Proposed parking program a tough sell downtown | January 3, 2014 | Palo Alto Weekly | Palo Alto Online |

Palo Alto Weekly

News - January 3, 2014

Proposed parking program a tough sell downtown

Residents, businesses concerned about Palo Alto's citywide permit program

by Gennady Sheyner

Palo Alto's residents and business owners rarely see eye to eye when it comes to downtown parking, but the city's latest attempt to free up spaces for residents in their neighborhoods has achieved the seemingly impossible — bringing the two camps together in vehement opposition.

In the early weeks of the new year, the city plans to unveil its proposed framework for a new "residential parking permit program" that would set parking restrictions on participating residential blocks. If the program goes into effect, the only cars allowed to park on these blocks without time limits would be those belonging to residents who chose to buy permits — or possibly a few non-residents with permits.

While the program has yet to be fleshed out, it is already facing fierce resistance from both neighborhood leaders, who say it is too complex, and from commercial property owners, who call it overly invasive and a "huge waste of money."

Property owners say they are concerned about where employees would park once the program starts. Downtown residents characterize the staff proposal as overly complicated and "doomed to fail," according to a memo.

Years in the making, the residential permit-parking program (RPP) is widely viewed as the most dramatic component of the city's multi-pronged response to parking shortages in downtown and around California Avenue, a problem that was exacerbated over the past few years by accelerating commercial growth in the two business districts.

In 2013, the City Council designated as its first of three priorities the "future of downtown and California Avenue," with parking atop the agenda. Over the past year, the council explored a wide array of initiatives, including new garages, valet parking at existing garages, and a robust "transportation demand management" program that would encourage downtown employees to ditch their cars in favor of bikes, trains, buses and other modes of transportation. The latest staff report on the subject describes community concerns about parking and traffic congestion as having "reached critical levels."

The problem will remain the council's top priority in 2014. The council was scheduled to discuss the proposed framework for the parking-permit program on Dec. 16, but with the meeting running late, members agreed to take it up at a later date, most likely early in 2014.

The framework outlined in the December staff report wouldn't automatically pertain to any specific neighborhood. Rather, it would allow neighborhoods to enroll if they suffer from parking congestion, provided they can get at least 70 percent of the residents to agree. Only blocks with a parking-occupancy rate of 75 percent or more (as verified by an independent consultant) would be eligible.

Interested neighborhoods would have to submit an initial petition demonstrating support from 50 percent of the residents. The city would then conduct "occupancy surveys" to confirm the reported parking problem. Planners would then send all residents postcard surveys to gauge neighborhood support. At least 70 percent of the returned surveys would have to indicate support before the program is considered further, according to the report.

Public hearings would follow in front of the Planning and Transportation Commission and, ultimately, the council. Only then would the program be adopted on a trial basis. This would be followed by more data collection, further surveys and a decision by the council on whether the permit-parking district should be permanently established.

Staff is still wrestling with several big questions, including the number of permits that should be issued to residents and non-residents; permit costs; and the method of rolling out the program.

As part of the backlash against the proposed program, a coalition of more than two dozen downtown businesses have mounted the website, on which they call the proposed parking permit "massive, pervasive, and expensive" and warn visitors that a parking permit program "may be coming to your neighborhood soon even if you don't live near the Downtown." (It doesn't mention the rigid qualification requirements.)

"Do Palo Alto citizens really want to pay for Parking Officers to patrol streets in every residential neighborhood that's near a business district?" the businesses ask.

Instead of instituting a permit program, the businesses propose the city designate certain spaces on problematic residential blocks for residents only. They are also urging the city to mark the parking spaces on residential streets so that fewer cars can park on each street, alleviating the problem of overcrowding. Residents and local employees could continue to park on the blocks without buying permits, the businesses argue.

The downtown businesses that support the marked-spaces proposal include Whole Foods Market, Watercourse Way, Palo Alto Creamery and Gordon Biersch.

A group of neighborhood leaders from Downtown North, Professorville and Crescent Park are voicing their objections as well. Though they argue that the city should pursue a city-wide parking-permit ordinance and adopt it by March 31, the new law should come up with "objective metrics for quality of life in a neighborhood" and design a program around these goals, the residents wrote in a statement.

"A permit program for any residential neighborhood must be based on quality standards such as degree of commuter intrusion, traffic, safety, etc.," the statement reads. "A residential is not a commuter parking lot with homes."

The residents argue that the program designed by staff has "too many unreasonably hurdles and thresholds." The program, they say, should be designed on a block-by-block basis, rather than by neighborhood, and the opt-in threshold should be 50 percent plus one.

Though they are coming at the parking issue from the opposite side, the residents are just as clear as the businesses about their stance on the permit program currently on the table.

"Leaders from three neighborhoods are completely unified in opposition and are prepared to speak out aggressively within the University Avenue neighborhoods and take the issues to four California Avenue residential neighborhoods and beyond," they wrote in the statement.

The proposed permit-parking framework isn't the city's first stab at such a program for downtown. In June 2012, planners unveiled a similar program limited to a section of Professorville. The council ultimately rejected this proposal, with council members and numerous residents arguing that this solution would only push the problem to other sections of downtown. At that time, the council directed staff to consider more comprehensive solutions.

Staff Writer Gennady Sheyner can be emailed at