Downtown Palo Alto's move toward parking meters hit an unexpected turn Wednesday night when the city's Planning and Transportation Commission voted against implementation.
By a unanimous vote, the commission rejected all four options that were presented by transportation staff for overhauling downtown's parking system. Citing uncertainty about the impacts of parking meters on downtown retail, the commission recommended that the council hold off on approving any plans, pending more outreach to area businesses.
The commission's vote is unlikely to stop the city's shift toward downtown paid parking, a model that the City Council, City Manager James Keene and top transportation staff talk about with an air of inevitability. Earlier this year, the council received and discussed a downtown-parking study that recommended installing parking meters in and around University Avenue and pay stations on more peripheral blocks in downtown's commercial core.
When the council voted in April to approve the study, Councilman Adrian Fine called paid parking "a centerpiece to hold all the other pieces" in the city's wide-ranging effort to alleviate the area's parking woes. In 2015, the council launched the Residential Preferential Program to limit employee parking on residential streets and created a new nonprofit, Palo Alto Transportation Management Association, to reduce downtown's solo-driver rate. Meanwhile, plans for a new downtown garage are moving ahead, with the Architectural Review Board set to review the design of the four-story facility on Oct. 19.
But the Planning and Transportation Commission wasn't convinced on Wednesday that the paid-parking proposals presented by staff and consultants are the right way to go. Though most members supported the idea of moving to some kind of paid-parking model, they agreed that the city needs to first get a better idea of what parking meters would do to downtown's retail.
Transportation planners are also banking on revenue from parking meters to help implement other parking-related improvements, including garage technology that identifies empty spots with LED lights and new "wayfinding" signs to guide drivers toward lots and garages.
A report from the city's parking consultant, Dixon Resources Unlimited, recommends that the city implement paid-parking solutions both on downtown's streets and on surface lots. Patrick Smith, a consultant with Dixon, noted Wednesday that parking demand in Palo Alto is significantly high, far above any other community that the company has worked with.
"We know that available parking and parking supply in Palo Alto is scarce and I can't foresee it improving drastically in the near future unless there is a significant shift in parking behavior," Smith said.
The commission, for its part, was less sure. Some commissioners, including Eric Rosenblum and Przemek Gardias, said they favor a "dynamic" paid-parking model, which allows the city to adjust prices based on demand. But Gardias suggested that staff do more analysis about the costs and financial benefits of installing the meters and Rosenblum was one of several commissioners who urged more outreach to the retailers. A survey by staff showed 76 percent of downtown business owners and managers responded negatively to the idea of paid parking, said Transportation Program Manager Philip Kamhi. But 45 percent then responded positively when asked about dynamic paid parking "if it provided parking on your block for customers and parking in garages/lots for employees."
But because the survey included just 33 business owners and managers, the commission agreed that more outreach is badly needed. Faith Bell, owner of the downtown book store Bell's Books, told the commission that she has spoken to nine business owners on her block and all of them are opposed to paid parking, which she said can be the "death knell" for some of them.
"We are not welcoming this in the business community, so don't fool yourself that we are," Bell said. "I had a number of customers say, 'Isn't it hard enough to park here without another hurdle?'"
Resident Jeff Levinsky also criticized the staff proposal, which he argued could drive customers away to other cities. Some residents, he said, "are outraged that city will charge them to stop at an ATM or for a cup of coffee."
He proposed a different way to discourage downtown commuters from moving their cars every two hours to avoid the area's parking restrictions: only allowing people to park in two color zones per day and ticketing them if their car is parked in a third zone.
The commission was presented with four different scenarios for paid parking. The first would limit paid parking only to parking lots and garages. Existing color zones would no longer apply there, though they would remain in effect on downtown streets.
The second option calls for installing meters or pay stations for both on- and off-street parking and allow customers to get the first hour of parking free. The third option also includes meters and pay stations for on- and off-street parking; though under this alternative, there are no time limits and the charges escalate the longer the car remains parked.
The fourth option -- which staff and Dixon had recommended -- calls for a dynamic paid parking program to replace the color-zone system, with prices designed to direct long-term parkers to lots and garages and short-term parkers to on-street spaces. The model would split downtown into three tiers, with parking fees ranging from $1.50 to $2.50 per hour (the more central areas would be more expensive).
Several commissioners leaned toward the first model, which limits the paid-parking area and allows for a more gradual rollout. Commissioner Asher Waldfogel said he could support this idea because it would allow the city to learn more about elasticity of parking demand. Commissioner Ed Lauing also favored a cautious approach and wondered if the paid-parking experiment could be limited to a few facilities.
Commissioners also said they were worried about the prospect of paid parking driving commuters into the neighborhoods, where parking remains free for two hours. Commissioner Doria Summa suggested that paid parking may turn the Residential Preferential Parking area into the next place for "zone hopping."
She called all four proposals "flawed" and said she cannot support any of them.