A bridge apart | September 6, 2013 | Palo Alto Weekly | Palo Alto Online |

Palo Alto Weekly

Spectrum - September 6, 2013

A bridge apart

With new overnight parking ban in Crescent Park, East Palo Alto officials express valid frustration with the outcome and process

As the Palo Alto City Council's unanimous vote on Aug. 12 showed, there was little doubt that residents on streets near the Newell Road bridge connecting the Crescent Park neighborhood with East Palo Alto would be successful at obtaining relief from their parking nightmare.

Since the housing market dramatically tightened last year with the region's economic recovery, apartments just across the creek in East Palo Alto are filled up with more residents per unit than ever. And with that intensification of occupancy has come more cars and an overflow onto Edgewood Drive, Hamilton Avenue, Newell Road and other streets just a short walk across the Newell Road bridge.

With so many cars seeking parking, streets within a couple of blocks of the bridge have been routinely parked bumper to bumper overnight, creating disruption, inconvenience and irritation for residents long-accustomed to quiet and largely empty roads.

So just as residents of College Terrace did several years ago to combat Stanford students and staff from taking over available parking in parts of their neighborhood, neighbors near the Newell Road bridge sought help from the city. And the City Council was correct to respond with an ordinance forbidding street parking between 2 and 5 a.m. on selected streets.

That's about all that went right with this process.

Unfortunately, in constructing this one-year "trial" solution the Palo Alto city staff failed miserably in communicating the most basic facts to the council and to citizens of both Palo Alto and East Palo Alto.

The staff's failure to properly research and describe the underlying causes of the parking problem, obtain and disclose facts about the Woodland Apartments parking policies and the City of East Palo Alto's efforts to address the problem created division, distrust and animosity that could and should have been avoided.

It is but the latest example of staff reports, particularly on planning and traffic issues, that fail to paint an accurate picture of the facts and background and provide clear answers to obvious questions. This report focused only on the mechanics of how neighborhood approval was obtained and the details of how the parking ban would be implemented.

There was no mention of the fact that discussions had been underway with East Palo Alto city officials about the situation, that East Palo Alto had approved two parking lots to serve apartment tenants that will open in December, and that the Palo Alto staff had made no contact with the owners of the apartments, Equity Residential, nor had any hard data on Equity's parking policies, fees or allocations of spaces.

It is no wonder that East Palo Alto Mayor Ruben Abrica, known for being soft-spoken and level-headed, felt compelled to air his frustration with the Palo Alto staff's presentation through a letter to Palo Alto Mayor Greg Scharff.

"It was very unfortunate that the staff report made no reference and did not elaborate on the fact that East Palo Alto staff has been working closely with your staff on this issue," Abrica wrote.

Abrica and his colleagues have every reason to be disappointed with Palo Alto's handling of this issue, as should Palo Alto City Council members and the community.

It took prodding questions from several council members at the Aug. 12 meeting to draw out important background information that was completely missing from the staff report. And the lack of good information led to speculation and false statements by the public that went uncorrected and created a false impression about the actions of the City of East Palo Alto.

For example, it was widely stated that the City of East Palo Alto had worsened the problem by prohibiting parking along Woodland Avenue, while parking has always been prohibited, according to Abrica.

Residents of East Palo Alto and Palo Alto have been equally impacted by the parking issues and both deserve relief. The apartment dwellers are just as victimized, if not more so, by the lack of adequate parking.

The fact there is a city boundary separating the two neighborhoods gives Palo Alto the ability to act unilaterally, and by doing so create pressure on the real culprit, Equity Residential, to provide adequate parking for its tenants. But in exercising that power, we failed miserably to recognize the sensitivity of the issue and the importance of good staff research and clear communication.

It was the perfect opportunity for the city's new communications officer, Claudia Keith, to show her value and work with the planning staff to ensure the Council and residents of both cities received good information and kept the focus on the facts and not speculation.

Like other recent issues, including the Maybell senior housing and 27 University Avenue proposals, the staff showed a stunning lack of awareness of community concern and of the importance of presenting all facts and all sides impartially.

The council made the right decision in implementing the overnight parking ban, but getting there was inexcusably ugly.


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