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By Jay Thorwaldson

About this blog: I was editor of the Palo Alto Weekly from June 2000 to January 2011, capping a more than 50-year career in journalism and writing since Los Gatos High School, where I was editor of the student newspaper and president of the speech...  (More)

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Parking woes in downtown Palo Alto go back 60 years and 'will never be solved'

Uploaded: Oct 15, 2013
There are a lot of people counting cars, or rather parking spaces with someone else's car in them, in residential areas of north Palo Alto these days.

What most of the space-counters don't know is that the downtown parking-shortage/parking-overflow mess dates back at least to the very early 1950s. The twin dilemmas were a product of rapid growth in population and jobs post World War II and during the Korean War. The region was in early stages of shifting from an agrarian economy to an industrial high-tech manufacturing economy that eventually morphed into the technology-based wonderland of Silicon Valley.

I was given a glimpse of the early downtown parking problems circa 1970 during a monthly meeting/interview with then-City Manager George Morgan.

Morgan was recounting, from his top-floor corner office in the new City Hall, how he joined the city in 1952 as an "assistant to the city manager." That's a couple of steps down the ladder, beneath the assistant city manager.

Morgan later became the full assistant manager under Jerry Keithley, the city's first city manager after it converted to a council/manager form of government to supplant the less-efficient commissioner model in the city's first nearly six decades: 1894 to 1952.

"My first assignment," Morgan recounted with a trace of amusement, "was to 'solve the downtown parking problem.'

"It will never be solved," he added, in all seriousness.

Whether Morgan's prediction is correct remains to be seen 40-plus years later. Or 60-plus years if you want to count from his "assignment year" of 1952.

The problem has changed from a relatively simple "parking shortage" to a much broader, more complex issue of overflow from the commercial areas into residential neighborhoods. And, adding to the areas impacted historically, the overflow has now expanded far beyond the spillover boundaries of recent decades, back into the early 1980s even.

The problem reflects literally decades of zoning policies and parking exemptions relating to the commercial zones, including the creation of the Downtown Parking Assessment District to help fund parking structures by assessing landowners. The problem encompasses issues of property rights of landowners and vested interests of developers who have purchased or optioned properties with development in mind, with or without rezoning.

And the growth of buildings has been exacerbated by an intensification of use within buildings, spurred by surging rents and by changing, more collaborative working patterns that trade open workspaces for the famous cubicles of early Hewlett-Packard days. Projects indicate space per employee has dropped from 225 square feet to 176, on the way to 151 square feet by 2017.

The sheer complexity of the issues involved was outlined in a lengthy city staff report last March (March 18, 2013:

This 1/4-inch thick (with attachments) report should be required reading for anyone who thinks there might be a quick fix for downtown parking and overflow issues, or who wants to make a quick judgment or propose a simple solution.

Staff recommendations for the City Council to consider included: testing attendant parking in a downtown garage or lot to increase parking potential; opening up 50 to 100 spaces in the City Hall garage now limited to city-employee parking; building a new parking structure; easing restrictions on transfer of development rights to hold down actual new construction; cutting back zoning exemptions from parking requirements; and restricting parking in adjacent residential neighborhoods.

Each of those has its own complexities, and is likely to generate disagreements -- but what doesn't in Palo Alto?

Adding to the confusion, the report notes that four City Council members and City Manager James Keene all have conflicts of interest under state law relating to some aspects of the staff recommendations -- all relating to how close they live or have interest in property within 500 feet of the downtown commercial district.

Finally, staff is studying what to do about a "development cap" once adopted for the downtown that already is being exceeded by nearly a dozen developments referred to as "in the pipeline." It is unclear whether the pipeline status excludes them from city cutting back exemptions to parking requirements or other changes to how things are done that contributed to the current problem.

An early perspective of the situation -- relating to the staff's longtime difficulty in addressing cumulative impacts of developments -- was in a column I wrote last January: .

The efforts of two residents with extensive experience in professional planning -- Ken Alsman and Neilson Buchanan -- were outlined in the column.

Buchanan in August co-authored a "Parking Deficit and Neighborhood Intrusion" report that showed 85- to 100-percent daytime saturation of residential parking spaces from downtown that now extends from San Francisquito Creek to Embarcadero Road along Alma Street, extending almost to Middlefield Road flanking University Avenue. They cited a city staff parking-impact study.

That huge area is far larger than it was in the 1980s, when residents started complaining in an organized, vociferous way. One resident showed up to a meeting wearing a Chicago Bears sweatshirt, because "there's a lot of angry bears out here."

Alsman, who spent years as a planner in Mountain View, sometimes boils over at the situation in downtown Palo Alto, even though he now owns an antique store at the southern edge of the commercial district.

