Palo Alto Weekly

Spectrum - January 25, 2013

On Deadline: 'Overflow parking' emerging as a battle over cumulative impacts

by Jay Thorwaldson

In what Palo Alto resident and former community planner Ken Alsman terms "amazing," cumulative building plans for the downtown Palo Alto commercial area will add nearly 700 more "overflow" parkers to already saturated neighborhoods both north and south of University Avenue.

Alsman found 20 new projects and based his parking-need estimates on city staff reports. Alsman, who lives in the South of Forest Avenue (SOFA) neighborhood, went into the antiques business after serving 28 years as a professional planner in Mountain View, working on significant projects and even serving as planning director there.

He and some residents from north of University (including Neilson Buchanan, a former top administrator at El Camino Hospital) have completed a detailed new report and map of the sprawling area between Alma Street and Middlefield Road, extending from the San Francisquito Creek to Embarcadero Road.

City staff members have the report and map but haven't had time to prepare an analysis or response, yet.

Historically, toting up cumulative impacts is not something city planners have done extensively, or well, in my journalistic experience over several decades. They often are simply overwhelmed by the flow, sometimes a flood, of specific proposals with which they must by law deal.

But in this case the residents are doing their own analysis of cumulative-impact, perhaps heralding a renewed trend of "do-it-yourself" planning, as has been done for years on traffic matters. (Ted Noguchi, a long-ago city traffic engineer, once quipped that there were 60,000 traffic engineers in Palo Alto — the city population at the time.)

The residents have done a block-by-block count of how many overflow cars park on their neighborhood streets on a daily basis.

Their conclusion — summarized in an email to the City Council and Planning and Transportation Commission — is that between 85 and 100 percent of curbside parking spaces in the neighborhoods is taken by folks parking there all day and walking the six, eight or 10 blocks to work in downtown.

And it will get worse, they predict.

The added demand for parking "basically fills the entire remaining capacity of the residential neighborhoods north and south of University Avenue," Alsman said in a summary email to city officials.

"We assume that eventually the unmet commercial employee parking need will begin to seriously overflow across Middlefield Road into the Crescent Park and Community Center neighborhoods." That prediction should awaken some of the neighborhood-alert online listservs in neighborhoods east of Middlefield Road.

The residents call their project the "Pipeline Study 695." Pipeline in this case refers to the projects "in the pipeline" for city approval, not to the state of city or PG&E natural-gas pipelines, which also have explosive potential.

The "695" is the estimated number of additional parking spaces expected from a surge of proposed new projects downtown.

And that number isn't even the full count.

It doesn't include the huge four-building proposal at the west end of University Avenue, adjacent to the train and bus station, by developer John Arrillaga.

Nor does it include added employees in existing buildings.

"Our conservative estimate assumes normal occupancy (not more intensive use — more employees per square foot — is likely in some of the buildings)," Alsman continues.

"It does not include the additional 100,000 square feet likely to be approved to reach the 'CAP' of 350,000 square feet [for the downtown area], it does not include further intensification of existing space, it does not include future development outside of the downtown, and it does not include 27 University Avenue impacts.

"Amazing isn't it. But downtown development interests love the direct and significant subsidy these neighborhoods provide through the loss of each neighborhood's character, livability, safety and value. And, we are sure the employees must love the daily 6-, 8- and 10-block walks along our 'tree-lined' streets to their places of employment."

The intensity of neighborhood feeling begins to show through in that statement.

The "overflow parking" issue has spread to other areas of town, and now even has involved spillover parking from the Triangle area of East Palo Alto near the Newell Road bridge, where parking enforcement along Woodland Avenue and some fees by apartment developments have caused up to 50 residents to spill onto Palo Alto streets. (See blog, "That curbside parking space in front of my home is MINE!!!" posted on www.PaloAltoOnline.com — below Town Square.)

In the world of community planning, the oft-esoteric issues of what should be allowed to be built, or not, tend to emerge in cycles.

Those cycles depend on what types and sizes of projects are being proposed, as well as on the initiative and capabilities of leaders who emerge from neighborhoods or the community at large in response to impacts of traffic and parking.

Today the issue of "overflow parking" has emerged forcefully as one of those battles — more than a skirmish and far more specific than "issues," the usual term for such confrontations.

The battles, skirmishes or debates go back decades.

Sometimes, as is happening in Palo Alto right now, the parking debates draw in residents with deep credentials.

Alsman knows the frustrations and rewards of community planning. During his career in Mountain View he played significant roles in neighborhood design, North Bayshore design and implementation, downtown revitalization, bringing light rail to town, street and public-improvement design, historic preservation, even the public art program.

"Sounds like a lot but you can get a lot done in 28 years if you like what you do," he sums up.

In Palo Alto, he heard the old firebell ringing.

"Since the City did not have the resources I have reviewed and summarized all of the 20-plus projects in the pipeline using city reports. So we think the estimates are pretty good, if not too damn conservative."

Buchanan went through turmoil at El Camino Hospital over a bitter battle of an attempted melding of the hospital with a major medical clinic in the area.

So they are well-credentialed for dealing with Palo Alto planning processes.

Former Weekly Editor Jay Thorwaldson can be emailed at jthorwaldson@paweekly.com with a copy to jaythor@well.com. He also writes blogs posted on the Weekly's community website, www.PaloAltoOnline.com (below Town Square).

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