There are perhaps better things a retired hospital CEO can do at 6 a.m. on a Tuesday morning than comb every street of a neighborhood, block by block, and count parked cars.
For Downtown North resident Neilson Buchanan, this has become a monthly ritual. Buchanan, the former CEO of El Camino Hospital, lives on Bryant Street in Downtown North, ground zero of Palo Alto's parking wars. He began this labor of love a little more than a year ago, just as the angry chorus from residents, tired of parked-up neighborhood streets, was hitting its high note.
While the city is weighing a wide range of solutions to downtown's parking crisis, Buchanan and his small group of volunteers are focusing on the problem. You can't manage what you can't measure, they say. So they count cars. First in Downtown North. Still to come: Crescent Park and Ventura.
Today, it's Evergreen Park, near the California Avenue business district. Shortly after 11 a.m. on Sept. 24, Buchanan visits Paul Machado, a Stanford Avenue resident, to explain the methodology. He pulls out his maps of Downtown North, color-coded by parking saturation at various times of the day. The morning map is mostly yellow and green, which means more than half the spots are empty. By noon, redness spreads like measles as every available space and then some gets filled up. Some blocks are maroon, creating an existentially puzzling predicament in which there are more parked cars than parking spaces. Drivers, it seems, get creative about sharing.
"This is the real color of Palo Alto," Buchanan says, pointing at the red on the map and making a joking reference to a public-art project that had determined the "average" color of Palo Alto was green.
Then the surveying begins. Machado and Buchanan drive down every leafy block of Evergreen Park and count every car on either side of the street. Things get off to a rough start. As they drive west on Stanford and approach El Camino, a black sports car abruptly zips out of its spot, prompting Machado to slam on his SUV's brakes to avoid a collision.
The two then settle into a routine, with Machado tallying the left side and Buchanan counting the right. Buchanan then jots down the numbers on his map of the neighborhood. The map also features city data on how many parking spaces each block contains, numbers that are usually accurately but occasionally puzzling. The east side of El Camino, between California and Cambridge avenues, has three available parking spaces even though city data indicates there should be five.
Driving up Sherman Avenue, Machado counts 22 spaces filled by 22 cars.
"And a motorcycle," he observes. "But he is in between the cars, so we won't count him."
Once completed, the exercise will produce data inevitably showing that Evergreen Park, much like Downtown North, is overfilled with cars. The situation is expected to further deteriorate in the coming years as planned developments spring up in the area of El Camino Real and Page Mill Road, bringing more workers looking for a place to park their cars all day.
Rewind the clock to 2009. Palo Alto was climbing out of the recession, and Professorville residents were mad as hell.
They were, and continue to be, the victims of Palo Alto's economic success. As more office workers entered downtown, the historic neighborhood to the south found itself inundated with cars. Downtown's busy commercial core host to chic retailers, real-estate firms, financiers and an ever-changing assortment of high-end restaurants had two-hour parking restrictions. The multi-story parking garages generally had three-hour time limits.
Professorville and Downtown North had none.
As a result, hundreds of downtown workers routinely used the neighborhoods' blocks for parking, leaving residents many of whose houses lacked garages frustrated, annoyed and space-less.
The intruders into the neighborhood are a varied lot. There are the T-shirted tech types from downtown's densely packed startups; the business-casual professionals employed by the area's many banks and law firms; and service workers who bag groceries at Whole Foods, paint toenails, make frozen yogurt and serve organic kale salad at local restaurants. Some are willing to walk a distance for free, all-day parking. Buchanan said he recently observed an employee from Lyfe Kitchen, a restaurant on Hamilton Avenue, park near his house on the northern tip of Downtown North a good 15-minute walk.
Others are Caltrain commuters who drive downtown, leave their cars on the residential blocks and proceed to the station, avoiding the daily fee for using the Caltrain parking lot. Randy Popp, an architect with an office downtown, said at a November City Council meeting that he often sees Caltrain commuters "park on the side streets and then walk or ride scooters to the station."
