Seeking to bring some order to downtown's chaotic parking scene, Palo Alto officials signaled on Tuesday night their intent to abolish the existing system of color zones and to bring back paid parking.
The details of downtown's new parking program are yet to be hashed out, but members of the City Council indicated Tuesday that they generally support the recommendations of a newly released study, which surveyed downtown's parking landscape and urged a switch to paid parking.
By a unanimous vote, the council directed planning staff to begin laying the groundwork for a revamped downtown program that will likely include some combination of parking meters, pay stations and new price structures at city-owned garages and parking lots. In the coming months, planning staff will be conducting public outreach and establishing the new program with feedback from the public, the Planning and Transportation Commission and the council's Finance Committee.
The council also directed planning staff to return with different options for a paid parking program, with financial projections and an implementation plan. Councilman Adrian Fine, who crafted the motion, echoed the prevalent sentiment when he characterized paid parking as a critical measure to complement the other parking programs now in the works.
These include downtown's evolving Residential Preferential Parking program, which limits parking on residential blocks to two hours for cars without permits; the recently launched Transportation Management Association, a nonprofit that offers incentives for drivers to switch to other means; and a new five-story downtown garage with 339 spaces, which the council approved earlier in the evening.
Free parking, Fine argued, undermines these efforts.
"This is a vital parking-management piece that I see as needed as a centerpiece to hold all the other pieces," Fine said. "The RPP (Residential Preferential Permit) doesn't work if we have free two-hour parking downtown. Our TMA (Transportation Management Association) doesn't offer much incentive because people don't have incentive to take transit when they can drive downtown for free."
While his colleagues agreed that paid parking makes sense, they offered a variety of opinions about what kind of system to implement. Should on-street parking feature parking meters at every space or a few pay stations per block? Should customers on University Avenue be offered a brief period of free parking before charges kick in? Which options will generate the most revenue? On all these questions, they landed on the same answer: to be determined.
If the council opts to follow the recommendations of the report from Dixon Resource Unlimited, downtown would have parking meters in its core area, around University and Hamilton avenues, and pay stations among the more peripheral blocks. Downtown would also be split into three tiers that would would generally charge between $1.50 to $2.50 per hour, with the more central areas charging a higher amount within that range.
The report also recommends having a lower rate for garages and off-street lots than for on-street parking, thus providing an incentive for people parking long term to use these structures; making parking meters compatible with cellphones and credit cards; and replacing today's scattered system of parking management (which involves at least four departments) with a unified Parking Division.
The council agreed that these recommendations, while sensible, require more exploration. Councilwoman Karen Holman was one of several council members who voiced concerns about the impact that parking meters would have on downtown retail. Councilman Greg Scharff said he was concerned about how much it would cost to install all the equipment and enforce the new restrictions.
"I'm not convinced that we're going to make money on it," Scharff said. "I'm concerned about the cost of infrastructure and I'm even more concerned about the cost of personnel."
The city would pay an estimated $1.2 million under the hybrid option that would bring parking meters and pay stations, according to the report. If it decided to only set up meters, the bill would come in at about $1.5 million.
The council didn't spend too much time on Dixon's recommendation that the city purchase license-plate readers to assist with enforcement (one of the many components that will be evaluated in the coming months). But Councilman Greg Tanaka offered additional enforcement ideas. One that could be explored, he said, is having drones track license-plate information (he noted that there are startups now offering the service). Another idea is sharply raising penalties to deter violations so that instead of a $50 or $100 fine, it would be about $400.
"You get nailed once, word would spread," Tanaka said, "While we're not catching you most of the time, when we do catch you, you're dead."
While neither idea gained much traction, the council was united in offering measured support for paid parking, which would replace the current system of four color zones, each of which offers free parking with a two-hour time limit. All nine council members also agreed that it's too early to make any decisions and that the city's Planning and Transportation Commission and the council's Finance Committee should each vet the new program before adoption.
There was less unanimity in the community, with several residents saying that paid parking would bring in much needed revenue to the city for traffic-reduction efforts simply deter people from coming downtown.
Bob Moss recalled the city's prior experiment with parking meters, which stretched from the 1940s to 1970s. The city ultimately scrapped the parking meters to make downtown more competitive with Stanford Shopping Center.
Moss called the return of parking meters "a lousy idea."
"We did it before, it hurt the city and it hurt the economy," Moss said. "It's going to be bad for business. Don't do it."
But Peter Stone, representing the Chamber of Commerce, said he's not terribly worried about the effect of paid parking on downtown retail. Other cities with meters -- including Redwood City and Mountain View (which actually does not have meters) -- seem to be doing fine, he said.
"What I'm looking for is to see some paid-parking revenues flowing into the TMA and trip reduction, which in the long term is the best way to make sure these problems get better and not worse," Stone said.