Council shifts gears on downtown parking program | News | Palo Alto Online |


Council shifts gears on downtown parking program

Palo Alto officials back away from plan to gradually scrap employee permits in downtown Residential Preferential Parking program

For residents of downtown Palo Alto, the city's new residential parking program has proved to be an effective -- if imperfect -- way to limit the daily intrusion of commuter vehicles on neighborhood streets.

But for some downtown employers, including dozens of local dentists, a recent proposal to modify the program to further limit employees' ability to park in the neighborhoods poses nothing less than an "existential threat." By gradually reducing the number of employee permits, the city's latest plan threatens to drive these businesses out of the city entirely, dentists and business owners argued in recent weeks.

On Monday night, the City Council tried to mollify both sides by making the pilot program permanent but by stripping out its most controversial provision: a plan to gradually stop selling permits to employees altogether. Instead, after debating for more than three hours and weighing several competing proposals, the council settled on a more cautious and open-ended approach. And in a nod to some of the program's most vocal critics, the council directed staff to give priority in the program's future phases to neighborhood-serving businesses such as medical offices, dental clinics and senior-care providers.

By a 7-1 vote, with Councilman Greg Tanaka dissenting and Mayor Greg Scharff recusing himself, the council signed off on the next phase of what is known as the Residential Preferential Parking (RPP) program -- a program that made its debut on downtown streets in September 2015 and that is now in the final month of its second "pilot" phase. The program established two-hour parking limits on downtown's residential streets that traditionally allowed free all-day parking. Only cars with permits are immune from the restriction, and the city only sells permits to people who live and work in the RPP district.

To date, the most controversial element of the new plan has been the proposal to reduce by 10 percent a year the number of employee permits, from the initial level of 2,000, with the idea of eliminating employee permits altogether in a decade. The plan galvanized the local business community, with dozens of dentists attending recent council meetings and more than a 1,000 people signing a petition by dentist Christian Lee, who described the proposed program as "an existential threat to your local access to care."

Dozens reiterated these concerns Monday night and argued that their employees and patients would be impacted by the change. Reza Riahi, an endodontist with a practice on Middlefield Road, told the council that phasing out permits without providing parking alternatives would be "devastating" and noted that thanks to the existing parking program, dentists already have a hard time filling positions that are open.

Christopher Joy, a dentist who said he spends $3,000 per year on permits for his team, called the proposed reduction an "existential threat to our community of dentists." Dentist Earl Whetsone agreed and told the council that "hiring has become virtually impossible."

"We are just asking you to consider the modified form that would provide dentists the opportunity to continue to purchase parking permits in zones located near their offices," Whetstone said.

Dentists weren't the only concerned parties. Abigail Wittmayer, a manager at Whole Foods, said her business requires 250 people to operate. It currently has 198. Hiring has become more difficult, she said, with transportation joining housing as major obstacles for potential employees. That became harder with the recent parking program, Wittmayer said, which forced many employees to either park in two-hour zones or take long walks to their designated parking zones.

"We want nothing more than to find a common ground," Wittmayer said. "Currently, this is not working for us."

Judy Kleinberg, president of the Palo Alto Chamber of Commerce, wrote to the council that the proposed program "will make the situation much worse and endanger the viability of the very businesses that serve our residents and visitors." And Georgie Gleim, president of Gleim the Jeweler and resident of Crescent Park, said she is "very concerned" about the suggestion to "completely zero out downtown employee parking permits."

Gleim, who buys permits for her three downtown employees, wrote to the council that the current permit structure is not practical for many businesses, particularly restaurants with part-time employees.

"Unless the city provides alternate parking in a remote location with frequent shuttles, we are telling the businesses downtown that they must operate with no place for their employees to park," Gleim wrote. "I would like to challenge anyone not currently running a downtown business to make a go of it under those circumstances."

Faced with the chorus of complaints, the council opted for a more touch-and-go approach. It directed staff to immediately reduce the number of employee permits from 2,000 to 1,500 (a change that is not expected to have a major impact, given that the city had sold fewer than 1,400 last year) and to come back in a year to discuss further reductions. Rather than specifying the reduction, the council voted to reassess the reduction in one year, based on the results of the Palo Alto Transportation Management Association -- a new nonprofit tasked with reducing traffic -- and other parking-management programs.