"The result is that my clients and I often cannot park within blocks of my office," said Popp, who serves on the city's Architectural Review Board. "I have clients asking to meet me elsewhere to avoid the frustration."
The parking shortage isn't a new issue, but everyone agrees that things have gotten much worse in recent years. The rhetoric has heated up accordingly, with many people arguing that the very survival of neighborhoods is at stake. At the Sept. 25 meeting of the Planning and Transportation Commission, Professorville resident Ken Alsman who has been calling for relief since 2009 accused the city and downtown businesses of "destroying a nationally registered historic district which is referred to as Professorville."
In March, Michael Hodos, also of Professorville, told the council that when parking restrictions went up in the downtown core in 2004, officials warned the move could impact the neighborhoods. The prediction bore out. Residents face the daily problem of cars "routinely blocking our driveways and ignoring pedestrians while racing down the street at breakneck speeds to claim their parking spaces," Hodos said.
And last November, Buchanan asked the council to consider the question: At what point is a neighborhood no longer a good residential neighborhood?
"We're getting close to some sort of benchmark that says it is no longer a reasonable residential atmosphere in Downtown North," Buchanan said.
Faced with massive pressure from residents and the City Council, city planners have been working on a wide range of solutions, including new garages; valet parking at existing garages; and elimination from the Municipal Code of parking exemptions for developers. They are also putting together what many consider to the be the Holy Grail of parking solutions: a Residential Parking Permit Program (RPPP).
The term's bureaucratic flavor belies its power to engage, and at times enrage, downtown's parking-starved populace. On Sept. 24, dozens attended a meeting at City Hall during which city staff members unveiled their first stab at a permit program that could be a model not just for downtown but throughout the city.
If things go as Palo Alto officials plan, the council will adopt the criteria for the permit program this year, and new parking restrictions would go into effect in downtown the first quarter of 2014, City Manager James Keene told the Weekly. That's when residents like Buchanan and Alsman can expect to see the curbside parking lots outside their homes clear. After that, other neighborhoods throughout the city will have a mechanism of opting into a similar program, provided the majority of that neighborhood's residents approve.
"We're at a point now where there are a number of initiatives and actions that are converging," Keene said, alluding to the permit program, the city's consideration of new garages and the soon-to-be-developed "Transportation Demand Management" program that will offer incentives to employees in Palo Alto's central business districts to switch to mass transit, shuttles, carpools and other means of commuting while leaving their cars at home.
"From a staff perspective, clearly there is light at the end of the tunnel," Keene said. "Help is on the way."
The council is fully behind this effort. Since 2009, council members have been forced to listen to angry residents rail about the city's "horribly mismanaged" planning process and informed that they "should be ashamed." Last September, a sympathetic Councilman Pat Burt spoke for most of the council when he said that while it's not reasonable for downtown residents to "expect perfection" when it comes to parking, it's also "not reasonable to get flooded with a steep increase, which seems to be the pattern we've seen in the last few years."
This year, at its annual retreat in February, the council unanimously adopted "Downtown and California Avenue" as one of its official 2013 priorities, with parking and traffic issues at the top of the agenda. At the meeting, Councilwoman Liz Kniss agreed that the issues are of high concern: "I don't think there's anything I heard more about than downtown parking and the issues that have arisen from that."
In his most recent monthly newsletter, Mayor Greg Scharff also declared traffic and parking to be the city's top issues.
For council members, the problem of parking hits close to home both politically and literally. A March meeting on downtown's parking shortages resembled a game of bureaucratic musical chairs, with council members (and, at one point, Keene) leaving the council chambers during certain parts of the discussion because the proposed solution involved an area close enough to their property to constitute a "conflict of interest" under state law.
The idea for a parking-permit program isn't new. In 1983, the city created a six-month pilot program for a section of Old Palo Alto, an affluent neighborhood that stretches from Alma Street to Middlefield Road and from Embarcadero Road to Oregon Expressway.
The program ultimately fizzled because it could not pay for itself as the council had instructed, Interim Planning Director Aaron Aknin said recently. Officials tried again in 2000, with the same result.
