As Palo Alto prepares to expand and refine the new parking-permit program for downtown's residential streets, the city is also taking a fresh look at another initiative aimed at alleviating the chronic car congestion: requiring drivers to pay for parking in areas that are currently free.
The City Council this week approved a $100,000 contract with the firm Dixon Resources to perform a "comprehensive study" of parking strategies, including paid parking for the downtown commercial district, according to a report from the Department of Planning and Community Environment. As part of the study, the consultant will reassess the existing color-zone system, by which drivers can park for two hours on the street but cannot re-park within the same color zone once the time limit expires.
Instituted 20 years ago, the color zone is generally recognized as a mixed success. It prohibits cars from using downtown streets for free all-day parking, thus encouraging shoppers and diners to come downtown. At the same time, it allows downtown workers to park on the streets -- obviating their need to buy garage permits -- while also disrupting their work schedules by forcing them to move their cars from one zone to another every two hours.
The new planning report notes that charging people for garages rather than on-street spaces "incentivizes employees to park on the street rather than the garages."
"The paid parking study was envisioned as a way to ensure that the overall parking environment functions as a system to support short-term parking for customers, long-term parking for employees and resident parking in neighborhoods," the report states.
As part of the new contract, Dixon will analyze the existing demand for on- and off-street parking, review all existing policies and regulations, survey users and downtown stakeholders and "recommend comprehensive paid parking strategies in Downtown Palo Alto." The group's findings will be reviewed by the Planning and Transportation Commission and the City Council before the final report is issued. The work is expected to take between four and five months to complete.
Discussion of paid parking is far from new. City officials installed parking meters in downtown Palo Alto in 1947, though they were removed in the mid-1970s as part of an effort to make the area more competitive with Stanford Shopping Center, according to Ward Winslow's "Palo Alto: A Centennial History."
"For more than 25 years the meters range up pennies, nickels, dimes and quarters but finally, in 1974, after downtown business setbacks, the council ordered all 880 meters removed," Winslow wrote.
Since then, as parking congestion grew worse, calls to bring back paid parking have occasionally resurfaced. In the mid-1990s, when the city was performing its last update of the Comprehensive Plan, the citizens group working on the guiding document agreed that downtown parking should come with a price tag. The group proposed installing parking meters, beefing up parking enforcement on residential blocks and requiring payments at all parking facilities. Its recommendations ultimately faltered after the planning commission rejected calls for paid parking.
And as the city was unveiling last year the new permit program for downtown's residential streets, planning officials referred to the Residential Preferential Parking program as just the first step in a comprehensive push toward paid parking. Jessica Sullivan, the city's transportation demand manager, told the Weekly at that time that because free parking isn't regulated, it tends to have "serious negative effects" on the downtown area.
So far, however, the City Council has not taken a stance on paid parking throughout downtown. In October 2014, when the council considered potential public-private partnerships for a new garage, council members rejected a proposal from the firm Ark Studio West, which called for a new garage with retail on the ground floor. The proposal fizzled largely because of a stipulation from Ark Studio West that the city adopt paid parking at all of its downtown garages -- an idea the council members said was worth exploring but not as part of a developer's proposal.
The council's 8-1 vote to approve the new study signaled the latest launching point for the exploration. Councilman Greg Schmid, the only member who voted against the contract, said he generally supports the effort but took issue with how the item got to the council. The city had interviewed four firms and, according to the staff report, the interviewing panel included three members of city staff and two "downtown stakeholders" with business interests in downtown.
Schmid said said he believes the effort warrants a "wider group of stakeholder," which should include local residents as well as city officials.
Aside from that, no one took issue with moving ahead on the study. The contract was approved on the council's consent calendar, with no discussion or dissent.
Nor has there been any vocal opposition to paid parking from downtown businesses. Ross Cohen, executive director of the Downtown Business and Professional Association, said the association's parking subcommittee discussed the new study and agreed that paid parking is worth exploring.
"On-street parking is certainly a component of the larger parking plan and to not study would be, I think, misguided," Cohen said.
The paradigm has shifted since the 1970s, Cohen said, when downtown merchants were concerned about competition from Stanford Shopping Center. Unlike then, today's merchants are mainly competing with other downtowns in the region, most of which have on-street paid parking. People want the "downtown experience," he said, which is clearly different from the shopping-mall experience, he said.
"If you surveyed the downtowns in the area, you'd see many of them do have paid on-street parking," Cohen said. "It's certainly not a deterrent for people to come downtown to shop and park."