Tanaka, the sole dissenter, favored simply continuing the existing parking program and to re-evaluate it at a later date, as part of a more "holistic" discussion about parking management. He also urged staff to reconsider its pricing structure so that garage parking is cheaper and so that those blocks closest to the downtown core would require more expensive permits for all-day parking. This would address the problem of too many cars clustering on residential streets near University Avenue, he said.

"We should use economics," Tanaka said. "We should push people toward garages rather than having higher prices for garages and pushing them to the streets."

The rest of the council agreed to proceed apace, albeit with some disagreements about the details. Councilmen Tom DuBois and Eric Filseth, who crafted the winning motion, supported creating an official goal of limiting car saturation on every residential block to 50 percent or less, so that half the spaces are open. That proposal died by a 4-4 vote, with Karen Holman and Lydia Kou joining them. But their broader proposal, with its wait-and-see approach toward employee permits, ultimately carried the day.

"What we have here is a scarce resource with more demand here than there is supply," Filseth said. "The days in which everyone who wants to park in Professorville has a space -- those days are gone and probably won't come back. So we'll have to manage this resource."

Meanwhile, Councilmen Adrian Fine and Cory Wolbach lobbied for an alternate proposal that would have reduced the number of permits to employees by 100 in each of the next two years (half the rate in the original plan). That motion failed by a 3-5 vote, with only Tanaka joining them. Even with his motion defeated, Fine fully supported reconsidering the issue of worker permits in a year and to base the number on traffic conditions.

"The RPP is working," Fine said. "We do have some flexibility to reduce employee permits annually. I think the council should continue looking at it annually, based on parking impacts and the mode split."


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34 people like this
Posted by Say No to Corporate Welfare
a resident of Crescent Park
on Mar 7, 2017 at 7:13 am

The businesses are actually using fewer than 1400 permits but we have to provide them with 1500? And then reduce only that at a glacial pace?

And these businesses aren't even truthful. They claim they are losing all parking but they ignore the city garages and lots that most are eligible for. And the Downtown garages are never full. Plus the city is going to build them a new one.

And when, when, when will even one business in Palo Alto admit that these problems are caused by their own behavior in purchasing and renting underparked buildings? Not one dentist, store, or spa who insisted the city help them out admitted they have saved hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars in rent or purchase costs over the years by occupying underparked buildings. Did even one of them suggest that they combine those savings to build their own garages? Nope. They want the city to give them access to other people's streets for their own parking. And at a low cost.

Let's call this what it is: naked greed. Why ensure you pay for adequate parking on your own site when you can pile into City Hall and get the council to gift you far-lower cost parking in front of other people's homes?

21 people like this
Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Mar 7, 2017 at 7:23 am

Palo Alto has a parking prevention policy. We will soon have to drive out of town to visit the dentist because they will not be able to continue their practice without employees.

We need a parking policy to enable people to park, not obstacle after obstacle preventing them.

18 people like this
Posted by Anti-dentite
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Mar 7, 2017 at 7:36 am

Crocodile tears from the dentists...

A solution is obvious for dentists in locations without adequate parking for a professional practice, and (as they claim) a clientele who live in Palo Alto: get patients an Uber/Lyft.

Have your staff park in the spaces you have. Then offer door-to-door service within PA by Uber/Lyft. Cost is what, $10-20 per patient? It's just a ride within PA.

Dentistry is a lucrative profession...handle the cost of business, don't push it off on people who live here.

7 people like this
Posted by Mama
a resident of Crescent Park
on Mar 7, 2017 at 10:44 am

Obviously if you make downtown permits more expensive Crescent Park and other surrounding neighborhoods will suffer...duh!
Also, the longest permit holders should have priority in purchasing. These dentists and other local small businesses should be grandfathered in for yearly renewals while keeping the cap. That way new hires and businesses will know they are NOT guaranteed parking by permit. Where are the smart and creative thinkers on this Council?? Are there no problem solvers?

