Like most outcomes built on compromise, the journey of creating a program to begin addressing downtown Palo Alto's parking problems has been long and circuitous, with many false starts, misunderstandings and disappointments along the way.
But after years of frustration and resistance, downtown residents, businesses and city officials came together Tuesday night to adopt a phased plan that will begin bringing relief to residents without unduly disrupting employees needing places to park.
The city council, working with only five members due to potential conflicts of the other four, who own property in the affected area, unanimously approved the recommendations carefully negotiated over much of the last year by an 11-person working group of residents and property and business owners.
As Councilman Larry Klein said in making the motion to approve the plan, it had been an extraordinary and successful process and one in which the council needed to trust the working group's compromises and resist the temptation to tweak the proposal.
In the end, the group's common desire for action overcame differences over individual elements and enabled the council and staff to notch a major accomplishment and set in motion solutions to a priority city concern as promised before the end of the year.
The plan, which will be rolled out in two phases beginning in April, establishes a permit system that will regulate day-time parking on neighborhood streets in most of the area between San Francisquito Creek and Embarcadero Road, and between Alma and Guinda. (An area south of Lincoln will not be in the permit area.)
During the first six months, the affected area will have two-hour limits on weekdays between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m., just as streets in the commercial district do now. Residents will receive free permits, while downtown employees will pay either $50 or $233 for the six months, depending on their income level.
The intent is to make parking affordable for lower-paid service workers who can't afford to buy permits in city garages and who now flood residential neighborhoods just outside of the current two-hour restricted area.
With no limits on the number of permits during this first phase, the idea is to avoid suddenly shrinking the supply of available parking spots for employee use, to impose some financial disincentives and to monitor and collect data on what happens. This addressed the concerns of business owners who worried that an outright ban on neighborhood parking without new parking alternatives would make hiring and keeping employees even more difficult than it already is.
The biggest immediate impact will be on the unknown number of people who are parking free all day in downtown neighborhoods and either commuting to jobs on Caltrain or parking and then walking, biking or catching the Marguerite shuttle to jobs or school at Stanford. These people will be stuck with no place to park and will need to find alternatives, and this will reveal the extent to which they contribute to today's parking problem.
The second phase will last a year and is more controversial because its impacts are more difficult to predict. Instead of unlimited permits good anywhere, a cap will be set on the number of permits, and employees will be allotted about 20 percent of the total. Employee permits will also be assigned on a block basis, where they are only good on specific blocks of specific streets to ensure that areas closest to the downtown commercial areas aren't disproportionately clogged with employee permit parking.
In phase two, residents will get one free permit per dwelling unit but may purchase up to four additional permits for an annual cost of $50.
The city's parking manager, Jessica Sullivan, deserves much credit for calmly facilitating the working group's efforts during the last year and helping it find solutions and forge compromises.
The residential parking permit program is only one piece of a much broader set of initiatives, which include use of technology to guide drivers to available garage parking spots and at least one new parking garage. But it is the critical first step in solving a problem that is increasingly hurting the quality of life in our downtown.
The program won't be without problems and surprises, but it is the collaborative start we need to begin zeroing in on long-term answers to the lack of parking.