He recently produced a one-page "fact sheet" on parking in which, derived from city sources, he notes there are 3.425 million square feet of commercial space in the downtown, with 2.23 million assessed for parking (meaning exempt from providing parking on site). If standards used elsewhere in town were applied, he says more than 18,000 parking spaces would be required, or 13,500 spaces if the standard of one space per 250 square feet of building were followed.

He deducts between 6,000 and 7,200 space for existing parking, in structures or on-street.

"So let me understand. We clearly need over 4,000 spaces to serve what we have already, and the 1/250 ratio for office uses is probably too generous due to current employment patterns but we continue to approve new office buildings for new uses with virtually no parking.

"The hole gets deeper. Palo Alto -- gotta love its process and logic."

So was long-ago City Manager George Morgan right? Opinions welcome.

Note: Former Weekly Editor Jay Thorwaldson can be emailed at with a cc: to He also writes regular print columns for the Weekly.

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Posted by Neilson Buchanan, a resident of Downtown North,
on Oct 15, 2013 at 6:10 pm

PA citizens are blessed that the PA Weekly has resources to document current and past this era of dying journalism for most of the US.

The issue for citizens and their servants, the Council and City Manager, is whether or not to stop, look and listen...What the heck should University Avenue be 10, 15 and 20 years from now. The current Council is providing little stewardship.. just hell bent for development. Maximizing development in the economic boom without any objective consideration of impact on residential neighborhoods or gridlocked intersections.

City Staff seems to be following orders and avoiding most tenets of professional city planning.

The Downtown Development Cap is self limited by the Council's own admission.. Council cant even jump over the train track. The Comp Plan is selectively by the City Manager [and staff] to justify what developers want.

How about putting the Downtown Dev Cap on hold until citizens, Councilpersons and new neighbor leader can focus on what is really important

Posted by Robert, a resident of another community,
on Oct 15, 2013 at 7:45 pm

@Neilson Buchanan

You seem to have read the article, but with blinders, only using it to confirm your existing beliefs. Simple question, how would a development cap address the parking issue, when its going to result in more employees being forced into existing office space?

Posted by Jay Thorwaldson, editor emeritus,
on Oct 16, 2013 at 9:21 am

Jay Thorwaldson is a registered user.

Robert -- I don't think the development cap and more intense use of existing space are a cause-and-effect situation. Intensification of space use seems related more to changes in workplace setups and collaboration patterns, and possibly because downtown commercial rents are so high. Workspace intensification also goes well beyond Palo Alto. -jay

Posted by Resident, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood,
on Oct 16, 2013 at 9:32 am

Thanks for a historical perspective but there are a couple of things which are never mentioned

The reasoning that we have to have free parking available for retail since Stanford Shopping Center has free parking and will deter potential customers from downtown is an out of date argument. Stanford and downtown are very different areas and are not competing against each other. A customer for department stores is not going to be interested in downtown and likewise the downtown restaurant crowd are not likely to be lured by Stanford's offerings. I use both, but they are not an either/or choice for me or anyone else I know.

Two hours free parking (or 3) is not going to entice me downtown if I know that I can't stay any longer if my plans change. If I want a lazy few hours shopping I can't do that in downtown anyway. Downtown is a place I go with a reason in mind and quite often know that I am going to have to be there at least 4 hours (if I include an errand plus lunch to my business) so I have to find somewhere to park that I can stay for four hours and that is not easy. Most things like the post office, library, drug store are available elsewhere with less hassle and City Hall business and other personal business are the things which make me go there as a case of having no option.

We need to get pay per hour parking and yes if necessary make the first two hours free in garages and lots, but it is time for parking meters for street parking and that is a simple call with lots of pluses and few minuses.

Why are common sense solutions not being discussed by council? Why can't they see that the reason we have so many problems with parking is that it is too complicated for visitors and residents to work out? Why can't we get rid of all the color coded codes which are not explained on any signs I have ever seen? Why are they talking about more color codes around residential streets when they can see that color codes are the problem in the first place?

Why can't visitors to downtown park all day and pay for it in a simple manner like other downtowns in the area?

If it has never been tried, how can it be said that it won't work?

Posted by resident, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood,
on Oct 16, 2013 at 9:41 am

The planning process here is used as subterfuge to complicate and put off confronting the issues as more and more studies are called for. This is cover for the Council and staff and their insider developer friends to continue to destroy the City and all the values once associated with this unique town. This is just an absolute disaster and that's what people need to call it. Developers drive the process and dictate the outcomes. The staff are enablers and expediters as it all unfolds. This is their
complete focus, justified by the notion that growth and the transformation of the City are inevitable. At the same time the Council and staff don't seem to understand or care what we had here in Palo Alto and where we are going.

Posted by Wayne Martin, a resident of Fairmeadow,
on Oct 16, 2013 at 10:26 am

> Stanford and downtown are very different areas
> and are not competing against each other.

