Just how far will downtown Palo Alto employees venture into surrounding neighborhoods in order to park free during the day? Five blocks? Eight? Ten?
And what happens if the supply of parking within the downtown area simply isn't able to meet the demand?
Those are among the many unanswered questions as the city is set to enter the second phase of a residential parking-permit system that feels to some residents like a game of Whac-A-Mole.
Since it was launched last September, residents who live in the downtown core have seen considerable relief from the daily inundation of drivers who used to park on residential streets to avoid buying permits for city garages or moving their cars every two hours to different color zones.
In a multi-pronged program approved after years of study, debate and compromise, the large area bounded roughly by San Francisquito Creek, Alma Street, Embarcadero Road, Lincoln Avenue and Guinda Street was limited last fall to two-hour parking unless cars displayed either a permit issued to residents of the area (first one free, up to three more for $50 each for a year) or one sold to downtown employers or employees for $466 ($100 for low income workers).
Not unexpectedly, as a result of the new program, streets just outside the regulated perimeter became severely impacted by employees willing to walk a few more blocks in order to park for free, and residents who had previously been largely unaffected by the downtown parking mess suddenly found themselves suffering the same fate as those who had advocated for years for a residential permit system.
Now, residents of those newly affected areas understandably want relief from a problem created by the solution developed for the originally impacted neighborhoods. This was entirely predictable and a part of learning that can only occur by trial and error.
Next Tuesday, at an unusual 3 p.m. City Council meeting devoted only to this topic, the four council members without conflicts of interest (because they don't own property in the affected area) plus one conflicted member, downtown resident Eric Filseth, whose name was drawn from a hat in order to create a required quorum of the council, will decide on important tweaks to the program aimed at addressing some of the early negative consequences. (Also conflicted and unable to participate is City Manager Jim Keene, who lives in the impacted area.)
Those living in Crescent Park, just outside the current boundaries, would like a simple outright prohibition on all-day non-resident parking, similar to what has existed for years in the College Terrace neighborhood. But after a long discussion on Feb. 1, the five participating members of the council voted instead to approve the staff's recommendation that the current permit program be expanded by several blocks, essentially trying to find the point at which employees consider it too inconvenient and far from their workplace to pursue free parking.
Next Tuesday, this change will be up for final approval, along with two other key modifications: Creating 10 "micro-zones" within the residential permit area so that employee permits are issued for a specific zone in order to spread out the employee parking more evenly, and establishing a declining cap on the number of employee permits that will be issued annually.
Equally critical as these changes, however, is continued attention to how efficiently employee permit parking is working in city garages so that there is full utilization of exisiing parking in the commercial district. As Filseth said in early February, the residential parking program is about protecting the quality of neighborhoods, not solving the parking problem. For that, he and his colleagues agreed, the city must fulfill its commitment to managing employee parking within the confines of the core downtown and not simply spread it out over residential neighborhoods.
After years of avoidance and neglect, the city staff and council have worked hard on developing a comprehensive strategy for protecting neighborhoods, creating more parking in the commercial core of downtown, implementing valet parking and technology aids for locating available parking and getting more employees to use public transportation.
Most of these are in progress but some will take years (as in the case of building a new garage), and no one should be discouraged or surprised by the early challenges of addressing the neighborhood parking piece of the puzzle.
While we worry about the added complexity of establishing 10 zones in neighborhoods surrounding downtown and a complicated daily permit option to supplement the annual permits, the mindset now should be one of experimentation and remaining nimble and flexible. Like a Rubik's Cube, it may take a lot of painful trial and error to get to the ultimate solution.