Marking a new era in parking policies, Palo Alto on Tuesday night approved a long-debated permit program that officials hope will finally provide downtown residents some relief from chronic congestion.
In a separate vote, the City Council also approved a broader framework that will allow other parts of the city to request similar permit programs, provided they meet certain thresholds for neighborhood support and parking occupancy.
Both unanimous votes followed years of complaints from downtown residents; nine months of negotiations between a stakeholders group; and more than two hours of line editing by council members.
In downtown, it will require everyone who parks a car on residential streets for more than two hours to obtain a permit. In the first phase, which will last six months, the permits would be free for downtown residents. Downtown employees would have to pay either $50 or $233, depending on their income level. Other parties that use downtown streets for free all-day parking -- including Caltrain commuters and Stanford University students and faculty -- would not be able to obtain permits at all.
The council's actions marked a critical milestone in the city's effort to address parking shortages in Palo Alto's primary commercial areas -- a subject that has attracted more attention than any other over the past two years.
The city is also in the process of forming a Transportation Management Association (a nonprofit that would manage traffic-reducing programs); expanding its shuttle program; and exploring new garage technologies with the hope of steering commuters into the chronically underused parking structures; and planning to build new garages.
No program, however, has encapsulated the hopes and frustrations of downtown residents and council members like the Residential Parking Permit Program (RPPP). More than a year in the making, the new proposal is far broader and more ambitious than the parking-permit program that the council rejected in 2012 in a section of Professorville.
The council approved the basic framework for a permit program in January and left it up to a committee of downtown stakeholders to hash out the details, a process that took more than eight months and that hit its biggest milestone Tuesday night.
Jessica Sullivan, the city's parking manager, summarized for the council the city's array of parking programs and said the message is that "we've made great strides this year in a lot of of different parking components of this program."
"RPPP is a keystone program that helps us start to manage all these things much more effectively," Sullivan said.
Councilman Marc Berman was one of several council members who made a similar point. He called the end result a "good and necessary step" in setting up all the other parking-related programs that the city will be unveiling in the coming months.
"The RPPP is the backbone for so many of the other efforts, including TDM (transportation demand management) and others," Berman said. "So I think this is a really really important night for starting to address the concerns that residents have been expressing to the council for years about decreasing quality of life in their neighborhoods."
The approval of the permit program is a victory for residents of Professorville and Downtown North who have long complained about the deteriorating parking conditions on their neighborhood streets, which currently have no parking restrictions. Many have been urging the council for years to adopt a permit program.
Surveys by residents and city planners show that most of the blocks around downtown's commercial core have occupancy levels of 85 percent or more (in some cases, more than 100 percent) during business hours on the weekdays.
Neilson Buchanan, a Downtown North resident who has been at the forefront of documenting and solving what many refer to as the "parking crisis," was one of several residents to acknowledge Tuesday that the program, while imperfect, is a great start. Buchanan urged the council just before the vote to "give this a chance."
Michael Hodos, who lives in Professorville, emphasized that the proposed two-phase program is a delicate "compromise" between business and residential stakeholders. He urged the council not to tinker with the details too much.
"This resolution is like an arch," Hodos said of the downtown program. "You take away any one component and you risk having the entire structure fall apart. Please don't let this happen."
The council heeded his advice and made only minor tweaks before endorsing the stakeholders group's recommendation.
The Tuesday discussion, which concluded shortly after midnight Wednesday, was far less acrimonious than the one that occurred in 2012, when the council rejected the Professorville proposal.
On Monday night, the council heard from several speakers about the proposed permit program but deferred its own discussion until a specially scheduled meeting on Tuesday night because of the late hour.
One of the speakers on Monday night was Judy Kleinberg, CEO of the Chamber of Commerce. She told the council that the Chamber generally supports having a permit program but believes that the first phase should be a true "pilot" program. The Chamber, she said, is concerned that the second phase in the program is too detailed. She also urged the council to keep employees' needs in mind.
"We want to emphasize that any program has to meet the needs of all employees who make downtown a vital, robust center that we all enjoy," Kleinberg said. "That means really protecting the system in terms of downtown retail employees, service workers, restaurants and hospitality businesses."
Under the staff proposal, the second phase would last a year and would set a cap on permits and give them out on a block basis (an employee permit would specify which block or two-block area the permit applies to). Employees would be allotted about 20 percent of the permits, with service employees getting access priority. Residents would get one free permit and have the option of buying up to four more for an annual cost of $50 each.
Most of the residents who spoke on Monday and Tuesday meetings advocated for the program's passage. Gabrielle Layton, a downtown resident who served on the stakeholders group, said on Monday it's time to act to curtail an increasingly worsening situation.
"Every other month, another street-face is being devoured by the parking monster," Layton said.
Ruth Lowy said Monday she was "delighted" by the proposed first step and "glad to hear there is intended cooperation from various aspects of our community."
The program received a similarly positive public reception on Tuesday night, with most urging adoption. In the first part of the meeting, the council spent several hours editing and ultimately approving the citywide "framework" for permit programs -- one that would allow any neighborhood to start such a program.
Vice Mayor Liz Kniss said during this portion of the discussion that the ordinance, despite some flaws, should be given a chance and then tweaked as necessary.
"I think, if anything, what we ought to do at this point is give RPPP a chance," Kniss said. "Let it work. There will be problems with it. We won't make it absolutely perfect tonight. I think this is really one of the nights where we let the perfect get in the way of the good."
By the time council members got to discuss the specific downtown program, it was 11:30 p.m. and only about a dozen spectators remained in the Council Chambers. Only five council members participated in the latter discussion, with the other four recusing themselves because they have financial interests in the downtown area. All five -- Kniss, Klein and council members Pat Burt, Gail Price and Greg Schmid -- agreed that it's time to go ahead with the downtown program.
Klein, who made the motion to go ahead with the downtown permit program, praised the city's process for getting to the compromise proposal. Just about every council member and stakeholder who spoke at the two meetings also praised Sullivan for facilitating the discussions and shepherding the various stakeholders to compromise.
"This has been an extraordinary procedure and one I commend," Klein said. "I'll take the unusual position of supporting the position of the group even though I might not agree with each and every position they have taken. Because it's a compromise. I think, if anything, what we ought to do at this point is give RPPP a chance."
His colleagues agreed that after years of talking about it, it's time to move ahead with the program. Burt praised the stakeholders group's process for getting the community to agree on a program that was once extremely controversial.
Schmid agreed, saying "it is clearly for the city our biggest and longest-lasting issue on the parking side."
He added that the program could serve as a "good model" for other local initiatives.