Seeking to reach a truce in downtown's battle over parking spots, the Palo Alto City Council moved on Monday night to reduce the number of parking permits that could be sold to employees and to give city staff the power to release more permits, should circumstances require.
By a 5-3 vote, with Councilman Greg Scharff absent and Mayor Liz Kniss and councilmen Adrian Fine and Greg Tanaka dissenting, the council agreed to stick with its previously stated goal of gradually reducing the number of permits allotted to employees in the downtown Residential Preferential Program. The council's action takes the number of annual permits from 1,500 to 1,000 -- a reduction that the dissenters thought was too severe and potentially harmful to downtown businesses.
To date, the program has been a mixed success. It provided instant relief to downtown neighborhoods such as Downtown North and Professorville, where residents have long complained about seeing their residential streets taken over by commuters during weekdays.
Yet the relief has been uneven. According to planning staff, the zones in the parking district that are closest to downtown's commercial core continue to see high occupancy rates and high demand for employee permits. In Zones 1 and 2 (north of University Avenue) and in Zones 5, 6 and 7 (south of Hamilton Avenue), every available employee permit has been sold. But demand has been lackluster for permits in the more peripheral zones. Zone 4, in Crescent Park, saw 99 out of 136 employee permits sold, while Zone 8, in southernmost Professorville, saw 78 employee permits sold out of the 137 available.
The program has also made life more difficult for downtown employees who work close to the commercial core but who have been unable to buy the permits. Councilwoman Karen Holman said Monday that she has heard from various workers who park near Gamble Garden on Embarcadero Road and then run to their place of employment closer to University Avenue.
"Getting those permits closer to the place of employment is a big deal, (as is) support for low-income employees and local retail and services," Holman said.
At the same time, the council majority agreed that the reduction in employee permits is long overdue. The council had consistently discussed the prospect of reducing worker permits in conjunction with a ramp up of the Palo Alto Transportation Management Association, which is charged with reducing car trips and promoting alternate modes of transportation.
Recent statistics from transportation staff suggest that bringing the number down to 1,000 wouldn't make too dramatic a difference. To date, the city had sold 830 permits out of 1,000 in its inventory (staff also had the option of releasing up to 100 permits that are being kept in "reserve" and that it hasn't had to use).
Some downtown business owners, including a group of dentists, restauranteur Rob Fischer and Watercourse Way owner Susan Nightingale, urged the council on Monday not to create any new parking restrictions for downtown employees.
Fischer, whose restaurants include Reposado and Peninsula Creamery, said the city's restrictive parking policies and clunky permit-purchasing system have made it harder for businesses like his to retain workers.
"We have the most talented tech people here and (yet) we make it difficult for employees to get parking permits," Fischer said. "Instead of reducing employee parking, let's increase it! Let's make this a better place for people to work."
Chris Joy, president of the Mid-Peninsula Dental Society and a dentist with a practice on Homer Avenue, also pleaded with the council to not reduce employee permits.
"Please leave the number of parking permits for sale at 1,500 or 1,400 unless you can guarantee medical, dental, Channing House service personnel, Watercourse Way and all the other folks who serve the residents the ability to purchase annual permits," Joy said.
Kniss, who sympathized with their plight, suggested that the cut in employee permits is too deep. Staff had proposed 1,500 employee permits and the council had "just cut it by a third," she said. Kniss said her recent experiences with having an intern look for parking have convinced her that the current system isn't working all that well.
She proposed a compromise -- bringing the number down to 1,200. Councilman Fine supported her proposal.
But others, including Councilman Tom DuBois and Vice Mayor Eric Filseth, argued that the city needs to stay the course and move ahead with the deeper reduction. Filseth said the city needs to honor its promise to provide parking relief to residents.
"We promised them a roll-down (in employee permits); we promised them a reasonable number," Filseth said. "Yes, we made progress, but we still have impacted streets."
Faced with two different views, Councilman Cory Wolbach proposed a compromise: bringing the number of permits down to 1,000, but give staff a larger reserve of 200 permits to address any unexpected problems that may emerge as a result of the drawdown. The council majority accepted his proposal.
"I'm not eager to have it come back to us in the immediate future," Wolbach said. "I'm much more eager to give staff the opportunity to work with what they see as emerging challenges to achieve what they understand to be our policy objectives."