Responding to years of complaints about downtown's residential streets transforming into parking lots for employees, Palo Alto's planning commissioners unanimously backed a parking-permit program that they hope will ease the congestion.
In two separate unanimous votes, the Planning and Transportation Commission gave the green light to a downtown Residential Parking Permit Program (RPPP) and approved an ordinance that creates a framework for other neighborhoods who want to set up similar programs.
The downtown program is a response to a parking situation that has been getting progressively worse in recent years. Occupancy data gathered by staff showed most blocks in the Downtown North filled to capacity during business hours. A September survey of downtown by planning staff showed that much of the area was at least 86 percent occupied between noon and 2 p.m., with many blocks "exceeding their capacity for parking."
The resolution to create a downtown program was drafted after nine months of work by a specially appointed stakeholders group featuring representatives from businesses and neighborhoods. It would take effect early next year and play out in two phases, with the first phase lasting six months and focused primarily on gathering data. During the first phase, residents would be given free permits while employees would be able to buy six-month permits for $233, which is equal to the cost of buying a garage permit. Low-wage workers would be able to buy permits for $50 each.
In the second phase, residents would get one free permit and be required to pay $50 per year for additional ones, with a limit of four. Permits for businesses would be limited based on the data gathered in the first phase and parking for employees would be assigned to a specific one- or two-block area. The permit would allow cars to park all day on the streets, though there would be a two-hour restriction for cars that don't have permits.
The program is far broader than the one that the council considered and rejected two years ago, which targeted a portion of Professorville and was also put together after a stakeholder process. At the time, the council argued that the permit area is too restrictive and creating the program would merely push the problem to other downtown blocks.
The new program encompasses a huge swath of downtown, from Palo Alto in the north to Lincoln Avenue in the south and from Alma Street in the west to Guinda Street to the east. Staff had originally intended to extend the border further south, to Embarcadero Road, but agreed to omit that section after results from a survey showed only 65 residents saying they would support a parking-permit program and 138 (68 percent) saying they would oppose it. That section is furthest away from the commercial core and, as the city's parking-occupancy data shows, has far more free parking spots.
In the rest of the permit area, the split in the informal survey was 643 in favor of the program (53 percent) and 47 percent (against). The survey did not, however, include many of the details that were later added to the program and was intended largely to gather feedback.
The permit program is a major component in Palo Alto's multi-pronged approach to bringing downtown some parking relief. The strategy also includes building a new garage, expanding the shuttle program, and launching a host of transportation-demand-management initiatives aimed at getting drivers to shift from cars to other modes of transportation.
"Non-residential vehicle parking disrupts neighborhood quality of life," Jessica Sullivan, the city's parking manager, said in describing the need for the ordinance. "Which is another way of saying that shortage of parking spaces can result in noise, traffic and those types of things."
Dozens of residents attended the meeting to support this assertion, though only three remained in the audience by the time the planning commission adopted the downtown program at about 11:30 p.m. All speakers at the meeting advocated in favor of the program, though some suggested modifications.
Malcolm Beasley noted that the parking situation is deteriorating fast and urged staff to consider future development projects in tallying parking deficits.
"The reality is that parking will surely get worse and we must openly face up to this reality if we are to deal with it in a firm way," Beasley said. "I urge staff to make dynamic projections to the degree it's possible to do so."
The planning commission largely followed staff's proposals and approved the ordinance that allows any neighborhood to opt in. The ordinance establishes a process that requires a neighborhood to complete an application and submit a petition indicating majority support from the residents. The planning commission would review the petition, and staff would proceed with outreach and occupancy studies. The resolution and the data gathered by staff would then return to the planning commission, which would then make a recommendation to the council.
Commissioner Kate Downing agreed with the public that a parking-permit program should be implemented, and suggested that the city come up with a threshold for parking congestion that would inform its priorities for parking programs. Creating a system in which fewer people are circling the block and looking for parking would not only provide relief to the neighborhoods but also be good for both the environment and safety. She also suggested that permit parking be more expensive for streets than for garages, which are chronically underused despite the congestion on the streets.
"To get people off the streets, it needs to be a less palatable option than the garage," Downing said.
Commissioners added a few amendments to the staff proposal for a downtown program. They agreed to add the 300 and 400 blocks of Lincoln Avenue to the program (the were on the periphery of the omitted area, and specified that it should be the planning commission rather than the planning director that determines the priorities for parking programs. Commissioners also supported making the permits transferable among employees, though Sullivan warned that this could increase instances of permit fraud.
The commission largely supported the proposal, though members quibbled over some details. Commissioner Michael Alcheck recommended expanding the downtown permit area to the original wider boundaries, despite resident opposition in the southern section of the area.
Once the permit restrictions start, Alcheck argued, this section of downtown will be overrun with cars and the "nos will become yeses the minute the program is implemented."
Commissioner Przemek Gardias argued that the permit fees for employees should be "nominal" in the first phase, though this suggestion did not win the support of the rest of the commission.
The majority agreed that the proposal is worth pursuing and later adjusting as needed.
"A lot of work has been put into this and it's well thought out," Commissioner Greg Tanaka said. "While not perfect, it's a trial. If it's not perfect, we'll make it better."
The City Council is scheduled to consider the parking program on Dec. 1.