Palo Alto's recently implemented residential parking programs faced withering criticism Wednesday from the city's Planning and Transportation Commission, which blasted the city's process for implementing the programs just before voting to approve a new one in the Old Palo Alto neighborhood.
After expressing their reservations, the commission voted 4-2, with Chairman Billy Riggs and Commissioner Michael Alcheck dissenting, to approve a one-year pilot program in a section of Old Palo Alto near Bowden Park and the California Avenue underpass. Much like recently established Residential Preferential Parking (RPP) programs in downtown and the Evergreen Park/Mayfield area, the program would allow residents to purchase parking permits and restrict all cars without permits to two hours of parking.
Unlike the two other programs, the Old Palo Alto one would not sell any permits to area employees. Residents, meanwhile, would be able to buy up to five permits per household, with each costing $50 per year.
The parking restrictions would be in effect Monday to Friday, from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.
While planning commissioners in March designated the Old Palo Alto area a priority for the next residential parking program, on Wednesday some chafed at the details. The proposed program, Riggs and Alcheck argued, isn't based on any broader vision for traffic circulation and parking. Both favored having staff come back with additional information, including the program's goals, evaluation criteria for the pilot program and justification for giving each household five permits.
Alcheck said it's critical to understand the city's goals for neighborhood streets before approving new programs.
"Is the purpose of the RPP to make this asset — this parking asset — exclusive to the residential neighborhood? Or is our purpose to make it easier for the residential parcels to enjoy the public parking asset in conjunction with their neighboring businesses' employees?" Alcheck asked.
Riggs agreed and said the commission appears to be making a decision "in a vacuum." He pointed to the requirement in the city's RPP ordinance that the city exhaust all other alternatives to alleviating parking before creating such a district. In this case, the city didn't do that, Riggs said.
He also requested more data about parking occupancy in the proposed district, which is roughly bounded by Washington Avenue, Oregon Avenue, Alma Street and Ramona Street. Staff from the city's Office of Transportation said some of the blocks near the California Avenue underpass, including along High Street and North California Avenue, have parking occupancy rates of 95% and even 100%. Other blocks, however, have occupancy rates closer to 75%, according to surveys that the city conducted in April.
"The data doesn't illustrate in my mind an endemic need to have policy action," Riggs said. "It basically needs a creative and tactical solution for an acute issue for a couple of blocks."
The proposed program almost faced an unexpected defeat, with the commission voting 3-3 on a motion by Commissioner Doria Summa to approve the staff recommendation and establish the program. Alcheck, Riggs and Commissioner Giselle Roohparvar all dissented.
Roohparvar ultimately voted to support the motion, but only after her colleagues agreed to direct staff to revisit the number of parking permits each household would be allowed to buy. She noted that many residents also have garages and parking spots in driveways.
"We're talking seven to nine parking spaces per household. It doesn't make sense," Roohparvar said.
Chief Transportation Official Philip Kamhi said the number of permits per household was set at five to make the Old Palo Alto program consistent with the RPP programs in downtown and the Evergreen Park/Mayfield area. It is also based on feedback from residents, he said.
Alcheck didn't buy this explanation.
"It's not a fair question to ask a resident, 'How much do you want to be impacted by this highly restrictive policy?' The answer is going to be zero. ... What in our Comprehensive Plan suggests that we want the residents of Palo Alto to park five cars on the street?" he asked.
Those who supported moving the program ahead agreed with Alcheck and Riggs that staff should present the council with further details about the programs. They also argued, however, that the residents in the Old Palo Alto area have followed all the rules in the RPP ordinance that the City Council passed in 2014. The law allows residents to petition to form new parking districts.
"There may be no one in the room that thinks our RPP ordinance is perfect," Summa said. "But the public has the right to come forward and request it."
Delaying the approval process would push the implementation date from November to March, according to staff. As such, it would be "punitive" to the residents.
According to the city, the program has broad support in the Old Palo Alto area. Earlier this month, the city had sent out surveys to the 93 households in the area and received 55 back. Of those, 49 said they supported the new program, giving it an 89% approval rate.
Chris Robell, an Old Palo Alto resident who is one of the organizers of the effort to create the new parking district, told the commission that he and his neighbors have been working on the program since 2017 and urged the commission to approve the program without further delay.
He and others spoke about the dearth of parking in the neighborhood, which they say is caused in large part by Caltrain commuters who prefer to park for free on the streets rather than pay for a spot in the Caltrain lot.
"We really need to get parking relief. ... There's (an) extremely strong and consistent desire (in the neighborhood) to get this done," Robell told the commission.
The program now heads to the City Council, which is scheduled to take it up in late September. If approved, the program will launch in early November.