Palo Alto Weekly

News - September 27, 2013

City takes the ax to parking exemptions

Palo Alto's planning commission aims to require more parking spaces downtown

by Gennady Sheyner

With downtown's parking woes on people's minds, Palo Alto officials are scouring far and wide for solutions, from large new parking structures to the fine print in the city's Municipal Code.

On Wednesday night, the city's Planning and Transportation Commission took aim at the latter as it considered a staff proposal to eliminate numerous exemptions that allow developers to provide fewer parking spaces than will be needed by their buildings' tenants.

Many of these exemptions were born in the mid-1980s, when the city revamped its code to encourage more development downtown and in the California Avenue business district. Now, with the local economy booming and development activity on the rise, few feel these incentives are still needed.

"A lot of development is happening downtown and parking issues are at the forefront of the public conversation now," Interim Planning Director Aaron Aknin said at Wednesday's meeting, explaining staff's proposal to eliminate the exemptions.

The effort to make the code changes kicked off in earnest a little more than a year ago, when the City Council approved a one-year moratorium on the "floor-area parking exemption" downtown and around California Avenue. The exemption had allowed developers to reduce the amount of parking they provided, based on a formula related to square footage.

For example, if the property had a 10,000-square-foot lot, the developer would not be required to provide any parking spots for the first 10,000 square feet of the new building. On Wednesday, the commission voted 5-0, with Commissioners Eduardo Martinez and Greg Tanaka absent, to extend this moratorium indefinitely.

Commissioners also supported removing other exemptions, including one that reduced the parking requirement for developers who rehabilitate historical buildings and perform seismic retrofits (developers would still be eligible for density bonuses, just not for reductions in parking).

Another exemption that was axed pertained to "grandfathered uses and facilities." The exemption allowed developers to replace certain old buildings with new developments and continue to receive the parking exemptions that went with the grandfathered old buildings.

The commission characterized the ordinance changes as a small but positive step to easing parking problems.

Vice Chair Arthur Keller, who moved to Palo Alto in 1977, recalled a time when a person could roll up to the curb any time because the streets were "dead." He agreed that certain development incentives are no longer needed.

"When economics change, you need to change," Keller said. "When conditions change, we need to change these rules accordingly."

Chair Mark Michael commended the staff for proposing to eliminate the archaic exemptions, though he added that he doesn't "for a minute think that this will address the urgency, intensity and magnitude and reality of the concerns we're hearing from the neighborhood.

"However," he said, "it's taken very much in good faith as a step forward."

The commission's vote came after members heard from some of the leading stakeholders in the heated parking debate. Ken Alsman, a Professorville resident, argued that downtown businesses whose employees fill the residential streets of his neighborhood with their cars each day are "destroying a registered historic district." He lobbied the commission to institute a moratorium on all new development until the parking problem is solved.

"The only way you can get these developers to the table to talk about real solutions is to stop giving them these subsidies," Alsman said.

Resident Jeff Levinsky said removing certain exemptions is inadequate because it merely forces developers to use other exemptions. He urged the city to eliminate a rule that allows developers to pay "in-lieu fees" instead of providing parking spaces for new buildings. He also conjured up a future in which taxpayers are funding new garages to effectively subsidize developers.

"Do not lead the city down this hopeless path," Levinsky said. "The only solution that makes sense is a moratorium on all underparked projects across Palo Alto and all the exemptions, all the special rules, all the waivers, all the giveaways. If you want to build it, you need to park it."

David Kleiman, who is in the midst of developing a four-story building at 636 Waverley St., saw things a little differently. Last year's moratorium forced him to provide 21 parking spaces instead of four, prompting him to employ lifts that stack cars in four layers. He argued that the city should focus on building parking facilities, not restricting developers' rights.

"I think we have a parking problem, but I don't think we should start limiting property rights, which is really what people who are upset about the parking are asking you to do," Kleiman said. "When people like me spend millions to buy the property and hundreds of thousands to a million (dollars) in engineering developments and go through the process, we have certain realistic expectations. And then to lose those rights midstream — that's bad planning."

The commission's recommendations will now go to the City Council for a vote.

TALK ABOUT IT

What strategies do you favor for managing parking problems in downtown Palo Alto? Share your opinion on Town Square, the community discussion forum on PaloAltoOnline.com.

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