It's no secret that Palo Alto's population either doubles or triples every weekday afternoon, with thousands of workers making their way toward the city's tech corridors, restaurant strips and frozen yogurt shops.
Yet getting even a rough estimate of how many workers arrive every day and how they get here remains a frustrating mystery, one that has been puzzling city planners for decades. The questions have become particularly trenchant in the last two years, as the City Council pushed ahead with a range of programs aimed at calming traffic, freeing up parking and quashing resident anxieties about the rapid pace of development.
On Monday night, the council took a long-awaited step toward getting the answers when members unanimously approved a staff proposal for establishing the city's business registry. Modeled after similar efforts in surrounding cities, Palo Alto's new program would require each business to obtain a registry certificate by filling out an online form and paying a nominal fee, which officials expect will be somewhere between $35 and $75.
A key component of the program will be the questionnaire that businesses will have to fill out to get their certificates. Though the document is still being hashed out, the draft version that staff unveiled Monday would require each business to disclose the number of workers on site, the number of parking spaces provided and the types of commuter benefits they provide.
The idea of creating a business registry has been floating around for years, long preceding the current period of commercial growth. In 2009, the city tried to establish a business license tax that aimed to both provide employee information and raise revenues. The proposal was shot down by voters later that year.
The new program is starkly different. For one thing, it does not seek to make money. Rather, it is designed as a cost-recovery program, with the fee amount covering the cost of maintaining the database. And unlike the somewhat convoluted tax proposal in 2009 (much of the public debate swirled around whether home-based entrepreneurs and teens manning lemonade stands would have to fork over a share of their gross receipts to the city), the new one aims for simplicity. Businesses will be able to complete the entire registration process online, a process that will include creating a profile, answering the questionnaire, affirming in an affidavit that the facts presented are true and making a payment.
A new report from the office of City Manager James Keene argues that the need for the city to obtain "real data about employment in Palo Alto is clear."
"With such data, the City can begin to measure employment trends, business growth and activity throughout the City in a cohesive and coordinated manner," Keene's report states. "Its availability is vital for developing and measuring the effectiveness of transportation demand management programs, and other transportation planning efforts."
Thomas Fehrenbach, the city's economic development manager stressed this point during Monday's discussion, noting that the city is "lacking some of the basic data about employees." In recent months, staff has been trying to refine its estimate of the number of companies operating in Palo Alto, with the most recent number at 11,500.
The data would be used to assist in fields ranging from land-use planning and economic development to emergency response and disaster preparedness, Keene's report states.
Unlike the 2009 proposal, the business registry hasn't been particularly controversial. Of the few speakers who addressed the council on the subject Monday, not one spoke out against it. Though residents and council members offered suggestions for revising the questionnaire and simplifying the ordinance, everyone agreed that the registry is long overdue.
Downtown resident Elaine Uang called the proposal a "good start" even as she urged the council to gather more information about the types of businesses that exist in Palo Alto.
"The nature of work is changing," Uang said. "We have a number of people who work in this town and we need to understand what their needs are."
Vikki Velkof said she was surprised that the city doesn't have a registry and said she's pleased to see the city finally adopting one.
"I feel any information that can be gathered from this registry is really going to be vital for addressing our transportation needs," Velkof said.
The council agreed, though members had plenty of concerns and suggestions to offer. Councilman Larry Klein was one of several to criticize the proposed requirement that businesses display their registry certificates at conspicuous places. Such a model, he said, is outdated. No business today, he said, would want certificates of this sort behind their reception desks. Klein was one of several council members who expressed unease about a proposed provision that empowers city inspectors to walk into businesses and check for certificates.
"The IRS doesn't need the right to walk into the businesses to enforce the tax code," Klein said. "They find ways to find people who haven't filed returns without having inspectors walk around buildings."
He also recalled the defeat of the business-license tax 2009 and argued that it's critical for the city to get it right this time around. This, he said, means keeping things simple.
"One of the reasons the business-license failed that year is that the city attorney drafted something too complicated for people to understand and gave people too many opportunities to find fault with it," Klein said. "If we want this to be successful, we really need to spend time on it."
Others echoed the simplicity sentiment. Councilman Marc Berman said he'd like to see the program "as simple as possible and as clear as possible."
Vice Mayor Liz Kniss said she doesn't want the questionnaire to be "an inquest."
"I'm hoping in the beginning this is more data collection than anything else," Kniss said. "Because I think we need to start simply. I don't want it to become so complicated so quickly that we're unable to come up with what we really need."
Mayor Nancy Shepherd, also citing the public confusions of 2009, said the new program should explicitly apply to non-residential areas of the city. That way people won't think that the registry applies to a business based in someone's bedroom or garage, she said.
"I'd feel more comfortable if we did declare this somehow so it would not be ambiguous," Shepherd said.
The council will take up the topic of the new registry again on Oct. 6, when staff returns with the revised questionnaire and a budget amendment to fund the program.