This has not always been true. There were several "anchor" stores that moved from University to Stanford, when the shopping center opened in the mid-1950s. In fact, by the mid-1970s, downtown Palo Alto was in dire shape, old timers will remember, and the same stories can be found in the microfilm of the Palo Alto Times (in the possession of the Palo Alto Historical Society at the moment).

I have talked to folks who lived here at the time, who said that there was drug dealing going on downtown and they wouldn't let their teenagers go down there after dark.

One point to consider in Mr. Thorwaldson's walk down memory lane--and that is that there were no computers, or modeling software, that was readily available to City planners at the time. We now have the tools to model the current, and future, traffic/parking demands in ways that the City Officials in the past could not even dream of.

Question is--will the current City Officials actually use these tools, and make decisions based on the results of these simulations?

Posted by Jay Thorwaldson, editor emeritus,
on Oct 16, 2013 at 12:29 pm

Jay Thorwaldson is a registered user.

Resident: I concur that the 2 (or 3) hour limit is a huge factor that drives people out to the neighborhoods to walk back. There's both a cost and bureaucratic challenge in getting people to buy permits for permit lots. And have you checked the price of parking tickets lately?

The city removed parking meters in the 1990s to streamline the parking limits, which mostly remained, without the hassle of collecting the coins from the meters. A couple of businesses on Emerson Street kept the posts and planted flowers in round pans on top.

Wayne, have you played the computer game, Sim(ulated) City? In the heartland of Silicon Valley, perhaps someone will come up with a customized "Sim Downtown." That could produce some interesting and perhaps useful results for city decision-makers. -jay

Posted by Midtown, a resident of Midtown,
on Oct 16, 2013 at 2:43 pm

"there are 3.425 million square feet of commercial space in the downtown, with 2.23 million assessed for parking (meaning exempt from providing parking on site)."

So the parking thing is just simple economics. It is a spread sheet issue, so far it is way cheaper for the local developers and business owners to get the local residents to pay for parking by diverting the problem into their neighborhoods. The residents need to revolt and have the assessment for parking cranked up to where it more economical for the developers and business owners to include parking in their developments or pay for more parking structures.

Also making it illegal to park more than two hours downtown and not provide meters for longer is just plain stupid. I never park downtown when there is all that free parking with no time limit out in the neighborhoods and I get a nice walk.

Posted by Resident, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood,
on Oct 16, 2013 at 7:40 pm

Jay, you miss my point about the 2 or 3 hours time limits. I have no objection to paying for 4 or more hours, it is just that it is so complicated finding out how to do so. A permit only suits those who want to park all day, every day. It is not how pay per hour parking should work.

If there were parking meters that could be fed for up to 8 hours, or a machine which produced an all day parking sticker in every garage and lot, it would stop a lot of people parking in the neighborhoods.

We don't know until we try.

Posted by Wayne Martin, a resident of Fairmeadow,
on Oct 17, 2013 at 8:40 am

> Simcity

Simcity is a game. What was being suggested is the use of software geared to traffic and parking simulation. In this case, it might be worthwhile to propose a solution that includes a complete simulation of the Downtown area.

It?s also possible, that there might not be a package that exactly matches our needs. Planning should, by now, have done enough research to know if there are any packages on the market that could be used, out-of-the-box.

PA is also sitting on the cusp of some significant technological solutions to this problem. For instance, we have the ability to count the number of cars that are in the downtown area at any given time. We can develop demand models based on real data, and then use that data to consider how to satisfy that demand. Automated parking garages have been successfully used in other parts of the world. So, creating a model that allows for the simple addition of these structures, including the cost, and revenue generated from their use, would give everyone involved in the planning process tools they currently don?t have.

Other possible solutions include the use of RFID tags, so that cars can be located, and counted, by various means. Having a model that was based on ?positive? control of where cars were parking, and what parking spots were available, would be another tool that would go a long way towards adopting a strategy that is based on more than a ?gut? feeling, or a mid-50s City Manager?s belief that ?this problem can?t be solved.?

Posted by stephen levy, a resident of University South,
on Oct 17, 2013 at 2:49 pm

stephen levy is a registered user.

I like some of Wayne's proposed solutions.

But there are three kinds of parking problems--1) how to allocate or ration the existing spaces, 2) how to provide options for longer term parking in existing spaces and 3) how to provide more capacity.

I think existing spaces should be metered with some technology where businesse can pay/reimburse drivers.

But except for new developments, I see no way practically to expand capacity unless we do it as a city. Blaming other people and talking about what coulda, shoulda happened in the past is not going to get new capacity for all the parking deficiencies that are not caused by pending new developments such as the example of greatly increased use of CalTrain by residents that exceeds the parking available at stations.

