When Palo Alto's new parking garage near California Avenue opens to the public next month, it will stand out as both one of the largest structures in the city's "second downtown" and as a visible symbol for the city's changing approach to managing parking spots.
For area employees, the new direction will mean paying substantially more for permits to park in public lots and garages and, eventually, losing the right to park on neighborhood streets for more than two hours altogether.
For residents in the adjacent Evergreen Park and Mayfield neighborhoods, it will create a new requirement that they purchase residential permits to park near their homes — permits that have been free since the Residential Preferential Parking (RPP) program made its debut in early 2017.
The policy changes, which the City Council plans to discuss on Nov. 9, call for reducing the number of Residential Preferential Parking permits that the city sells to employees in the California Avenue area by 120 in March, when the new sales cycle begins. A new report from the Office of Transportation indicates that the move will be part of a multiyear process to eliminate all employee permits and create a system in which only residents are allowed to park on neighborhood streets for more than two hours.
The new report notes that staff is commencing a "phased process to eventually eliminate all remaining employee permits" in the Evergreen Park and Mayfield neighborhoods and that it plans to recommend additional reductions in March 2022.
Once the process is completed, the California Avenue area will shift away from the downtown model, where employees and residents can each get permits to park on the streets — to the College Terrace model, where only residents can get permits and everyone else is subject to two-hour time limits.
The new plan represents the most significant change to the Evergreen Park-Mayfield permit program since the council adopted it in response to years of complaints from residents about the high number of employees parking on their streets. Since then, the council has made numerous modifications to the program, implementing and then refining a zone system with a specified number of worker permits in each zone in an attempt to spread the impact throughout the RPP area.
The new six-story garage at 350 Sherman Ave. offers the city an opportunity for even more drastic change. The $37 million structure will bring 636 spaces to a neighborhood that historically has been hampered by parking shortages and long waiting lists of employees seeking permits to park in existing garages. According to transportation staff, the waiting list now includes about 228 employees.
While the COVID-19 pandemic has effectively eliminated this problem, with many employees now working from home and the city not enforcing parking restrictions in the commercial zone, the new report indicates that the city remains on course with its plan to direct more employees away from neighborhoods and into off-street parking facilities, including the new garage.
Under a city proposal, the two upper levels in the new garage will be designated for employees on the weekdays until 11 a.m., after which time visitors would also be allowed to park there. The approach, according to staff, provides space for the 120 employees who would no longer be allowed to park in the Evergreen Park and Mayfield neighborhoods and for those on the waiting list for garage permits.
The Sherman Avenue garage will have sensors on the upper levels to monitor all entries and exits. If a car does not have a valid permit, the system can automatically send an alert to enforcement personnel, according to the report.
The proposed change to the Evergreen Park-Mayfield program is part of Palo Alto's broader shift to make it more difficult for employees to park on residential streets. Last year, the council responded to concerns about parking shortages in a section of the Old Palo Alto neighborhood near California Avenue by adopting a new RPP program area that does not include employee permits. While the Old Palo Alto program was introduced on a "pilot" basis for 12 months, the City Council voted on Oct. 5 to make it permanent. In doing so, the council overruled a recommendation from staff to extend the pilot program for another year in order to gather accurate data about vehicle occupancy.
Chief Transportation Official Philip Kamhi told the council that the pandemic has made it impossible for staff to evaluate the results from the program, which the city stopped enforcing in March.
"Initial community input has been primarily positive, but COVID-19 has prevented staff from conducting promised evaluations as has been done for previous RPP programs," Kamhi said.
Neighborhood residents overwhelmingly supported making the program permanent without any further extensions of the trial.
"Residents are happy with it," Chris Robell, who lives in the area and who helped establish the program, told the council. "They are glad to have protection from not being a commercial parking lot. We ask you to please approve it and be done with it."
While three council members — Mayor Adrian Fine, Alison Cormack and Liz Kniss — had initially supported extending the pilot program, the other four members favored making it permanent without the additional evaluation. Councilwoman Lydia Kou said doing so would give "peace of mind" to the residents who have gone through the process of implementing the program.
"I don't think they should be living with that thought, wondering as they come closer to the end of that year in October … if it's going to be made an ongoing program or if it's going be phased out."
The council ultimately voted 6-1, with Fine dissenting, to make the program permanent.