Palo Alto is again dealing with Residential Preferential Parking Programs (RPPs), energized this time by our new public parking garage near California Avenue. If you live far from any commercial areas, you may not know why these programs exist or the history of their long and difficult gestation. I've been working on parking and traffic issues with city staff for more than a decade, including serving on the Downtown RPP Stakeholder Group, and offer my perspective.
Historically, many of our neighborhoods that are within a mile of commercial enterprises found their streets overrun by all-day commercial employee parking. After decades of effort, the City Council was pushed by residents to provide some relief via RPPs so that visitors, caregivers and tradespeople can park near the residents they serve. We currently have RPPs covering all or parts of College Terrace, Downtown North, Professorville, University South, Old Palo Alto, Crescent Park, Southgate and Evergreen Park/Mayfield.
While these programs have reduced the overcrowding, they have not eliminated the problems (see exception below for College Terrace), and their design fails to put the costs of the programs where they belong: on the dense office businesses that are the source of the problem.
It is alleged by some that RPPs privatize a public resource, i.e., street parking. In fact RPPs do the exact opposite; they stop business employees from all-day monopolization of parking spaces, reducing availability for all others who are blocked from accessing on-street parking.
Ending all-day business parking in all residential neighborhoods is a straightforward goal that contributes to making our streets safer, reducing single-occupancy vehicle (SOV) trips, reaching our CO2 emissions goal and protecting residential quality of life (which is prioritized in our Comprehensive Plan). Our state Legislature is pushing to eliminate single-family zoning and dramatically increase the density of residential neighborhoods, while at the same time reducing the amount of parking required from new construction. On-street parking is going to be the only option for most new residents. Giving that parking away to commercial interests guarantees it won't be there for a growing population. We need to make the commitment, now, that the costs of commercial parking will fall squarely where they belong, on businesses.
Why has our council talked for decades about the problem and not been able to address it? Because the business community employs a paid lobbyist with local government connections, Judy Kleinberg from the Chamber of Commerce, whose sole purpose is to deliver benefits to the business community. For decades, the Chamber's tactics have been delay and denial. While residents have struggled to get RPPs in place, the business community has done nothing to address their parking needs other than lobby our City Council. Even with the new publicly funded garage for California Avenue, the Chamber still lobbies to retain all-day commercial parking in adjacent neighborhoods. It is past time for businesses and landlords to address their parking deficits and bear all the costs.
An effective model exists today in College Terrace where there are no all-day commercial parking permits issued. It is successful and warmly endorsed by residents. Why is it not available to all neighborhoods? Because of intense lobbying by the business community and some disingenuous City Council members. These council members clamor for reduced SOV traffic, reduced CO2 emissions, increased funding for the Transportation Management Association (which provides no meaningful metrics or enforcement) but refuse to reduce the number of all-day commercial permits available in our residential neighborhoods — the simplest and most cost-effective way to reduce the number of cars coming into Palo Alto. One council member lives in College Terrace, where this rule is currently implemented. There is no legal or moral justification for denying this benefit to all other neighborhoods.
For the about-to-open California Avenue garage, some council and Chamber of Commerce members are trying to rewrite history by claiming that the garage was built solely to provide additional parking for businesses. This is a fiction. Residents supported building this garage, funded by public dollars, to provide parking for local-serving retail and to remove all commercial parking from nearby residential neighborhoods. Mayor Adrian Fine acknowledges this at 6:40:40 in the recording of the Nov. 9 council Meeting: RPPs were designed to "Get the employees out of the RPPs and to provide additional parking for visitors and businesses in that district."
It is important to note that residents have consistently supported small business owners by endorsing high-priority and low-cost permits for local-serving businesses and low-wage workers. Council can also demonstrate its support for these groups through three simple actions:
1. Give local-serving businesses priority for purchasing permits in public garages, including a streamlined renewal process.
2. Make reduced cost permits for low-wage workers available in all public garages.
3. Support the city's SOV and CO2 reduction goals by ending the sale of all-day commercial permits in residential neighborhoods.
Finding a lasting solution to this problem is important for the environmental and quality of life benefits it will bring. But in economic terms there is also an important opportunity cost. I want our city officials to be addressing the safety and traffic congestion issues we face. The recent traffic death of a pedestrian in a downtown crosswalk is a tragedy that we cannot afford to ignore. Let's put our resources to work on making our streets, sidewalks and crosswalks safer for pedestrians and bicyclists. Let's reduce traffic and return our public streets in residential neighborhoods to what they were designed for, residential activities.
We all deserve no less.
John Guislin lives in Crescent Park, is actively engaged in efforts to reduce traffic and parking impacts and serves on the Palo Alto Police Department Chief's Advisory Group.