Palo Alto employees and businesses responded mostly negatively Wednesday to the city's proposal to significantly increase parking-permit fees, with one banker calling it "absolutely outrageous" and others saying the move would cause financial and logistical hardships.
The City Council is set to approve on June 27 a 2017-18 budget that would shift transportation costs to employees, raising annual parking-permit fees for California Avenue lots and garages from $149 to $365 and for downtown Palo Alto's garages from $466 to $738. The cost for a day parking permit in the California Avenue district would also increase from $8 to $25.
In addition, new permit programs in downtown and California Avenue's adjacent residential neighborhoods — which eliminated the free, all-day parking that workers enjoyed until recently — would also see fee increases.
The additional fees for downtown would be used to support the Transportation Management Association (TMA), a nonprofit aiming to reduce the number of solo drivers commuting to work. It is unclear how additional fees for California Avenue would be allocated.
Currently, some businesses are covering permit costs for their employees; others aren't. Many of the employees who choose not to pay for parking permits themselves instead move their cars every two or three hours in accordance with parking time limits.
Didem Kurt, events coordinator at furniture store West Elm in downtown, commutes from south San Jose and said that she and most of her colleagues, excluding managers, constantly move their cars throughout the day.
Similarly at The Counter, a diner on California Avenue, employees who aren't assigned designated parking spaces have to "run out" during lunch hour, manager Janice Faso said.
"It hurts business," she said.
Some of her employees attempted to buy reduced-price permits for low-income workers to park on neighborhood streets, but only two out of six received them before the city closed applications due to a limited number of permits. She fears that increased fees will also discourage potential employees.
Other employees who cannot afford permits park farther away and arrive earlier at work, said California Avenue Subway employee Dominga Gonzalez. Getting to work 30 minutes early is no good, she said. To ensure a parking space in the section of Stanford Avenue that doesn't require a permit, she must get to work at least 40 minutes early.
Kurt, of West Elm, said that increasing parking-permit fees is ridiculous.
"The retail business employees — I don't think anyone can afford it," she said.
Stephanie Wansek, general manager of Cardinal Hotel in downtown, agreed.
"An employee who makes minimum wage or $15 an hour cannot pay for that," Wansek said. "And the process for an employee to get a reduced (price) permit is very intensive. Employees, especially with language barriers, cannot accomplish that without assistance, and it's too much for a small business owner or manager to take on, all of the employee paperwork and online requirements."
Some small businesses, like the Cardinal Hotel, are covering permit costs for employees who can't afford it. But at $466 a pop — let alone the proposed $730 — Wansek said it's already a "big expense."
ZombieRunner on California Avenue has not had to subsidize employees' parking, but "we might need to now," said Gillian Robinson, co-owner of the outdoor-gear store.
On the plus side, Robinson noted that if permits are more expensive, "maybe fewer people will get them, so it may make it easier to get one."
For many local employees, the aims of the Transportation Management Association — promoting alternative forms of commuting — may be laudable but are just not feasible.
Tarna Rosendahl has worked at Bell's Books in downtown for 10 years and commutes "a 15-mile drive up in the mountains" to and from La Honda, where there is no bus.
"There's no way I can take other transportation here, so I basically have to bring my car," she said. "There are a lot of people who don't have access to public transit who have to come into work."
If she lived closer, she said, she'd be happy to take public transportation, bike or walk. But she doesn't.
Her employer currently pays for her parking permit, but she said there is no guarantee that this will continue if parking-permit fees increase.
If her employer decides that the cost is too much to cover, she would not pay for a permit herself.
"It'd be too much of a percentage of what I make," she said.
The option to carpool or use public transportation is also unavailable to Robyn Del Fierro, director of downtown's Citi Private Bank, because of the nature of her job, which requires out-of-office visits to her clients at various times throughout the day.
"This increase hurts the working population who not only pay the parking permits each year but also support the local businesses with our discretionary dollars," she wrote in an email, describing the proposal as "absolutely outrageous."
Driving a car, said Faso, is not just about commuting. She uses her car to run various errands throughout the day.
If the city increased parking-permit fees by 5 or 10 percent at a time, allowing workers to adjust, maybe they would be more receptive, said Devin Blake, employee of paint store Benjamin Moore on California Avenue. But as the fees are, they just cost too much for workers.
"We get paid a certain amount, and that's to live," Blake said. "Not to park."
Though Del Fierro may be forced to pay the increase, she said she will make a conscious choice to spend her discretionary dollars elsewhere and will encourage her company to do the same.
"For those of us who have the privilege of working in Palo Alto, this announcement definitely does not feel like we are valued by this city but rather penalized without much representation," she said.
Tyler Hanley, administrator at downtown bath-house spa Watercourse Way, hopes the city will push for a solution that benefits both residents and businesses.
"Continuing to raise permit costs for employees could force people to find jobs elsewhere, negatively affect an important and vibrant downtown area and, ultimately, make employees feel unwelcome in downtown Palo Alto," he said in an email.