By most accounts, downtown Palo Alto's new residential parking program has succeeded in providing relief for area residents whose streets had previously served as parking lots for commuters.
But a new proposal to adjust the program and gradually eliminate employee permits has stirred up opposition in the business community, where many see the Residential Preferential Program as an existential threat.
The critics are protesting the changes that the City Council is planning to make to the downtown Residential Preferential Parking (RPP) program, which was launched in 2015 and which prohibited all vehicles that don't have permits from parking on residential streets for more than two hours. Permits, which were sold only to area residents and employees, are set to expire on March 31. After that, the pilot program would transition into a permanent state, with several refinements, including longer hours of enforcement and the introduction of a six-month permit.
The most controversial change, however, would be implemented gradually. Under the proposal that the council will consider on March 6, the program would reduce the number of permits sold to employees by 10 percent (or 200 permits) every year. Within a decade, no permits at all would be sold to employees.
For the council and many downtown residents, the gradual drawdown is a sensible way to provide neighborhoods with relief from congestion while giving employees time to adjust to the new reality.
But for people like Christian Lee, a Palo Alto dentist with a practice on Middlefield Road, the new system spells disaster. In a widely circulated letter, he noted that the current proposal means that "eventually there will be no street parking for my staff and I."
"Many members of my staff must drive for over 1 hour to help me serve you," Lee wrote. "Most need to pick up their kids from daycare right after work, so alternative means of transportation are not feasible."
More than 1,000 people have signed Lee's petition, which calls for the city to reconsider the reduction in employee permits. The petition calls the new parking program "an existential threat to your local access to care."
"At a time when our skilled staff commute sometimes hours to provide care to the Palo Alto residents, taking their parking away without a functional mass transit infrastructure results in health care employee attrition and ultimately practice closures," the petition states.
Lee isn't the only dentist to speak out against the reduction. In recent public hearings, dentists from both downtown and California Avenue have appealed to city officials not to take away their street parking.
More recently, other downtown professionals have joined the chorus of opposition. Susan Nightingale, owner of Watercourse Way and a member of the stakeholder group that helped craft the initial downtown RPP, argued in a letter that the council should not draw down permit sales to employees until other transportation alternatives are put in place. Even if the nascent Palo Alto Transportation Management Association -- a nonprofit tasked with reducing the city's single-occupant-vehicle rate -- proves successful, some people will still need to drive, she noted. And park.
"Zero parking in the neighborhoods will not force people out of their cars," Nightingale wrote. "If you abandon RPP and have no alternate parking solutions you will end up with the same problem we had before. People will be parking in the neighborhoods and moving their cars every two hours. This is not what any of us want."
For Jeff Selzer, general manager at Palo Alto Bicycles, the biggest challenge today is finding employees, Selzer wrote in a letter to the council. With the new rules that reduce employee permits by 10 percent until they reach zero, employees will not be able to drive to work without risking parking tickets, he said.
"My ability to stay in business is being threatened on many fronts imagine my frustration when the threat comes from the very city that I collect taxes for," Selzer wrote. "This city is losing the businesses that have served it for decades. University Art: gone, Congdon & Crome: gone, Palo Alto Sport and Toy: gone, Gleim Jewlers, gone.
"I am left to question if the City Council realizes the devastating and lasting effect this decision will have on the businesses that are left to serve the community? I respectfully and passionately request that you reconsider the gradual elimination of employee parking in our community."
Judy Kleinberg, president and CEO of the Palo Alto Chamber of Commerce, made a similar argument in her letter to the council, which she submitted on behalf of the Chamber's more than 500 members.
The current RPP, which was formed through a collaborative process, is working well, she wrote. The proposed changes, meanwhile, are "not well conceived, nor are they based on objective data, and are likely to cause unintended consequences harmful to Palo Alto business."
"The proposed new restrictions and the total elimination of employee street parking permits are unnecessary, and pose a potential threat to the viability of many Palo Alto businesses, especially small businesses and those retail businesses in older buildings with no on-site parking for their employees," Kleinberg wrote.
But while businesses are raising alarms about the reduction in employee permits, residents have been equally passionate in their calls for the council to get employee vehicles off the residential streets. After years of lobbying, downtown residents scored a victory in 2014 when the council began crafting the parking program. More recently, they have been arguing that employee permits should be dwindled down -- an argument that the council has largely embraced.
John Guislin, a Crescent Park resident who served on the stakeholder committee for the downtown RPP, disputed the assertion in Lee's petition that the new program poses an "existential threat" to businesses. In his rebuttal, Guislin argued that business owners have been "granted time to develop parking solutions to support their businesses."
"Instead, some choose to complain that it is unfair to make them assume a standard cost of doing business by providing employee parking," Guislin wrote. "Thoughtful business owners will work to develop solutions such as building parking facilities paid for by businesses or they will find facilities that offer adequate parking. It is highly unlikely that dentists will abandon the desirable market Palo Alto represents."