With Palo Alto's new six-story garage near California Avenue preparing to open later this month, city officials, residents and businesses remain at odds over a key question: Who exactly will be allowed to park there?
The question came up repeatedly during the City Council's discussion that stretched from Monday night into early Tuesday morning and that concluded without clear resolution. Council members were prepared to consider a staff proposal that would have dramatically slashed the number of employee permits in the two neighborhoods around California Avenue, forcing workers who currently park on residential streets to use the garage. Instead, a confused and exhausted council found itself facing conflicting accounts about the garage from business leaders and area residents before voting to defer its decision to a later date.
Among the points of contention: Should office workers be allowed to park in the garage, even those whose companies should be encouraging them to take public transportation? Should the garage designate some spots for low-income retail and restaurant workers, who need to come and go during the day? Will there be enough space in the garage for businesses' customers, as the district's retailers said they were led to believe? Can residents in adjacent neighborhoods get employees' cars off of their streets for good, now that the garage is opening?
The stalled debate means that the city still has no plan in place for how to fill the 636-space garage, which is nearing completion at 350 Sherman Ave. Because the garage occupies a former parking lot, the net gain in parking spaces for the California Avenue business district is about 300 spaces.
Under a proposal presented by Office of Transportation, most of these spaces would be filled by area employees, many of whom currently participate in the Residential Preferential Parking program and park on residential streets. Transportation staff is planning to slash the number of employee permits from the current level of 250 to about 130 in the next round of sales, which is scheduled for March (the city sells an additional 40 permits to employees who park on El Camino Real) and redirect the employees away from the neighborhood and toward the new garage.
The number would then be further reduced, potentially to zero, in the following year, creating a system in which only residents are allowed to park all day in the neighborhoods.
Chief Transportation Official Philip Kamhi said the new garage would also include room for the roughly 228 employees who are currently on the waitlist to acquire permits for California Avenue garages and parking lots. His plan would designate the two upper levels of the garage for employees on weekday mornings but then allow visitors to park there after 11 a.m.
"Staff considers the transition of 120 RPP employee permits as a first step in a phased approach to reducing employee permits in the RPP district," Kamhi told the council Monday.
The plan, however, has left both residents and business owners unsatisfied. Some residents believe the city should move faster and eliminate all employee permits as soon as the new garage is open, following the model established in the College Terrace neighborhood, where the residential parking program is limited to residents.
Business leaders counter that filling the new garage with employees who currently park in neighborhoods means that there would be fewer spaces available for visitors and customers. Judy Kleinberg, president of the Palo Alto Chamber of Commerce, suggested that this proposal runs counter to the city's original goal, which was supported by the business community, of making it easier for people to dine and shop on California Avenue.
"This proposal would move all 290 employee street parking permits to the new garage by 2022, but it was always presented to California Avenue businesses that that garage would add an additional 300 parking spaces to address parking problems for their customers, that the new garage would add to parking that would benefit local businesses — not eliminate street parking," Kleinberg said. "This was going to be additive and supplemental."
Michael Ekwall, co-owner of the restaurant La Bodeguita del Medio, called the plan "a sneak attack" and chided city staff for failing to reach out to area businesses before finalizing the details. He told the council that there was "zero outreach" and "zero transparency" to the business community.
"This proposal basically erases any benefits that the new garage creates by accommodating all the waitlist for permit parking and the RPP permits," Ekwall said.
Residents countered that the city should move faster with moving employees — specifically, the higher-wage office workers — out of their neighborhoods. They also criticized the staff proposal for failing to include low-income service employees in their plans for new garage. Under the proposal, the city would still offer a limited number of discounted permits for workers who meet the income thresholds. These employees would continue to park on neighborhood streets, however, and not in the new parking structure, under the staff plan.
"It is amazing that low-wage retail workers who come and go throughout the day and often cannot take public transportation are not given any spaces in the new garage and employee permits are not being moved out of the neighborhood, despite the large increase in parking available within the business core," Evergreen Park resident Carol Scott told the council. "Instead, the recommendation de facto give almost the entire garage over to commercial office workers — the very ones who should be parking in their own parking lots or commuting by public transportation in this 'transportation rich' area."
Scott also joined residents Wolfgang Dueregger, John Guislin, Paul Machado and Neilson Buchanan in penning a letter urging rejection of the staff proposal.
"Residents did not support the construction of the garage at taxpayer expense in order to provide additional parking to commercial office workers, many of whom work in under-parked office buildings that should have TDM agreements that promised to eliminate the need for workers to use public parking in the California Ave Business District (CABD) or residential areas," the letter states.
Part of the conflict stems from the fact that conditions on California Avenue and in its surrounding neighborhoods have changed dramatically since 2014, when the council voted to place the California Avenue garage on its infrastructure plan. At that time, the Evergreen Park and Mayfield neighborhoods did not have a Residential Parking Permit program and residents were up in arms about the high number of employees parking on their streets all day during weekdays.
That changed in 2017, when the council approved the residential program, which provided instant relief for neighbors around California Avenue. While some blocks, particularly those closest to California Avenue's commercial core, continued to see high parking rates, others became largely empty as a result of the new program. The city later refined the parking zones throughout Evergreen Park and Mayfield to better disperse employee parking in these neighborhoods.
While these moves have alleviated many anxieties over parking, they have not completely quashed the decadeslong tug-of-war over spots between businesses and residents. Some council members struggled to reconcile the conflicting accounts from residents and businesses about why the garage was built in the first place. Council member Alison Cormack posed the question in blunt terms on Monday night.
"I'm not clear we know the problem we're trying to solve," Cormack said.
Both she and Kniss recalled that when the council was moving ahead with plans for the new garage, a major reason was the severe shortage of parking on the commercial strip, particularly during lunch hours.
"This was more about lunch than anything else," Kniss said. "Because it was so difficult to park in the California Avenue area that people would say, 'I've been driving for half an hour and couldn't find any place to leave the car so I can meet you for lunch.'"
While Council member Eric Filseth generally supported the staff approach, Vice Mayor Tom DuBois sided with the residents and suggested eliminating all the employee permits from the residential parking program.
"I'm not sure what a better time is to try to move those cars out of the neighborhoods," DuBois said. "It seems with decreased parking during the pandemic, we can move it all out."
Most of his colleagues didn't feel comfortable making any decision on the divisive topic. With the discussion creeping past midnight, Council member Greg Tanaka suggested postponing the decision to a later date and, in the meantime, conducting more outreach. The council unanimously approved his recommendation.
"It seems like some people are blindsided," Tanaka said. "It seems like there's more conversations that should have happened."