Now, things are different. Finances are no longer a major goal. Cost recovery, Aknin said, is "a component and a detail, but not the bottom line."
Keene told the Weekly that in his opinion the parking problem is "significant enough" to warrant a permit-parking program.
"Revenue neutrality is not essential," Keene said.
So what will it look like? Very colorful, for one thing. The proposed parking program has almost the entire downtown from Alma on the west to Guinda Street on the east, from the Menlo Park border on the north to Embarcadero Road to the south divided into color zones. Almost every zone would have a two-hour parking limit for everyone who doesn't have a color-specific permit. The only exception would be a section of Downtown North, including two blocks of Alma and High streets, which would have a four-hour limit.
The concept effectively expands downtown's existing color-zone system, which prevents people from re-parking that day within the same color zone once the two-hour time slot is up.
The city also presented on Sept. 24 an alternative based on the 2000 parking-program proposal. The concept is the same, though it includes a larger number of colored zones 17 versus 10. Up to two color-specific permits would be available per residence. Each permit would be specific to a color zone and would hang on the car's rearview mirror, allowing residents and commuters to easily swap them among vehicles. Residents would also be able to buy additional permits for guests.
The program is a work in progress and will be carefully monitored and refined as needed, Aknin told a crowd of about 40 residents on Sept. 24. The city isn't expecting to get it "100 percent right" on the first go-round.
A broader approach
But the stakes to get it right are high. Once the program is in effect, staff plans to make the downtown program a template for other areas of town. Neighborhoods like Evergreen Park will have a chance to apply for their own parking-permit program. Like their downtown counterparts, they would have to submit surveys showing that more than 50 percent of the neighborhood's residents support such a program.
"If all goes as we're thinking it could, in the first quarter of next year (residential parking-permit program) districts would be established," Keene told the Weekly. Equally important, the program would circumvent the need for the city to respond to neighborhoods' parking woes on a case-by-case basis, as has been the city's practice in the past.
Taking the citywide approach has its drawbacks, though. For one thing, it's taking a long time to implement, pushing to the limit the patience of residents in neighborhoods across Palo Alto.
Earlier this year, residents in a section of Crescent Park along the East Palo Alto border urged the city to give them a parking-permit program. Droves of tenants of East Palo Alto apartment complexes had started parking every night in the neighborhood. The idea, however, was rebuffed by Chief Transportation Official Jaime Rodriguez, who said a Crescent Park permit program was "not something we can move forward with in near term." Rather, he said, staff wanted to come up with a more comprehensive solution.
The decision to take the broader approach was prompted by staff's failure last year to bring a parking program to a small section of Professorville. Formulated after a year of meetings with residents and business people, the proposal was shot down by the council last November, with the majority agreeing that it would create a Whac-A-Mole situation wherein commuter cars pushed out of one residential area would simply move on to another. The council directed staff to consider solutions that could be more widely implemented.
At the July 30 meeting about Crescent Park, Planning and Transportation Commissioner Michael Alcheck drew applause from a crowd when he criticized the city for forcing the neighborhood to wait until downtown's problems are solved. Many people "are really upset and are not satisfied" with the length of time the process is taking, Alcheck said.
"We should not accept the notion that we need to wait for downtown Palo Alto to figure it out," he said.
A month later, Alcheck repeated his frustration, saying he was "astounded at the pace our city implements parking solutions." He called the wait for a comprehensive parking plan "a moratorium on parking-strategy implementation."
"I'd much rather be able to say that, after a year of hearing about parking issues in downtown, we implemented something and it failed than to be able to say that we didn't implement anything," Alcheck said.
Another challenge with the one-size-fits-all approach is that it assumes that a similar program could be successfully adopted by neighborhoods with very different problems.
College Terrace, the only neighborhood in the city with a parking-permit program, struggled with an influx of Stanford University students and car campers. In downtown, the focus is on employees. Crescent Park residents were mostly concerned about cars from East Palo Alto. (Crescent Park residents have since received the go ahead for a temporary overnight-parking ban, with residents able to buy permits to park.)
