Fed up with Caltrain commuters and California Avenue employees who use their streets for free, all-day parking, residents in a section of Old Palo Alto have launched an effort to establish a Residential Preferential Parking program in their neighborhood.
The effort gained some traction on March 27, when the city's Planning and Transportation Commission evaluated three different proposals it had received from various parts of Palo Alto for new residential parking programs and designated the Old Palo Alto proposal as a top priority. Even so, the program could face significant delays due to a staffing shortage in the city's recently created Office of Transportation, which is hindering the City Council's ability to launch new initiatives.
If approved, the new parking-permit district would be located across the Caltrain tracks from the California Avenue business district, an area bounded by Washington Avenue to the north and Oregon Avenue to the south, between the train tracks and Ramona Street. Chris Robell, who is one of the leaders the organizing effort, told the planning commission that the parking situation in the neighborhood has gotten so dire that there are virtually no spaces left on the streets for residents.
Many Caltrain commuters have apparently realized they can park their cars in the residential neighborhood for free rather than paying $5.50 to park the Caltrain lots, Robell said.
"The cost savings and convenience afforded to Caltrain commuters, coupled with the lack of ability to park in Evergreen-Mayfield residential streets (which now have two-hour parking restrictions for cars without permits) means we have become the de facto Caltrain parking lot," Robell told the commission.
Many neighbors appear to share his frustrations. Kurk Buecheler, an Emerson Street resident, told the commission that Caltrain parkers have become "a pain, to put it bluntly."
"It's also simply transferring maximum convenience and minimum cost for the Caltrain person to other people," Buecheler said. "But we're the ones who have to bear that inconvenience for our own selves.
Robell said 44 residents signed the petition for an RPP district that was submitted to the city last August. Since then, 13 more people have signed in support. Another six people indicated they are not interested in an RPP district and 24 could not be reached, Robell added.
The commission also indicated that it supports creating a new RPP program in Old Palo Alto, voting 5-0, with Asher Waldfogel and Giselle Roohparvar recused, to prioritize it over two other proposed RPPs (one was for a portion of the Green Acres neighborhood, near Gunn High School; the other for the 800 block of San Antonio Road, down the street from the Oshman Family Jewish Community Center in the Charleston Gardens neighborhood). The council is expected to follow suit and likewise approve the creation of the new program, much as it did after similar petition drives in downtown and the Evergreen Park-Mayfield area on the other side of the tracks from the proposed Old Palo Alto district.
Commissioners Ed Lauing and Doria Summa both said at the hearing that Old Palo Alto's proposal merits support. Lauing called the parking situation a protracted and "serious problem, justifying the study to do the RPP."
While the commission's endorsement makes it likely that Old Palo Alto will eventually get its parking-permit program, timing remains a major wild card. A report from Planning Director Jonathan Lait notes that the demands for parking services "have continued to grow and now far exceed the staff resources available for these services."
"The expansion of Residential Permit Parking districts adds to this demand," Lait wrote. "In addition, the complexity of developing and operating customized and unique Residential Permit Parking districts places a significant strain on city resources, including city staff and its contractors."
The Old Palo Alto petition is just the latest instance of residents seeking relief from commuter parking. Wayne Tanda, the city's transportation consultant, said almost 30 percent of the city is now covered with RPPs, some of which have a really high "degree of difficulty" because of the need to balance competing interests. The outreach component alone takes significant staff work, he said, and the city really doesn't have the staffing in place to make that happen for new programs.
It also doesn't help that each RPP program is tailored to the particular district, which makes the process of setting up a new program particularly labor intensive.
"As practiced in Palo Alto since 2009, there is no uniform RPP program," said Sylvia Star-Lackey, the city's transportation planning manager. "Each of the five RPP zones is unique and that adds an administrative burden for staff."
Robell said he and his neighbors are conscious of the fact that setting up an RPP takes significant resources and are happy to defer to staff's best judgment about the most expedient way to solve the neighborhood's parking problems. This could mean simply annexing the neighborhood to the existing program at Evergreen Park and Mayfield, he said.
"We just want relief as soon as possible. ... We just don't want it to be a commercial parking lot like it is now," Robell said.
The commission was largely sympathetic. Lauing suggested that staff explore "efficient, creative ways" to solve the problem without the need to create a full-fledged RPP program. He also, however, recognized that City Hall's staffing shortage remains a formidable barrier to creating the new program.
"I think the biggest problem in the city of Palo Alto is lack of staff in the city of Palo Alto," Lauing said.
Under the best-case scenario, staff estimates that the program could be implemented in November. That, however, will likely require the council to budget for more staffing in the Office of Transportation, which today has one employee devoted to parking programs and which continues to operate without a director.
Despite the prospect of delay, Robell expressed some optimism this week after speaking to City Manager Ed Shikada and after reaching out to members of the City Council, who he said supported the Old Palo Alto proposal.
Robell asked the City Council on Monday to ensure the city stays on track with the Nov. 1 implementation date.
"It does create safety issues for our neighborhood, as well as quality-of-life issues," Robell said.