It took years for Palo Alto to launch its downtown parking-permit program and just hours for Palo Alto resident Ian Irwin to notice his block's transformation.
"It seems like a miracle," said Irwin, who lives on Cowper Street and Homer Avenue, an area that he describes as "chaotic" in terms of traffic and parking. "Maybe it's Labor Day week. Maybe it's because Stanford is out. Both in traffic calming and in parking, the street has changed since the signs went up. It's kind of amazing"
The signs he is referring to are the roughly 800 that were installed in downtown's residential areas over the past month and that were unveiled Tuesday, when the city's Residential Preferential Parking program went into effect.
Each proclaims the area to be a two-hour parking zone, unless cars have a parking permit. On Tuesday, the city's contracted enforcement team was patrolling neighborhoods and placing notices on permit-less cars. Printed-out permits lay on the dashboards of some cars while others had hanger permits dangling from rear-view mirrors. Cars were still parked against the curb on many downtown blocks, but now more than before there were blank spaces between them.
On Wednesday, during a meeting of the Residential Parking Permit stakeholders group, Irwin was one of several downtown residents to offer feedback on the new program.
Others confirmed his observation, including Elaine Uang, a downtown resident and member of the stakeholders group, who said she noticed a "dramatic effect." There are many more open spaces now, she said, including near her house in Downtown North.
"My block it was totally unprecedented was completely empty," Uang said. "And I'm adjacent to Johnson Park, which is usually fully parked."
Further south, in Professorville, Michael Hodos noticed a similar phenomenon. At Tuesday night's City Council meeting, Hodos reported his observations from a morning walk to Peet's coffee shop.
"There wasn't a car on Channing. A few cars on Bryant. Not a car on Addison," said Hodos, who is also a member of the stakeholders group. "Normally, at that time in the morning the cars would be bumper to bumper and there would be no space left."
The debut wasn't without its hiccups. The rollout has been marred by a flurry of complaints about the city's online permit-purchase system. Residents reported a variety of problems with the online system, many of them bugs that the city's contractors have by now resolved, according to city officials.
Craig Allen, a resident of Channing House, said he was "appalled" by the online system, which caused confusion among many Channing House residents. One problem was that the system did not allow users to return to the permit page once they left it, he said.
"We have a lot of people who went through and failed to print their permits," Allen said.
Planning Director Hillary Gitelman concurred that printing is a problem others have also experienced. Some residents have reportedly been placing their payment receipts on their dashboards instead of permits, Gitelman said. Others displayed screen shots.
Given all the problems, officials late last week have decided to extend the "warning period" (initially slated to last two weeks) to four weeks, before the $53 citations are actually issued. The program will have a two-week "noticing period" and will be followed by a two-week "warning period" before citations are issued to parking violators.
But on Wednesday, Gitelman said that officials have not yet decided when to begin enforcement.
The city, she said, still has plenty of work to do in helping residents and employees get their permits. As of Wednesday, the city has issued 3,743 permits: 2,847 to residents and 896 to businesses. Gitelman noted that there are about 4,000 housing units in the downtown permit area. Most have more than one car, she added.
"We still have a lot of residential permits that we need to get out there," Gitelman said.
Permit sales aren't the only issue with the new program. There is also the more predictable problem of drivers who had previously enjoyed free all-day parking inside the permit area are now simply moving their cars a little further, just outside the area.
Some now likely park in downtown's commercial core, where a two-hour limit requires them to re-park their cars throughout the day (incidentally, the city's parking manager Jessica Sullivan, said the number of parking citations in downtown's commercial core has risen since the permit program began).
Maryanne Mueller, who lives on Kingsley Avenue in a section of Professorville that is not permitted, said she and her neighbors saw a very different kind of change once the signs were unveiled.
"I heard it's working wonderful for some parts, but we're in a funny little un-permitted pocket and we are under deluge," Mueller said at the Wednesday meeting.
She then made another observation: "Lincoln Avenue is now completely free," Mueller said of a street that has traditionally been populated with cars. "I was riding my bike there and thinking something is wrong."
For the stakeholders group, the launching represented a significant milestone after months of delays and years of complaints about a deteriorating parking situation in downtown's residential neighborhoods.
A prior proposal, aimed for a small portion of Professorville, fizzled in 2012 after the council rejected it and called for a more "comprehensive" solution. The new program took about a year of work from city staff and members of the stakeholders committee.
The council approved it in December 2014 but the launching was pushed back, partly because of a dispute with the city's labor union over the enforcement contract. Now it's here and, for better or worse, it didn't take long for it to make a dent in one of the city's most pressing problems.
Sullivan observed at the beginning of the meeting that there's been "some significant changes in the last two to three days."
With the program launching, the city has also expanded its effort to reach out to downtown businesses and residents. In-person assistance for buying permits is now offered in the City Hall lobby, between 8:30 a.m. and 4:30 p.m. Monday through Thursday and between 8:30 a.m. and 5:30 p.m. on Friday. Meanwhile, permit-less drivers who park their cars in the residential neighborhoods now find themselves greeted by a letter on their windshields.
"Hello!" the letter says. "You have parked in a residential area which is part of the new Downtown Residential Preferential Parking (RPP) District. In the future, if you plan on parking for more than two hours in this area you will need to display a valid PERMIT on your dashboard between the hours of 8:00-5:00, Monday through Friday."
The letter also describes the program, informs the driver of the $53 citations, offers instructions on how to buy a permit and instructs the driver to "have a great day!"
Sullivan said about 150 notices were left on cars on the program's first day. Richard Brand, a member of the stakeholders group and a Professorville resident, concurred that he had seen an enforcer posting notices earlier in the day. They're doing a good job, he said.
"He was zipping on a bike, checking for things, putting papers on cars," Brand said.
The permit program is now in its first phase, which is expected to stretch for about six months and focus on data gathering. In this phase, each household in the permit area is eligible for four permits, with an option of buying two more. Employees must pay either $50 or $233 for their permit, depending on income level. In the second phase, the city will consider limiting the number of permits sold and designating permits for particular blocks to make sure employees' cars are spread out throughout the neighborhoods.
More information about the new parking program is available here.