The new approach also comes with its own set of glaring unknowns. Will the high number of color zones prove confusing? Are the boundaries of each zone too restrictive? How many permits should downtown business owners get for their employees, and how much should these cost to meet the area's supply-and-demand objectives? And what will be the effect on employers and on service workers who can ill afford to run outside every two hours to move their cars?
At the Sept. 24 meeting, several members of the public, including former Councilwoman Dena Mossar, argued that the proposed program could cause problems for businesses that rely on "low-cost employees."
"I'm concerned that we're going to drive that sort of service business out of the downtown area by doing this," Mossar said.
An "exodus" of businesses
Palo Alto's major business organizations have yet to take a stance on the proposed programs, though it's safe to say many individual business owners will oppose it. In late July, a group of business owners and downtown landlords co-signed a letter blasting the proposed permit program and arguing that it would lead to an "exodus" of businesses from downtown. The group, which includes developer Chop Keenan, Whole Foods, Peninsula Creamery and Watercourse Way, alleged that many of the parking problems in the South of Forest Avenue area (which includes Professorville) are caused by the neighbors themselves. Many residents, the letter asserted, have garages but choose to use them for storage rather than parking. Others have more vehicles than they have had in the past, which also contributes to parking shortages.
The letter predicted that downtown's decline will be "slow and not noticeable in its initial stages.
"As employee parking becomes difficult and office building leases expire, office/technology companies will leave the downtown one-by-one for more attractive areas," the business owners wrote. "This, in turn will reduce the supply of customers for restaurants, retail and service businesses. By the time the economic effects of the exodus are noticed, it will be too late to reverse."
This week, an alternative, business-favorable solution proposed by a group calling itself the Committee For Fair Parking recommended the city provide designated street parking spaces for residents. All the rest of the street parking would remain free all day to the public. The number of designated spaces a household would get would be the number of adults in the home who own a car minus the number of parking spaces on the property (the garage or, presumably, the driveway).
The group is gathering signatures on a petition to push its idea, which is posted at paparking.weebly.com.
Concurrently, the city's planning commission is planning on Wednesday, Oct.9, to review a staff proposal that would allow residents to reserve on-street parking in front of their homes.
These protesting businesses do not, however, speak for everyone. Russ Cohen, executive director of the Downtown Business and Professional Association, said his group is not opposed to the idea of a permit program, though it has concerns about the way it is being implemented. He noted that business owners last year "came together with the residential community to put together an RPPP program that was ultimately not approved by the City Council."
"I don't think it's necessarily accurate to say the business community would be against the RPPP," Cohen said. "We simply want a collaborative process to take place."
He called last year's limited Professorville program a "collaborative process that we fully endorsed." Today, by contrast, "We're talking about wholesale change and an implementation of RPPP zones in many parts of the city.
"Frankly, we would've hoped that the business community could have been more involved in giving more input in implementing it," Cohen said. "There are some businesses that are located within the zones that are being proposed for RPPP. So what are the unintended consequences of that?"
Others see the new proposal as too accommodating to business interests. Among them is Doria Summa, who used to live in Professorville and who worked with the city to set up Palo Alto's first and only residential parking-permit program in her current neighborhood of College Terrace. By allowing some businesses' employees to buy permits to park in residential neighborhoods, as the new proposal has suggested, "It is carving away into neighborhood streets for office commuters and workers, which is antithetical to what RPPP is in my mind."
"What it amounts to then is another parking exemption for developers (who don't provide sufficient parking for their buildings) because they can count on there being neighborhood parking," Summa told the Weekly.
Shahla Yazdy, a transportation engineer who worked on the College Terrace permit program, said that what makes the downtown program particularly complex is the sheer number of competing interests. In College Terrace it was pretty much "all residents and a few Stanford homes."
"In downtown you have a mix of employers, employees and residents, which really complicates things," Yazdy said. "Downtown does have a variety of stakeholders, and you really have to take their needs into account and try to pick the options that would at least satisfy most of them."
If parking evokes nearly primal reactions from people, there's a reason for that, says Donald Shoup, a UCLA professor of urban design. The author of the highly influential book "The High Cost of Free Parking," Shoup describes the dynamics of parking policy in biological terms.
