As downtown's parking landscape continues to shift, Palo Alto officials increasingly find themselves debating new parking-permit programs, new garages and new transportation options that would make cars unnecessary.
The latest parking debate, which took place Monday night, came down to a simpler question: Blue or green?
That was the question the City Council was trying to answer as it considered a new sign program that would make it easier for drivers to find local parking facilities and figure out which of them actually have open spots. After a lengthy discussion, the council concurred with the recommendation from planning staff and its consultant, and by a 6-1 vote, with Tom DuBois dissenting, threw its support behind new garage technology that relies on sensors and overhead LED lights to reveal open spaces to drivers.
The council also gave its go-ahead to a new "wayfinding" system that would use pylons, banners, and other types of signs to steer drivers to local garages, which historically have been underused. In the most contentious debate of the evening, the council voted 5-2 to make the parking signs blue, with supports of this option arguing that the color would give parking facilities a distinct "brand." Councilwomen Liz Kniss and Karen Holman favored green signs and argued that the color would be more consistent with the city's history and environmental ideals.
Despite some disagreements over details, all seven council members in attendance (Vice Mayor Greg Scharff and Councilman Eric Filseth were absent) agreed that new signs and enhanced garage technology should be pursued.
Sue-Ellen Atkinson, the city's parking operations lead, said the current system is far from ideal, with some banners too high up to be visible, some monuments too low to be useful and some signs too ambiguous to function properly.
"Existing parking and wayfinding downtown is, at best, inconsistent and confusing," Atkinson said, noting one sign next to the letter "P" showed three arrows going in different direction. "When you're driving it can be downright confusing to decide to go left, right or straight when you're told to go in all three ways."
As part of the rebranding effort, the city had hired a consultant, Walker Parking Consultants, which came up with a design for the new signs. The city's Architectural Review Board reviewed those signs last fall and, following the consultant's lead, favored the blue signs over the city's traditional green. Both Councilman Cory Wolbach and Mayor Pat Burt supported the proposed light-blue signs because they would be more distinct and, hence, more functional.
"I've always been fond of 'Palo Alto green' but we want to distinguish parking signs from other signs," Burt said. "My first inclination was to stay with Palo Alto green, but I actually think it's pretty important that people know where the parking is and that we intuitively start associating a given color with a function."
A more critical decision that the council also made Monday night pertained to parking-guidance systems: technology that notifies a driver how many spaces are open at a given garage. Both the city's consultant and staff favored the most expensive option on the table: One that would detect every open space and mark it with a green light. Known as the single-space detection Automatic Parking Guidance System (APGS), the technology is expected to cost about $2 million.
The other two options on the table were a "facility count" guidance system, in which a sign displays the number of open spots inside a garage and a "level-and-zone count" guidance system, which counts available spaces by garage level.
Most council members embraced the single-space detection system, which is currently in use at the Westfield Valley Fair mall in San Jose. By a 6-1 vote, they directed staff to create estimates for construction and installation of an automated parking-guidance system and to solicit bids once funding becomes available.
"I can hardly think of anything that can pull out into the 20th century more than this would," Kniss said.
DuBois said he favored the less expensive option because that would allow the city to start the project sooner and finish it faster. He said he was concerned that the city is "running toward the most expensive solution."
"I'd like to know that we're doing some value engineering and trying to save some money," DuBois said. "I support the project. I'd like to see the project. I would like to see it sooner rather than later."
Though the council supported moving ahead with the parking-guidance system, staff acknowledged that getting the technology in place will take some time. The city has not budgeted for the project in its long-term capital-improvement plan, and staff is banking on future funds from parking revenues to help pay for the project. This could mean installing parking meters or increasing parking-permit fees for garage parking options that are expected to be evaluated in a parking-management study that the city is now pursuing.
Even though the new technology probably won't makes its debut for several years, council members expressed hope that once in place it would greatly improve the experience of parking downtown.
"It's the kind of thing that I think will make the public feel so much more comfortable about driving to downtown," Kniss said.