Crescent Park residents seeking a cure for their parking pains received a Band-Aid on Monday night, when Palo Alto officials banned overnight parking at a particularly congested section of the neighborhood.
The ban, which the City Council passed unanimously, aims to address a recent intrusion into the residential neighborhood from East Palo Alto, where residents dealing with their own parking shortages routinely cross the Newell Street bridge and park across the border. The problem has gotten so bad that many Crescent Park residents have rallied behind a ban that would keep them from parking on their own streets unless they buy a permit.
For many, that was a worthy price to pay to relief. Things have become particularly dire over the past two years, as Equity Residential took over the apartment complexes formerly owned by Page Mill Properties and begun renovating the aged buildings. As a result, occupancy has increased from around 70 percent to the mid-90s, according to Marty McKenna, spokesman from Equity.
With increased occupancy, Palo Alto residents on Edgewood Drive and nearby streets have seen their blocks fill up at night. In many cases, owners have been blocking driveways and leaving trash behind, residents told the council Monday.
Some said crime has been on the rise. Dan Hansen, a resident of Edgewood Drive, said his car had been broken into. Frank Branson, who also lives on Edgewood, said his home was burglarized in July of 2012 and his family no longer feels safe. Burglars, he said, methodically went through the house room by room, ransacking the place.
"Our home was damaged. Personal property was stolen," Branson said. "We felt violated and it was an emotionally traumatic experience to go through."
Palo Alto planning officials on Monday attributed the parking problem to a large extent on Equity's inability to provide its tenants with adequate parking. Each unit at Equity's properties gets one spot. While acting Planning Director Aaron Aknin said Monday that the company had been charging residents for additional parking spots, McKenna said this is not the case. The number of parking spaces is very limited, he said, but that's not because of any changes that Equity had made to the parking policy at its properties, he said.
"We haven't changed anything that's going on," McKenna told the Weekly. "Everything is the same."
He said Equity is trying to deal with the growing parking problem by opening two new lots to accommodate the parking demand. The two lots would make 88 new spots available, though the company plans to charge residents who wish to use them.
Under Palo Alto's new restriction, parking on selected blocks will be banned between 2 and 5 a.m. The impacted segments include Edgewood Drive, between Southwood and Jefferson drives; Hamilton Avenue, between Island Drive and Madison Way; small segments of Dana Avenue north and south of Newell; and Newell, between Dana and Edgewood. Residents who wish to park on these streets at night would be able to buy $5 permits.
The solution, many agreed, falls far short of what most residents have been clamoring for since late 2011: a residential permit parking program of the sort that exists in College Terrace. A permit program would limit the time nonresidents can park in this section of Crescent Park. The city has decided not to pursue this solution at Crescent Park at this time because officials are now in the midst of designing a permit-program prototype that any neighborhood can later adopt.
The overnight ban is a temporary measure and, from most perspectives, an imperfect one. But Jane Kershner, an Edgewood Drive resident, spoke for many when she said the streets need immediate help.
"We're looking for some relief now," Kershner said. "We're looking for some help, some support from you to help send the message to the property owners and the city of East Palo Alto."
The council proved sympathetic to the residents' requests and swiftly approved a staff recommendation to adopt the ban, which only applies to the blocks where at least 70 percent of the residents support the new restriction. According to the city's survey, support on Edgewood was nearly unanimous, though it dipped to 70s and 80s on segments of Edgewood and Hamilton that are further away from Newell Road. Around Dana, it dipped to 30 percent north of Newell and 54 percent south of Newell.
In its discussion, the council characterized the solution as imperfect but necessary. Councilman Larry Klein praised the neighbors for their patience and concluded that it's time to act.
"I think we do need to take some steps that really make clear that this is not an acceptable solution for Palo Alto," Klein said. "This isn't only the way to help our residents but to send a message to the owner of apartment buildings and the municipal government of East Palo Alto that we really have to move forward on this. We have to change the status quo."
Councilman Marc Berman, who conducted his own field research in this neighborhood earlier this year, said he counted 63 cars during a midnight venture in January. He described a situation in which some blocks have very little parking while others are completely congested.
"There was very light residential parking, very light parking and then bumper to bumper," Berman said. "There definitely is a problem here. It definitely is something that I think is tied to the apartment problem in East Palo Alto."
He praised the residents for collaborating with the city and pledged to do a better job reaching out to his counterparts on the East Palo Alto council to come up with a more stable solution.
Yet Klein and Councilwoman Liz Kniss also predicted that with the ban, there is a risk that the parking problems will simply move further into the neighborhood. Kniss predicted that many people will be willing to walk the longer distances for free parking.
"I wouldn't be surprised if we're back in a month with people saying, 'We want to be part of this,'" Kniss said.
Council members also acknowledged that their options are somewhat limited because the problem they are dealing with are rooted in a different jurisdiction and stem from policies formed by the apartment owner, Equity Residential, which is headquartered in Chicago. Equity bought the roughly 1,800 units from Wells Fargo in 2011, roughly two years after Page Mill Properties defaulted on its $50 million loan from the bank and lost control of its vast portfolio in the Woodland Park neighborhood.
Vice Mayor Nancy Shepherd predicted that this will not be the "end of Equity Residential" for Palo Alto and proposed that the city do a "firm reach-out" to the apartment giant so that "we can stay connected while they pursue their investment in the community." Glenn Campbell, an East Palo Alto resident and an Equity tenant, encouraged this dialogue even as he opposed the ban, which he said would only serve to punish hard-working people on the other side of the bridge.
"Most of my neighbors -- most of whom look nothing like any of us (here) -- are good hard-working, blue-collar people, trying hard to raise families in an environment that we created that requires dual incomes just to keep above the water," Campbell said. "They don't have a place to put both of those cars. They are not people who should be bearing the brunt of this. We should be dealing directly with the Equity apartment owners."