Developments trigger downtown Palo Alto study

City to take fresh look at parking, zoning regulations as downtown gets closer to development 'cap'

Those nagging issues of insufficient downtown parking and increasing congestion were already on Palo Alto's radar nearly three decades ago, when the city changed its zoning laws and set a cap on how much new nonresidential development it would allow downtown.

Though the limit of 350,000 square feet of new development that the city established in 1985 remains beyond the city's land-use horizon, a series of major applications has just brought downtown development to another plateau -- a 235,000-square-foot threshold at which the city must conduct an analysis of downtown zoning regulations and parking strategies.

The city edged toward this threshold thanks to two major downtown developments -- one that recently won the city's approval and another one that is about to make its way through the city's design-review process. The former, Lytton Gateway, is a four-story mixed-use development that the City Council approved in May and that will soon go up on the site of a former Shell station on Alma Street and Lytton Avenue. The latter is the proposed four-story commercial building that local developer Charles "Chop" Keenan plans to construct at 135 Hamilton Ave.

When the council approved the Lytton Gateway project, it raised the amount of nonresidential space approved by the city since 1985 to 212,000 square feet. Keenan's 26,000-square-foot project would officially send the downtown area over the study threshold.

The two new projects, coupled with the flurry of complaints from downtown residents about parking, have prompted the city to embark on the comprehensive analysis of downtown zoning regulations and parking policies. The analysis will include consideration of whether the "downtown cap" should be raised to a different level or kept as is, Planning Director Curtis Williams said. Under existing law, reaching the 350,000-square-foot cap would trigger a moratorium on approving new developments in the downtown commercial's zone, which stretches roughly from Alma Street in the west to Webster Street in the east and which is bounded from north to south by Lytton Avenue and Hamilton Avenue, respectively.

The study will also consider the upcoming project at 27 University Ave. -- a proposal by developer John Arrillaga that would include a new theater and office building on the current site of MacArthur Park restaurant. Though the project is technically outside the borders of the downtown commercial district, it is expected to further impact the area's parking and traffic.

The council approved the new study on July 16 as part of its approach to tackling the area's well-documented parking woes. Residents who live in neighborhoods adjacent to downtown's commercial heart have long complained about downtown employees parking all day in front of their homes. Residents in the Professorville neighborhood clamored for a parking-permit program that would set a time limit for visitors -- an idea that the council had considered but ultimately rejected last month. Downtown North residents, meanwhile, complained that the new Lytton Gateway project would further exacerbate an already acute parking shortage. Their complaints prompted a series of revisions in the project and a commitment from the project developers to contribute $2 million toward a new garage and $250,000 toward a broad study of parking strategies.

That study, which will consider new parking garages and new programs to encourage parking in existing garages, is just one of many components of the city's forthcoming downtown analysis. Planning officials will also take a close look at zoning regulations and consider whether the city's incentives for new developments and its parking requirements are sufficient. They will also consider the possibility of allowing denser development downtown, according to a report from Chief Transportation Official Jaime Rodriguez.

At the July 16 meeting, Mayor Yiaway Yeh said the actions that the city will take after the comprehensive study could "reset the baseline" downtown. Those dramatic changes could obviate any need for more immediate and geographically precise solutions like the permit-parking program advocated by many in Professorville.

The city also plans to take a closer look at the new ways in which offices are being used. Many startup firms, for example, eschew traditional offices and cubicles in favor of having more employees work within smaller spaces, such as gathering around a table with their laptops. That, in turn, affects the amount of parking taken up on the streets.

Existing regulations require office developers to provide one parking space for every 250 square feet of space, a ratio that Williams said is standard among planners. But that ratio may no longer suffice.

"Now, we're clearly seeing, at least in start-up spaces, ratios where it's at least one per 150 (square feet) or even less, and so those ratios are not as relevant as they were," Williams said in a recent interview. "That's something we'll look at as well. To some extent, it's operative all over the city, but it's particularly intense downtown because of the start-up concentration."

One idea is to have one parking ratio for startups and another one for more traditional businesses such as law offices or venture capital firms, which remain in compliance with the traditional model of office use. Another idea, Williams said, is to have "performance-based criteria" -- one that allows any business to use the existing ratio for parking spaces provided that it has a strong program that encourages employees to take public transportation rather than drive.

At the same time, the city also plans to start working with downtown businesses and with its own employees to shift them away from cars. One of the components that the study will include is the potential for a "downtown-wide transportation demand management program" that will rely on tools such as transit passes, shuttles, car-sharing and bike-sharing programs to reduce vehicle use.

"One of the things we want to do is develop something that the city itself can use, as an employer," Williams said. "Then we can use it as a demonstration tool to show the city is on board as well."


Like this comment
Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Aug 24, 2012 at 9:28 am

To start any type of parking strategy, it is important to change the system in our parking lots. We need pay per hour machines at all garages and lots. The first two hours can still be free, but modest charges easily available at all lots and garages will help people to park for many hours on an occasional basis.

