Being a "parking lot" of employees of downtown Palo Alto or California Avenue businesses for affected residents is not part of the ambience that makes Palo Alto rank as one of the best places to live anywhere.
But recent intensification of new development proposals and significant expansion of the areas impacted has pushed the matter to the fore in the attention of city officials and civic activists.
Now a new consideration -- or an old one just surfacing -- has arisen: Does being an "extended parking lot" hurt the value and salability of one's home? And by how much?
Ken Alsman, a leading critic of city policies that have allowed (he feels encouraged) the parking overflow, recently sold his South of Forest Avenue (SOFA) home -- in the heart of an overflow district. Alsman and his wife, Linda, plan to remain in the Midpeninsula area for a time then head to property they have in Cape Cod -- above the sea-level-rise zone, one hopes.
Alsman, a former planning official in Mountain View, has been working closely with Neilson Buchanan, a former hospital administrator and resident of the Downtown North neighborhood, to call community attention to the parking flood. With other residents counting parked cars they have produced maps showing red zones where the curbside parking spaces are saturated with non-resident vehicles.
The red zones have grown until they reach Middlefield Road in some areas and stretch toward old Palo Alto neighborhoods along Embarcadero Road and into Crescent Park, Alsman and Buchanan warn.
Both feelcity officials have not just allowed the overflow but actually built it into planning decisions and project approvals, especially for downtown -- where more than a dozen office/mixed-use projects are currently "in the pipeline" seeking approval, in cityspeak.
Residents flanking the California Avenue commercial district between El Camino Real and the Caltrain tracks cite similar expansion and intensification of overflow parking.
But the new consideration -- possible significant impact on housing values -- surfaced after the Alsmans had sold their home, cashing in on what Alsman terms the "Palo Alto lottery" of property values.
He said in a conversation with a prominent developer based in downtown Palo Alto that he was a bit taken aback when the developer told him that "without the parking situation" their house would have been worth about $300,000 more than the healthy price for which it sold. The developer also has said that to at least one council member.
That's a big chunk of change -- multiple times what the house sold for when brand new. The parking situation also headlined the existing-conditions disclaimer in the house-for-sale materials.
If established, then simple multiplication of estimated lost value by the several hundred homes in the parking-impacted neighborhoods catapults the "lost value" into the millions of dollars.
And if it can be established that the parking overflow problem is the result of deliberate city planning policies -- or even not-so-benign neglect of impacts over recent decades -- then a new element enters the picture, far beyond resident irritation and inconvenience.
Doesn't it open up a potentially significant question of liability on the part of the city?
The question of government liability is a complex legal field, especially in the murky area of zoning, policymaking and land use.
A general rule-of-thumb, however, is that a situation that just happens, so to speak, doesn't create a big liability risk for the governmental entity unless there is a provable case of negligence or a known risk created by the government's action(s) or lack thereof.
In other words, IF the situation is the result of a government's policies or decisions or actions then the liability risk increases exponentially.
Alsman's departure from the local political stage will create a bit of a vacuum, losing his often blunt-spoken criticisms of the city's position relating to parking overflow in north Palo Alto -- even though Buchanan makes many of the same points in a softer manner.
In discussing his plans to leave Palo Alto, Alsman has focused on his deep frustrations with the city policies. Only when questioned did he acknowledge that the "Palo Alto lottery" of high housing prices was a significant factor. His frustrations were compounded by a long history of community involvement, years of "paying one's dues."
Alsman also recognized the no-name description of himself in an earlier column about a "next generation" of persons becoming involved in civic affairs (Weekly, Oct. 25, 2013) as the one who castigated a newcomer to politics for comments at a community meeting.
Alsman's dues include serving on Palo Alto's Historic Resources Board, as did his wife. He was a founding member of the Palo Alto-Stanford Heritage group (PAST). He also was a member of a committee seeking ways to make Downtown Palo Alto more "walkable" and attractive -- drawing on his experience as staff planner in charge of downtown Mountain View's transition into the future, working with "some of the finest urban designers in the country."
He expresses pride in achieving a balance between housing, retail and offices, between parking and transit and between the needs of employees and developers. And he cites his role in bringing light-rail and a transit hub to downtown Mountain View "at a time when Palo Alto made it clear that the last thing they wanted was light rail or more transit service."
He and Buchanan have led the push for a moratorium on approving new developments in downtown until the parking issue is addressed, both at a policy level and with effective actions.
Few would advocate a class-action damage suit against the city, as it would involve taxpayer funds in one way or another. But that could emerge as a real possibility given inadequate response by city officials to a real-dollar impact on home values.
Note: Former Weekly Editor Jay Thorwaldson can be e-mailed at [email protected] with a copy to [email protected] He also writes print columns, archived at www.PaloAltoOnline.com under Palo Alto Weekly.