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By Jay Thorwaldson

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 [email protected] with a cc: to [email protected] He also writes regular print columns for the Weekly.