Redwood City has meters for 25c per hour. There is always adequate parking and no one seems to mind using loose change for parking.

What we have in Palo Alto at present is so complicated it is no wonder that people choose to park on the street in residential neighborhoods.

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Posted by no more parking lots
a resident of Downtown North
on Aug 24, 2012 at 10:21 am

New parking lots will cost a fortune (like $100 million) that the city cannot afford. I agree with the previous comment that the city needs to adapt parking policies, like meters, that encourage drivers to move on. Most downtown areas on the peninsula charge at least token parking fees (like 25 cents or 50 cents per hour) that do encourage people to share the parking spaces.

Like this comment
Posted by Allow more density?
a resident of Crescent Park
on Aug 24, 2012 at 10:24 am

"They will also consider the possibility of allowing denser development downtown, according to a report from Chief Transportation Official Jaime Rodriguez."

That's right, don't solve anything, just do a study. Let the developers come up with a profitable (for them) solution, like city-funded garages.

Like this comment
Posted by ExtremeC
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Aug 24, 2012 at 10:53 am

Another 250K classic study..

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Posted by Jake
a resident of another community
on Aug 24, 2012 at 11:52 am

"ExtremeC" You said it all!!!!

If the residents of PA ever saw the total amount of money the City Council has spent on studies and consultants the las 5-10 years they would be sick!!!!
I can only imagine what other positive uses all that money could have been used for.
Just ONCE I would like to see the media print the TOTAL amount of money the city of PA spends on this type of stuff year after year after year!!
250K would pay for a lot of school crossing guards, pot hole repairs, etc.

Like this comment
Posted by Sherry
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Aug 24, 2012 at 12:24 pm

If the downtown BID is still viable and operating, where does it stand on this issue and what is it doing to represent and protect the interests of the downtown retail and professional operations?
Important to note that the developers man and chair the parking district committee in town, clearly influencing any guidelines set forth.

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Posted by ExtremeC
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Aug 24, 2012 at 1:04 pm

Jake, Thanks for mentioning pot hole repairs.. There are numerous wide open crack holes along Embarcadero road (Bryant&Webster) where hundreds of kids walk and bike each day for more than a year. Guess they are still waiting for repair funding

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Posted by desperate
a resident of Southgate
on Aug 24, 2012 at 3:57 pm

More money wasted on studies, trying to appease the chronic malcontents that still think that we are in the 1960's. Palo Alto constantly talks about attracting business and people to the downtown--unfortunately any efforts to accomplish that is immediately attacked bythe naysayers and NIMBYists whose sole purpose is to thwart any attemp to enter the 21st century (Palo Alto was so nice decades ago they whine).
Times change, people change, cities change.

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Posted by Julian
a resident of Palo Verde
on Aug 24, 2012 at 8:05 pm

"If the residents of PA ever saw the total amount of money the City Council has spent on studies and consultants the las 5-10 years they would be sick!!!!"

Agree. How about it, Bill?

Like this comment
Posted by DDee
a resident of Crescent Park
on Aug 24, 2012 at 9:23 pm

Why not put large city-owned and operated half or all-day pay lots in the area of the airport and animal shelter then provide a continuous loop shuttle taking people directly downtown with a loop that covers the parking lot, the California Caltrain station/Dumbarton Express stop (given that the Express parking lot is also going bye-bye), Town and Country (where riders could transfer to the Stanford shuttles), University Caltrain and one or two stops parallel to University - one on Lyton and another on Hamilton.
The property is cheaper out of the downtown and the shuttle would cover a variety of needs not currently addressed for people who keep a long working or studying schedule --- including on weekends.

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Posted by Homer Resident
a resident of Professorville
on Aug 25, 2012 at 8:02 pm

Last week we called parking enforcement because a large truck was blocking our driveway. A policeman showed up, drove into our driveway, turned around and said...well I can make it okay so I'm not going to issue a ticket. We were shocked. Clearly a visual hazard and at least three feet into our driveway. I was also surprised a policeman showed up and not the parking enforcement person. The policeman told us he didn't want to issue a ticket because he didn't want to have to go to court in case it was contested. This is just crazy stuff...

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Posted by Paul
a resident of Southgate
on Aug 26, 2012 at 12:48 am

It doesn't matter what the comprehensive analysis shows. Council will either raise the Cap on non-residentail growth or eliminate it all together. There is a lot of money to be made by developers, landowners, lawyers, architects, and consultants. The current City Council will neither limit development nor profits. There will be little or no consideration of the cost to taxpayers. The analysis will show there are little to no negative impacts, even though common sense has shown otherwise.

Like this comment
Posted by curmudgeon
a resident of Downtown North
on Aug 28, 2012 at 11:28 am

"They will also consider the possibility of allowing denser development downtown"

Brilliant. To solve the parking shortage, just create a need for more parking.

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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