Palo Alto Weekly

Cover Story - October 4, 2013

Case study: College Terrace

City's only Residential Parking Permit Program offers reminders for downtown

by Gennady Sheyner

College Terrace once had its own parking crisis.

Nestled between the rock of Stanford University and the hard place of Stanford Research Park, the neighborhood with street names such as Yale and Princeton was once a de facto parking lot for students and workers seeking free parking. Today, it is Palo Alto's only neighborhood with a residential parking permit program. Soon it may have plenty of company.

Much like in downtown, College Terrace's parking program was a grass-roots affair, the product of years of neighborhood meetings, passionate arguments and deep, deep frustrations with the lack of parking spots.

"There was absolutely no place to park, ever," said resident Doria Summa, recalling the time before the program began. "It got to the point where I'd come home, and people would be parked in front of my driveway. Yes, if you drove around and looked, you'd eventually find a spot. But that's not the expectation of a residential neighborhood in a suburban or small town — driveway to driveway, bumper to bumper."

Things started getting hairy around 2000, shortly after the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors approved Stanford University's general-use permit, an agreement that allowed the university to develop 2 million square feet of academic facilities and 3,000 housing units. Among the conditions was a requirement that commuter traffic to and from Stanford not grow from what it was in 2002. Stanford expanded its shuttle service, paid for Caltrain passes for employees and raised parking costs. Students began to leave their cars in College Terrace and bike to campus, said Greg Tanaka, a member of the city's Planning and Transportation Commission and former president of the College Terrace Residents Association.

Initially the problem mainly afflicted the portion of the neighborhood near Stanford Avenue. Other sections of College Terrace encountered the problem later, due to different causes. The portion of the neighborhood near El Camino Real started to have people who parked and lived in cars along their blocks. The residents association conducted extensive block-by-block surveys, held countless meetings and lobbied the council to initiate a residential parking permit program setting time restrictions on cars not belonging to residents.

In July 2007, then-Mayor Yoriko Kishimoto and former councilmen Bern Beecham and Peter Drekmeier described College Terrace's "growing problem" in a memo that urged their colleagues to initiate a parking program in the neighborhood.

"Students and employees of the university and other nearby employers regularly park on neighborhood streets to avoid the cost of permits or because of convenience," the memo stated. "Increasingly, as Stanford works to discourage commute trips onto campus, more people park nearby and walk, bike or take the Marguerite to their campus destination."

In response to the memo, the council directed staff to launch the permit program on blocks where more than 50 percent of the residents supported it.

People's embrace of the program was by no means unanimous. Some blocks balked at paying for something that had always been free and that now incurred the risk of getting a ticket. Then, in 2009, something happened that effectively settled the debate: Facebook moved to California Avenue.

"The straw that broke the camel's back was Facebook moving in," Tanaka said. "Basically, you had three parts of the neighborhood — Stanford Avenue, where the campus is, then you have the neighborhood near El Camino Real, and then the other side where Facebook was. You had the neighborhood being impacted by all three locations."

The city conducted surveys of every block and made sure that at least 51 percent supported the program. It negotiated the details of the program with the residents association. One option would have prohibited parking for cars not displaying residential permits. The one they ultimately chose allows two-hour parking for those without permits and unlimited parking for those with them.

The issue the city was wrestling with at that time is in some ways simpler than the one unfolding downtown, said Shahla Yazdy, transportation engineer who helped establish the College Terrace parking program. The area was smaller and more clearly defined, Yazdy said, with Stanford on one side and California on the other, between El Camino and Amherst. It also didn't have as many competing stakeholders as downtown. Plus, it had $100,000 in funds from Stanford, thanks to the agreement with the county.

Still, it took some effort to develop and roll out. Frustrated downtown residents who point to College Terrace and accuse the council of preferential treatment underestimate the many years it took to get the program up and running.

"The Residential Parking Permit Program in College Terrace was not something that happened overnight," Tanaka said. "It took a long time — seven to eight years."

After the three council members penned their memo, the city hired a consulting firm to do occupancy surveys and parking counts to clearly understand the problem. Ultimately, blocks throughout the neighborhood opted into the system. Since then, some households have requested to drop out, though no block has met the 51 percent threshold to reverse course, Yazdy said. Today, some 1,000 residents hold parking permits.

Since the program was launched in 2009, the number of complaints has dropped. Initially, she said, people called to say they were unhappy about having to buy and display permits. That, however, has changed as people have grown accustomed to the program.

"It's become really smooth," Yazdy said. "I haven't even gotten a single request to opt out this year, whereas I had in the past."

Summa said the area still gets its fair share of commuter cars, but the situation is what she called a "very nice mix."

"Sometimes, it's half-and-half between residents and business people, sometimes a lot more business people. Sometimes there's almost no parking spots, and sometimes there's a lot," Summa said. "It has a natural flow without being too crowded."

Staff Writer Gennady Sheyner can be emailed at gsheyner@paweekly.com.

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