9 people like this
Posted by Stan
a resident of Evergreen Park
on Mar 7, 2017 at 10:58 am

Each group affected by the RPP has its constraints, some obvious to public and some less so. In light of their limitations, each group can offer short and long term solutions to better the community and improve status quo. Our dental group supports and values the RPP program. Revision to have an employer and not employee driven program can allow us to better understand permit utilization on a per business/healthcare office basis and as such help improve allocation and zoning with regards to current infrastructural and neighborhood limitations on a per block basis. To say the least, we should understand who the purchasing employer is and what his limitations are. If the latter cannot be achieved, the City can carve out each group from the existing allotment then work with these groups to eventually have the permits divided up and distributed to employers and efficiently renewed, zoned and regulated based on what residents value. The current first-come-first-serve or wait list systems allow for some of our offices to be completely excluded immediately or through renewal in 6 months, which if reduction to 0 is truly not the intention of the program should not be the case. With open mind, good will, understanding and cooperation I feel that there is no problem we can’t solve and no idea that should be off the table. No complex problem ever had one-solution-fit-all without serious repercussions and our healthcare is a good example of this.

14 people like this
Posted by Chip
a resident of Professorville
on Mar 7, 2017 at 11:01 am

Downtown dentists should have planned better for their parking needs if they're griping now. At $1200 per crown or $350 per exam-cleaning, they can certainly afford to pay for staff parking permits in garages. I see WholeFood employees parking in the WF lot. Let the mgr there hand out train or bus passes. Crocodile tears from these people aren't melting my stony heart.

When I was recently housebound for 3 weeks following surgery, the people who brought me groceries & meds, as well as my doctor & the PT who came twice weekly spent 10-20 minutes searching for nearby parking. There's something wrong when the streets in front of our homes are filled with cars parked there by strangers, not all of whom are very tidy. Construction workers take up lots of curb space too, but at least they're gone by 4:30. If I invite friends over for dinner before 7pm, there's nowhere on the street for them to park.

Maybe I'll pave my front yard & rent parking spaces?

15 people like this
Posted by Business owner
a resident of Downtown North
on Mar 7, 2017 at 11:07 am

Who owns the streets? If the residents do the let them pay for it and I won't park there unless I pay them rent. So the going rate for a 10x20 square foot space is going for about $1000 in today's real estate market. That's about $200,000. Let them buy the space in front of their house and then I won't park there without their permission or pay them rent. You greedy residents want everything. It's because of us that your land value has increased. Use us then spit us out when you no longer want us.

27 people like this
Posted by kenagain
a resident of another community
on Mar 7, 2017 at 11:16 am

It must be said again. The downtown property owners and their developers are the ones walking away without ever being blamed for the problems they created through refusal to provide parking for their tenants, for conning the community about the parking assessment district provisions (providing less than half what was promised), and by somehow still being able to control staff and council actions in their favor.

10 people like this
Posted by Eric Filseth
a resident of Downtown North
on Mar 7, 2017 at 12:11 pm

A couple footnotes on this.

The ceiling last year was 2000; the actual final number sold was 1400. The motion last night puts the next ceiling at 1400, plus another 100 in reserve in case more streets at the outer edges of the RPPP district opt in. So in practice it’s dead flat from last year, but with two directions to Staff:

1. Continue working to spread out the cars more evenly within the RPPP district. Right now some streets are still heavily congested with commuter cars, while others have none. Many people would favor a solution simply in which no street was more than lightly occupied; though not everybody agrees on this point, and there's a devil in its detailed definition (which Tom floated an idea on last night).

2. A process to prioritize who gets the limited spaces. Most people agree that if there aren’t enough permits for everybody who wants one, then some groups should be high priority, notably businesses focused on the community – local dentists for example, as mentioned in the article. At the moment, the City doesn’t actually have a good end-to-end way to identify these and allocate permits accordingly. So working out the process to do that is an action for this year.

The discussion of reductions next year centered not so much on TMA, but on what the neighborhood congestion looks like overall, especially if there’s more progress on #1 above. There are a surprising number of moving parts involved; for example, permit holders are not the only cars parked in the streets. There’s a good case to be made to manage it all by result. Tom’s motion to define this as 49% total utilization (“all green streets” on the map) didn’t pass, but it’s a discussion I expect the community will want to continue. Whether a neighborhood is safe or not doesn't change just because more cars would like to park there.