I think if we want to solve the problem, then WE need to step up and do it and not waste more time dreaming up unrealistic ways that other people should pay for new capacity.

In any event new capacity should come with a charge for users and, again, busiensses are free to reimburse customers or employess.

Posted by palo alto resident, a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland,
on Oct 18, 2013 at 8:52 am

While this is a complex problem, the goal should be to provide the best solution for the RESIDENTS of Plo Alto, notbthe businesses or developers or even employees. Palo Alto will remain a high tech mecca with or without solving these problems, but will it remain a livable City?

Posted by stephen levy, a resident of University South,
on Oct 18, 2013 at 10:46 am

stephen levy is a registered user.

@ Palo Alto Resident--I have three questions

1) Which residents?, 2) How do you think the problem can be solved for one group and not others and 3) Why just for residents even if you could.

Which residents--1) the ones complaining that they can't park near their home, 2) the ones trying to park for CalTrain but have to spill out into adjacent areas, 3) residents trying to find parking so they can shop and dine downtown. Aren't the solutions for each group potentially different?

I think the basic solution-1) more parking capacity and 2) bettter management of existing capacity--help everyone--residents, employees, businesses, visitors. I am hard for me to see realistic solutions that do not provide broad benefits.

Why do you argue for a residents only policy. Why do not business property ownere have a legitimate right? Why is it not in a broad set of interests to solve the problem for everyone. At some point, perhaps now, the parking shortage and poor management of existing spaces will harm the vitality of areas with high parking demand.

Posted by Hermia, a resident of Triple El,
on Oct 18, 2013 at 10:48 am

It's kind of sad that this entire discussion of parking issues doesn't include any mention of alternatives to driving and parking more cars, like, perhaps, expanding the shuttle service.
Perhaps there are other ways to get people to leave the cars at home.

Posted by Tom DuBois, a resident of Midtown,
on Oct 18, 2013 at 5:29 pm

Which residents? The ones that live in Palo Alto.

At a minimum, we must stop creating additional office space. Palo Alto has all the office space it needs. There should be a moratorium on spot rezoning and converting any residential space into additional office or commercial space. Leave the existing zoning "as is", I\'m just saying don\'t create more of a problem.

Posted by Peter Carpenter, a resident of Atherton,
on Oct 18, 2013 at 7:56 pm

Peter Carpenter is a registered user.

Pal Alto does not have to look too far for the answer. Stanford solved this problem more than 25 years ago by instituting paid parking and then using the parking revenues to support building parking structures and the Marguerite shuttle.

Posted by palo alto resident, a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland,
on Oct 19, 2013 at 9:10 am

@stephen levy -to clarify, I think the parking problem should be addressed with the needs of the residents being the priority. Not the needs of other groups should be ignored, but they should NOT be the most important.

Actually, I think our City employees need to put the needs of the Palo Alto residents first in general. Not developers, not PAHC, not the ABAG, not residents of other Cities, the residents of Palo Alto.

To answer your questions:

1) Which residents? as Tom Dubois said, the residents who live in Palo Alto
2) How do you think the problem can be solved for one group and not others? I don't think the problem can be solved for one group and no others, I do think the solution should address the needs of residents before the needs of businesses.
3) Why just for residents even if you could? Again, not just for residents, but residents should be the priority.

As to your question - "which residents--1) the ones complaining that they can't park near their home, 2) the ones trying to park for CalTrain but have to spill out into adjacent areas, 3) residents trying to find parking so they can shop and dine downtown. " Yep, all of them.

My suggestions:
Keep the parking out of residential neighborhoods with a RPPP on one side of the street.
Charge for downtown parking by the hour and use the money to fund the shuttle and parking garages.
Require developers to build enough parking for ALL their employees or downsize their building.
Study incentive programs that have actually worked in other Cities and use those to get people out of cars.
If we want to encourage biking, we need our designated bike routes to not be filled with construction vehicles, not be filled with cars that prohibit any visibility (Bryant between University and Embarcadero) and they should be smoothly paved and not covered with the metal plates that make it impossible to bike.

Posted by CrescentParkAnon., a resident of Crescent Park,
on Oct 21, 2013 at 1:04 am

> "It will never be solved," he added, in all seriousness.

I cannot believe you are making a 60 year old quote on a completely different city ... and appear to be serious. Man will never walk on the Moon either. How about a bit more thought on the issue and drop the old timey platitudes.

I'm a big believer in parking structures since I've virtually never gone downtown and failed to find a parking place in one. I'm also a believer in free parking since that is what I've seen in Palo Alto all my time here and it works, and it gets people in here to spend money which is what we want, it is quick and easy and friendly ... it projects well on our city ... which we sorely need.

How about a parking structure to the left of the Aquarius theater?

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