"Thinking about parking seems to take place in the reptilian cortex, the most primitive part of the brain responsible for making snap decisions about urgent fight-or-flight choices, such as how to avoid being eaten. The brain's reptilian cortex is said to govern instinctive behavior involved in aggression, dominance, territoriality, and ritual display all important factors in cruising for parking and debating about parking policies."
Cooler heads measure
This analysis is unlikely to shock anyone who has attended recent public meetings about parking. Now, Buchanan and his Downtown North neighbor, Eric Filseth, are trying to lower the volume and bring some clarity to the discussion through a typically Palo Altan approach an interactive software that predicts the impact of new developments on parking. On Sept. 11, they crossed the residential-business divide and demonstrated this tool at a meeting of the Business Advocacy and Public Policy Forum, a policy discussion hosted by the Palo Alto Chamber of Commerce.
The program uses city data about existing and upcoming developments and allows users to adjust the default assumptions about things like how many commuters take mass transit and the number of office workers who will fill the new buildings. The picture it shows isn't pretty. If things pan out as envisioned, the city's current "parking deficit" would nearly triple by 2016, extending the flood of cars that has already washed over Professorville and Downtown North to new neighborhoods, including Crescent Park and parts of Old Palo Alto. In the future, the red semi-circles on the map that signify near-total parking congestion would expand to adjacent neighborhoods like radioactive clouds.
Even if the numbers are off, no one disputes that the problem will get a whole lot worse once the latest crop of new office buildings go up a group that includes 135 Hamilton Ave., 240 Hamilton Ave., 636 Waverley St. and the "Lytton Gateway" building on the corner of Lytton and Alma, bringing hundreds of new employees to downtown. Using city data about existing and projected parking shortages, Filseth and Buchanan estimated that the deficit will go from about 900 spaces today to 1,366 in 2014, to 1,858 in 2015 and to 2,500 in 2016.
The presentation to Chamber officials included photos of Filseths' block in Downtown North during a typical weekday. Each side of the street featured an unbroken line of cars, which reduce the width of the street to a 15-foot lane resembling a one-way street, which it isn't. Filseth noted that the street is frequently used by children on bikes (including his two children) and wondered as to how a fire engine would squeeze through. This type of situation, he said, is what concerns Downtown North residents. The parking shortage creates an atmosphere that is not appropriate for a residential area, Filseth said.
He then juxtaposed the photo with one from College Terrace, whose residential permit program was a product of years of lobbying and funding from Stanford (see sidebar). The College Terrace photo showed a calm street with a few parked cars and plenty of open spaces.
"We want to look like College Terrace," Filseth said.
The Chamber, like the downtown association, has not yet taken a position on the proposed parking-permit program. David MacKenzie, the Chamber's CEO, said there is currently no consensus within the group on this subject. He told Filseth and Buchanan that he will let Chamber members know about the parking model, review the organization's prior stances about permit programs and then come up with "some positions."
"It's probably the biggest issue we have right now and something we want to get involved in and work on soon," MacKenzie said.
Cohen told the Weekly that one of his concerns about the broad new parking program is the lack of data about existing conditions and the changing dynamics downtown. Traditionally, for example, office buildings were assumed to have roughly one employee per 250 square feet of space. Today, thanks to the startup culture, that allotment is likely much different possibly one employee per 100 square feet.
"Who really knows what the formula is anymore? There probably isn't any formula," Cohen said.
At the same time, there are downtown residents "who aren't using garages as they were intended to be used" and households that have more than two cars per family, he said. One reason his organization supported the pilot program in Professorville last year was because it would allow the city to gather some data before making broader decisions. Though he didn't go as far as to say the program will lead to a business "exodus," he suggested that if the city isn't careful, it could create new problems for residents and businesses.
"If you make things difficult for residents or for the business community, something has to break. Something has to happen," Cohen said. "Either residents will say, 'It's not worth living here. We'll have to move,' or businesses will say, 'We'll go elsewhere.'"