Finally I want to observe again that this whole apparatus is nobody’s idea of desirable. As Churchill might have said, an RPPP is the worst solution possible, except for all the others. The real fault is with the City, which took far too long to act on 20 years of trends in commercial real estate economics and employee density, that were driving up commuter parking demand much faster than supply, and dumping the difference into neighborhoods. The result is the situation we’re in now. Had we dealt with this a decade ago, when Professorville residents first started warning of the issue, things would have been much easier; yet even today our codes are out of date. For example, 429 University, approved last month, is legally fully parked under City codes and can’t be challenged on that basis, even though in reality it isn’t so, and will put yet more cars onto our streets looking for spaces. Until the City updates its codes, our parking problems will continue to grow. But with a proper RPPP, at least we can insulate the neighborhoods.

6 people like this
Posted by Gale Johnson
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Mar 7, 2017 at 12:37 pm

I told you so. In a long ago post on this subject I questioned the idea of annual permit reductions. I forget who came up with that brainstorm idea in the first place and which CC members voted for it. I could say 'shame on you' but everybody makes mistakes. I'll give you a not a parking pass...just a pass on your idea. It was a forced attempt to wean people off driving cars to work. The plan is working for mostly highly paid tech employees where public transit it readily available and close to their places of business. In fact, that was already being done without the ordinance. Some real thinkers figured things out on their own. And they are the most able to afford the transit costs. And most of them, I think, are singles, with no family obligations and schedules to meet to get back home for. That's the success story.

But now let's talk about all those others. It's not a viable working option for many of them and that's the part that the original planners failed to assess and recognize. Whomever got the brainstorm to push the reduction thru, just hadn't faced reality, but instead were dreaming about their perfect solution, in an imperfect world, to getting rid of car commutes. Now, that hard data is coming in, maybe their idealistic ideas of the perfect world, like they think it should be, will get some adjustment.

@Say No to Corporate Welfare...join me on Tuesdays at my Life Stories class at Avenidas. And try to get a parking place in the Avenidas lot or across the street in the Bryant St. lot. Good luck! You might need to amend your comment about garages never being full.

2 people like this
Posted by resident
a resident of Midtown
on Mar 7, 2017 at 12:52 pm

Business owner @ Downtown,

Businesses have parking in the Downtown Core: approximately 30 - 35 blocks between Lytton & Hamilton, from Alma to Middlefield. Businesses decided that they wanted most of the parking to be time limited to hours, and have permits for the rest. If your employees don't have enough parking, why don't you petition the city to reallocate the parking among the 30 - 35 blocks of the Downtown core so that more are allocated to permitted parking?

What is the difference between the businesses using the parking in front of their businesses and the residents wanting to use the parking in front of their houses? It was the businesses choice to allocate the parking in front and near their businesses to 2 hour parking.

15 people like this
Posted by Inhabitant
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Mar 7, 2017 at 12:59 pm


The City of Palo Alto owns the streets.

And all powers of the City of Palo Alto (including ownership, regulation, etc.) are for: “…general welfare of its inhabitants…” See CHARTER OF THE CITY OF PALO ALTO; Article II. Powers.

The general welfare of inhabitants. That's people who live here. Not commuters; not business owners who live elsewhere; and not even if one or another pay PA taxes/fees.

To any extent Council members overlook this, a portion of PA inhabitants who are also voters need to replace them. Most Council members appear to understand this.

11 people like this
Posted by Jerry Schwarz
a resident of Downtown North
on Mar 7, 2017 at 1:20 pm

I have thought for many years,, long before the RPP program, that the city needs a parking lot near 101 with frequent shuttles to downtown. According to the article Georgie Gleim wrote a letter suggesting that and I strongly endorse that cncept..

11 people like this
Posted by Chip
a resident of Professorville
on Mar 7, 2017 at 1:38 pm

Business owner apparently thinks that the residents invited him. to start his business here. He's wrong. Does he own the building where he conducts business? Probably not. Does he own a home or live within the RPP? Probably not.

