With more Palo Alto residents clamoring for parking restrictions that would keep commuters off their neighborhood streets, a conflicted City Council voted early Tuesday morning to expand and revise downtown's nascent parking-permit program.
By a 5-0 vote, with Mayor Pat Burt, Vice Mayor Greg Scharff, Councilwoman Karen Holman and Councilman Marc Berman all recusing from the discussion because of conflicts of interests, the short-handed council debated, agonized over and ultimately approved a proposal from city planners to push the boundaries of the existing parking district to neighborhoods in downtown's periphery. The move is both the expected evolution of the controversial Residential Preferential Program (RPP) that the council approved last September, and a response to those residents for whom the new restrictions have proved to be a curse, rather than a blessing.
Tad Baer, a resident of Lytton Avenue, just east of the parking district, was one of several residents who saw his block's parking situation deteriorate after the RPP made its debut last fall. The program, for the first time, required residents and employees to purchase permits to park on residential streets. Cars without a permit are subject to a two-hour time limit, a restriction intended to get Caltrain commuters and Stanford University students from using the neighborhoods for free all-day parking. To cope with the rule change, some commuters simply began to park in areas of downtown just beyond the parking district.
"Our neighborhood went overnight from a neighborhood to a parking lot," Baer told the council. "It's been difficult for us, the citizens of Palo Alto."
The expansion pushes the district's boundary past Guinda Street to include the western section of Crescent Park. With the change, the district now includes 12 blocks where residents have petitioned to be annexed into the district: the 1100, 1200 and 1300 blocks of Waverley Street; the 800 block of Forest Avenue; the 800 and 900 blocks of Hamilton Avenue; the 300 block of Kingsley Avenue; the 500 block of Lincoln Avenue; the 800 block of Lytton; and the 400, 500 and 600 blocks of Seneca Street.
It also includes nearby blocks where the problem is expected to spread if a time limit were not implemented. While the parking restrictions would not take effect on the latter blocks, residents who live in these areas would be eligible to apply for annexation to the downtown district.
The change pushes the eastern edge of the district from Guinda to Hale Street and the intersection of Lincoln and Forest avenues. The district will also be expanded south, from its current boundary of Lincoln (east of Bryant Street) to Embarcadero Road.
The council was conflicted in more ways than one. With five council members having property interests within the expanded zone (or, in the case of Mayor Pat Burt, just outside the zone), and only four eligible to participate (one short of a quorum), the council had to draw a name out of a hat to see which of the conflicted colleagues will be allowed to join the discussion. That honor fell to Councilman Eric Filseth, a Downtown North resident well familiar with the neighborhood's parking frustrations.
The council also struggled to decide whether to move ahead with the staff plan or to support an alternate proposal from Crescent Park residents looking for a parking program more akin to the one in College Terrace. In that program, permits are only sold to residents. After a debate that stretched past 12:30 a.m. Tuesday, the council ultimately went along with the staff recommendation, though council members made several concessions to critics of the proposal.
Councilman Tom DuBois proposed not selling any permits to employees in the newly annexed areas until staff has a better sense of how the employees are using their permits. While regular employee permits would be limited to 2,000 in the second phase of the program, workers would also be able to purchase hangtag and daily permits that can be swapped among cars. DuBois' proposal, which the council ultimately accepted, calls for staff to come back with a plan for metering these permits and distributing them throughout the downtown area.
"I feel we haven't look at this in terms of, 'What are the easy loopholes?'" DuBois said. "We know there are businesses being run out of homes, hotels run out of homes. This permit process seems like a good opportunity to moderate this stuff."
DuBois also added a provision requiring staff to reduce the number of permits sold to employees by 10 percent (or 200 permits) every year, with the goal of selling none by 2026. Staff had originally proposed this reduction, though the council had rejected it in December.
This time, the five participating council members DuBois, Filseth, Liz Kniss, Greg Schmid and Cory Wolbach all agreed to re-insert it into the ordinance.
The council largely agreed with Filseth's position that the purpose of the parking-permit program is, above all, neighborhood protection.
"It's about the piece of the Comprehensive Plan that says we're going to protect neighborhoods from impacts of commercial vehicles," Filseth said. "The solution for transportation is the TMA (transportation management association, a new nonprofit aimed at reducing car trips) and potential parking garages, but RPP has to be about protecting the quality of neighborhoods."
Norm Beamer, president of the Crescent Park Neighborhood Association, made his case that the best way to protect the quality of the Crescent Park neighborhood is to simply not sell parking permits to employees.
Those blocks that are petitioning to get into the district are not doing so because they like the new system, Beamer said, but because they have been presented with a "fait accompli" and a difficult choice: Buy a permit or be inundated with cars.
"Please don't think these petitioners are cheerfully agreeing to convert their blocks into parking lots for downtown offices. Now you can provide them with that option," he said.
The council, however, decided to go along with the staff proposal. Unlike in the current program, however, the employee permits would be distributed throughout downtown by zones a move intended to keep commuter vehicles from clustering around downtown's commercial core. Now, each permit would specify the zone in which the driver is allowed to park.
The council approved the proposal, even as members acknowledged that as soon as the annexation occurs, the problem will only continue to spread to the blocks that will remain without parking restrictions.
"It is moving just like a flight of birds," Kniss said of the parking problem. "When you tell them they can't (park) here, they just go further. They go further east or further south. I don't see this resolving the problem whatsoever."
Yet council members also acknowledged that they need to honor the residents' petitions. Wolbach noted that the residents of the blocks seeking annexation have made it clear that "they don't like what they see and are asking us for a redress of grievances."
"I am reluctant to further delay granting that redress of grievance to those streets," Wolbach said.