple majority of residents, rather than the 70 percent that staff had previously supported.
Stakeholders also generally agreed that permits should be distributed to residents for free during a trial period, while staff gathers data about how many permits are needed for employees. So far, the city has been struggling to answer this question. Though recent car counts have indicated that about 1,850 non-resident cars park in residential neighborhoods during the business hours, it's not clear how many of these belong to downtown employees. Other groups, including Caltrain commuters, Stanford University faculty, and employees of Town and Country Village Shopping Center and the Palo Alto Medical Foundation have also been known to park for free on downtown's residential streets, according to staff.
Jessica Sullivan, the city's parking manager, proposed having a six-month trial period in which city staff would distribute permits without regard for how many went to employees. Because only employees and residents would get permits, this would effectively take the other groups out of the equation. After the trial period, staff would cap the number of permits sold to employees to achieve the 20 percent allotment to businesses that residents said they would tolerate.
Not everyone is thrilled about the trial period. Several residents in the stakeholder group argued that the city should set a cap on the number of permits going to businesses immediately. Hodos said allowing the city to issue an unlimited number of permits would do nothing to alleviate the parking problem in the neighborhood. Gabrielle Layton, a downtown resident who also serves on the stakeholder group, made a similar point.
"I think without a cap, the RPPP (residential parking-permit program) has no teeth and does not act to put significant pressure on the city to solve the supply/demand imbalance that exists," Layton said.
It also remains far from clear whether the program will win over the broader neighborhood. While the stakeholder group has reached compromises on key aspects of the program, recent city surveys suggest that the new parking restrictions will also have plenty of detractors. While the survey results are still pending, Sullivan called the levels of support and opposition "very close."
The planning commission did not vote on the proposal Wednesday (it is scheduled to do so on Nov. 12), but members generally looked favorably at the latest iteration of the permit program.
Chair Mark Michael observed that in implementing the new program, the city is doing more than simply trying to solve a parking problem in one part of the city. It is also trying to modify behavior and encourage more people to take public transportation, walk, bike and use car-share services.
But Vice Chair Arthur Keller stressed the need for broad solutions to solving the parking problem. Keller characterized the block-by-block approach as a game of Whac-a-Mole: you whack the moles and they pop up elsewhere.
"We need birth control for moles," Keller said. "That's through parking structures, and TDM (transportation-demand management) measures, which are ways to reducing the number of moles around."
In fact, the city is undertaking multiple approaches to solving the downtown parking crunch. In recent months, the City Council has considered building new garages, explored new garage technologies, approved design work for a "satellite" parking lot on Embarcadero, east of U.S. Highway 101, and approved a contract for creation of a downtown Transportation Management Association, a nonprofit that would offer incentives for workers who switch from cars to other means of transportation.
Keller also opposed the proposal to issue unlimited parking permits in the early phase, noting that demand would still exceed supply. He and Commissioner Greg Tanaka both opposed a suggestion from the stakeholder committee that residents be given free permits in the initial phase.
Commissioner Michael Alcheck had no such reservations.
"I think residents and business owners and employees are taking this enormous step toward potentially solving this problem together," Alcheck said. "And I think there's something to be said for making it less burdensome while we're working on it. I don't necessarily think residential permits have to be priced."
Michael urged staff to use "market-based solutions," including exploring parking meters and charging more for neighborhood parking permits than for permits granting privileges at the city's chronically underused downtown garages.
"The fact that garage permits are more expensive and neighborhood permits are less expensive means you're pushing people out of garages into neighborhoods," Michael said.
Staff plans to begin implementing the program early next year and to have it up and running in March or April, Sullivan said.