Over the last 20-30 years, there has been a huge abuse of power by the Council, allowing construction of oversized commercial buildings with inadequate parking provisions. Many of those early projects were spearheaded by developers with close friends on the council. I'd name names but they'd be redacted by the editor so I won't bother, but many f us know who they are. More recently, whoever approved the conversion of an apartment building for infirm seniors to a hotel with a restaurant should be investigated for undisclosed financial interests in the project. This is what happened blatantly in the 1970s-'80s. Special privileges & allowances were made for relatives, old school chums, frat brothers & clients of the 2 or 3 reigning local law firms.

There are plenty of medical-dental complexes well-served by Marguerite and Redi-wheels. Teenagers can actually go to dentists by themselves, on a bus. Downtown Palo Alto is steadily losing retail businesses, in favor of offices for businesses which have no interaction with local residents & could as easily be located on the perimeter of any other peninsula community. Street parking for more than 3 hours in residential areas must be limited to residents. Maybe we'd go shop downtown again & support local merchants.

16 people like this
Posted by Greedy resident
a resident of Crescent Park
on Mar 7, 2017 at 3:15 pm

No, business owner, our quality of life has deteriorated along with the entry of people like you into our town. Yes, our town. Property values have already started to suffer because of parking problems, traffic nightmares, and loss of our core small retail businesses. Please go somewhere else where they will appreciate your so-called contributions to the local environment.

16 people like this
Posted by Grumpy Old Guy
a resident of Palo Alto Orchards
on Mar 7, 2017 at 4:21 pm

Business Owner - thanks but no thanks. There is absolutely nothing wrong about homeowners who want to protect their homes and streets from parking congestion. With respect to your 'threat' that you'll take your toys home because we won't give you everything that you ask for, you're welcome to go. In fact, the moment that Texas or Arizona, or Nevada offers you a great deal (like Tesla), you'd be out the door in a flash without even saying goodbye. In the meantime, we'll still be here. And for that reason, Palo Alto residents need to stick together to make sure that this community is about its schools, parks and the quality of nice barbecue when the weather is just a little bit warmer. [Portion removed.]

4 people like this
Posted by Single Palo Alto Dad
a resident of Downtown North
on Mar 7, 2017 at 4:29 pm

I work full time and I am a single parent who lives downtown. For those of us who bought homes recently that's what it takes. I am not at home during the day. As someone who lives in Palo Alto, I leave work and pick up my young daughters then go back to work while my elderly mother who doesn't drive helps at home. My daughters are 7 and 9 years old. I appreciate being able to get them to their dental and medical appointments easily here in Palo Alto without missing school. Our oustsnding doctors are accommodating and they stay late to help. Most of them cannot afford to live in Palo Alto in today's healthcare climate. Not worrying about finding parking and missing hard to get appointments is a big deal for my family and many others. Instead of spending your time trolling each other please be constructive.

6 people like this
Posted by FloggrGurl
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Mar 7, 2017 at 4:52 pm

@Anti-dentite-Sorry, but dentistry is not nearly as lucrative as you seem to imagine. With the gouge of insurance PPO's and guidelines, sky high rents, overhead, cost of equipment, supplies, lab fees,and malpractice insurance premiums we must foot monthly, We also we pay our employees a living wage which is particularly challenging in this area but we know we get not just what but WHO we pay for, and we will only hire the best for our patients. Yet you seem to think we should also find the money for Uber rides for our patients as well? The only way a program such as this would be possible, would result in the raising of our fees, which many feel are too high to begin with. Then we will lose even more patients. Not a viable solution.

@Chip-"There are plenty of medical-dental complexes well-served by Marguerite and Redi-wheels. Teenagers can actually go to dentists by themselves, on a bus" Sorry, but, NO. Not if they expect to be touched by a healthcare provider they cant. There is something called PARENTAL CONSENT. A parent or guardian needs to be present if the patient is under 18. Again, not a viable option. If it's happening in your office then they are violating state and federal law.

Paying closer attention last night, you would have realized that most dentists are now complaining about lack of patient parking, not staff parking. Parking for those very same people who you lament about paying $1,200 for a crown, yet you're o.k. with them walking exceedingly long distances to their appointments.

