The journey to the starting line: Permit programs bridge gap between downtown stakeholders


The Downtown Residential Parking Permit Program Stakeholder Group has been meeting for eight months and at its final meeting on Oct. 23 the mood was a mixture of relief, fatigue and the type of familiar tension one associates with teenage siblings who've been forced to share a room for far too long.

At one point, as two stakeholders snapped at each other while debating which types of workers (if any) should get priority for permits, a regular spectator whispered to a reporter, "It's been pretty much like this for nine months."

The group included six downtown residents -- Neilson Buchanan, Elaine Uang, John Guislin, Michael Hodos, Gabrielle Layton and Richard Brand -- and five representatives of the business community. Downtown developer Chop Keenan belonged to the group, as did Simon Cintz of Cintz Commercial Properties, LP; Susan Nightingale of Watercourse Way; Rob George of Philz Coffee; and Gloria Arteaga of Palantir (her spot was later filled by another Palantir employee, Brett Somers).

The range of opinions on the group belied its relatively small size. Cintz, for instance, was skeptical from day one about the new program. In a January meeting, he argued that the residential parking permit program, since it doesn't create new parking spaces, "just moves the problem from one area to another." He also pitched late last year a different idea -- painting curbs in residential neighborhoods to more clearly outline each parking spot and designating certain spots only for residents.

Residents, meanwhile, primarily focused until recently on ways to get commuters' cars off their streets, rather than on ways to accommodate the service employees who make their meals, bag their groceries and have a hard time paying permit fees for downtown garages. That has changed.

Between March and October, the group was immersed in the weeds of the new program, tackling such questions as: What should be the district's boundaries? How many permits should be sold? How much should they cost? Who should get first dibs? And what should neighborhoods do if they want to opt into (or out of) the program.

Now, the stakeholders have reached something close to a consensus on nearly every issue.

The new downtown district would stretch from Palo Alto Avenue in the north to Embarcadero Road in the south; and from Alma Street in the west to Guinda Street in the east. About 20 percent of the neighborhood spots, dispersed throughout downtown, are to be available to employees. The city would need to create more parking downtown for employees in early 2015, when the program kicks in.

Should other blocks' residents want to join the program, the threshold for support would be 50 percent of the residents plus one. Annual rates are recommended at $466 for professional employees, $100 for low-wage employees and between $30 and $50 for residents.

The program would roll out in two phases. The first phase would be six months long, during which permits would be available to any resident or downtown employee who wants to buy one. For those without a permit, parking would be restricted to two hours between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m.

The goal of this phase is primarily to gather data. By requiring permits for all-day parking and by only giving permits to downtown residents and employees, city planners hope to see what the demand is like once Caltrain and Stanford parkers are taken out of the equation. The data would also be used to set a cap of the number of permits issued in the second phase. That's when employees would buy permits that are restricted to a specific section of downtown (a block or two). Residents would get one free permit and an option to buy additional ones for $50 each.

Some ideas fell by the wayside as the group met and obtained feedback. The stakeholders group put together a survey of downtown residents to gauge their interest and support for various ideas. The proposal to paint curbs was decisively scrapped from consideration after the survey showed 59 percent of respondents rejected it.

"A lot of people are concerned about this idea of having an employee spot in front of their house and not being able to park in front of the house during the day," City Parking Manager Jessica Sullivan said at the group's Oct. 23 meeting.

Some issues remained contentious. The biggest dispute at the Oct. 23 meeting came over whether employees should be forced to pay for parking permits in the first phase. All the business representatives argued that they should not because that would skew the data by introducing an extra variable. Cintz and Keenan were the leading voices of opposition.

"If you charge for this, none of this data will be relevant," Keenan said.

They were outvoted by resident stakeholders, who argued that employees who park on downtown's residential streets should be asked to pay for permits as soon as the program unveils.

"You have to do something to change behavior. I don't think we should waste six months. I think we have to move the dial on changing the behavior," Layton said.

Cintz also spoke out against the idea of giving low-wage workers preference over other employees in obtaining parking permits. He fully agreed with the idea of having lower costs for service workers, but argued against giving them a priority in access. Professional workers are "the economic engine of downtown," he said.

Buchanan, a resident of Downtown North, countered that his neighbors are willing to devote some parking spaces for employees but have a "heavy bias toward preferential treatment for pricing and otherwise for low-paying people.

"I have not heard one empathetic comment for higher paid people," Buchanan said.

"We're not asking for empathy, we're asking for being treated fairly," Cintz replied.

Despite these reservations, Cintz said that he supports going forward with the program.

"It's a six-page resolution, and there are only two sentences that I have an issue with," Cintz said. "I like what we're doing."

In the end, the two sides took a few votes and agreed to disagree on a few remaining details. The consensus was that, however imperfect, the program is well worth pursuing. Keenan advised the group to just do something -- anything -- and fix the program as needed.

"This is the problem you had last time in Professorville. They didn't know when to say 'yes,'" Keenan said. "Get pregnant, kids, so you can get real data, so the signs go up. You think you'll just wave a wand and it'll happen? It's evolutionary."

Sullivan acknowledged toward the end of the meeting that not everyone is 100 percent happy with the current proposal but noted that many of the details that had polarized the group earlier in the year have been mostly resolved. The group largely agreed and punctuated its consensus by giving Sullivan a unanimous ovation for steering them toward a resolution.

"We have a solid shot at getting something passed," Sullivan told the group near the conclusion of the meeting. "I love you all, but I don't want to be doing this for another 12 months in 2015."

Related content:

Is Crescent Park's parking 'creep' a sign of things to come?

Palo Alto brings new approach to old 'parking crisis'

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