This is a problem that affects us ALL. Ridding Palo ALto of business is not the way to solve it. Working together as a community is the only way

8 people like this
Posted by margaret heath
a resident of College Terrace
on Mar 7, 2017 at 5:00 pm

I'm disappointed that parking permits for downtown all businesses which the public patronize are not given first dibs on all parking permits, and at a reduced price. Most of these established their businesses years ago when there was plenty of street parking. To suggest they should have planned ahead for their parking needs is ridiculous. No one expected monied interests, with the aid of the council, would so completely turn downtown into a virtual office park and the residential streets into their parking lots. Gutting downtown of the businesses that served Palo Alto residents and driving almost all our tax dollars to adjacent towns.

It seems so shortsighted of the council not to give parking preference and encourage the businesses that serve us. For instance, why isn't it a council priority to enable Whole Foods to stay in business, the last downtown grocery store. Or Watercourse Way who have a large number of employees because physically each employee can't do more than five massages a day? And all the support staff needed. To have to increase prices to cover the cost of employee parking, and for clients unable to find street parking, is a recipe for driving the businesses that serve us out of town. And all the shift workers at the cafes and restaurants that serve us.

2 people like this
Posted by Chip
a resident of Professorville
on Mar 7, 2017 at 5:02 pm

Floggrgurl, I'm happy to take Marguerite or Uber to a downtown medical appt. How is that a long walk to a downtown appt?
Actually, I just go to PAMF.

1 person likes this
Posted by chris
a resident of University South
on Mar 8, 2017 at 2:04 am

The idea of a parking lot at the edge of Palo Alto won't work. Very few workers will use it. They would rather move their cars every 2 hours.

Who would pay for the shuttle? Workers are not going to pay for a high permit to park that far away. Will downtown workers pay a surcharge to subsidize remote parkers? Downtown parkers are already paying too little. How much of an increase will you be able to make them pay in the near future.

TDM has to get more workers to use transit. Companies should subsidize transit, including getting their workers from their homes to intercity buses and trains.
Frequent shuttles throughout Palo Alto have been talked about for a long time, but it is time for action. An effective shuttle system will help alleviate pressure on parking.

Like this comment
Posted by Fact Checker
a resident of University South
on Mar 10, 2017 at 7:20 am

There are satellite parking lots and shuttles to Downtown Palo Alto. They're called Caltrain, Dumbarton Express, VTA and SamTrans. I can send you links if you'd like ;-)

Like this comment
Posted by FloggrGurl
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Mar 10, 2017 at 7:53 am

@Chip I was referring to the comment made by another poster, who thought the dental office should subsidize the cost of Uber rides for their patients. Not cost effective by any stretch of the imagination

3 people like this
Posted by Online Name
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Mar 10, 2017 at 10:26 am

Chris, re the edge parking, if the workers won't pay for it, their employers certainly should. Why should the residents pay for it when we get nothing out of the increased congestion that reduces the services WE get and the quality of OUR lives?

Re the TDM, unfortunately that's what the TDM wants us to do -- for US to pay for each car-pooled commuter trip and for each public transit trip. Trust me, those costs WAY exceed the $466 (or close) that the parking permits cost. Mt. McGee, the gentleman from Palantir who heads the TDM, knows that as does the Chamber of Commerce that's pushing the plan as does the Gang of Five on the City City council that keeps pushing for higher density.

Like this comment
Posted by Park in my drive dot com
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Mar 13, 2017 at 4:29 pm

I am looking to see if anyone is connected to a website or app called or similar. Basically some type of app along the lines of airbnb or uber except for using private driveways during the day when the owners are not using them and can be rented out for either a part of a day, a business day, or longer, by a phone app and paid through the app with the car license plate being recognized as the authorized parker.

This type of renting out driveways could help homeowners earn some extra cash as well as find those who work in an impacted parking area somewhere affordable to park.

Like this comment
Posted by Park in my
a resident of another community
on Mar 13, 2017 at 4:31 pm

To avoid confusion, when I say "or longer" above I mean on a weekly or regular basis during the work week.

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