For people living in downtown Palo Alto, the city's recently launched parking-permit program offered a promising start to solving their most frustrating problem of the last decade: parking along their streets that some likened to a daily "tidal wave" of commuters' cars.
But for their neighbors just outside the permit district, the new program has been a curse rather a blessing, steering commuters who had once parked close to the heart of downtown to more peripheral streets, where they can still park all day for free. For those residents, the city's "solution" didn't solve the problem; it merely shifted it to their blocks.
Now, as city officials consider next steps for what is known as the Residential Preferential Parking Program, residents from a dozen blocks just outside the permit zone's boundaries are petitioning to join. At the same time, transportation planners and neighborhood stakeholders are considering a host of more fundamental changes to the fledgling program, including a gradual reduction in permits sold to employees.
The City Council will have a chance to discuss the proposed changes and offer input on Dec. 14. Among the questions they will consider is whether to annex 12 new blocks for the parking district and whether to limit the number of permits sold to downtown workers.
Whatever changes the council adopts would take effect in March, when the second phase of the parking program is set to launch. The first phase, which began in September, was in many ways a pilot, aimed as much at collecting data and learning about commuter behavior as at actually solving the problem. In the first phase, permits were sold to any downtown employee and resident who wanted one. A permit allows the driver to park all day anywhere in the permit district, which otherwise has a two-hour time limit.
According to planning staff, the program has achieved some success. More people now opt to park in downtown's historically underused garages, with the wait list for garage permits roughly doubling -- from about 120 to 150 applications monthly to around 250 to 300 -- since the parking-permit program launched.
More importantly, conditions have markedly improved along neighborhood streets. As soon as the program took effect, residents in Downtown North and Professorville began seeing empty street spots on their blocks -- a sight that would have been unheard of before September. Planners estimate that the number of cars parking daily in the district has plunged by 300 to 400. This could be because the city only issues permits to workers and residents; Stanford University students and Caltrain commuters can no longer use the residential blocks as their parking lots.
At the same time, however, portions of the Crescent Park and Professorville neighborhoods, just east and south of the district, respectively, have been hit particularly hard by spillover parking. Leslie Johnson Evers and her neighbor Perry Irvine, who live on the 1100 block of Waverley, reported in a letter to the city that since the program took effect their block and the 1200 block have been "inundated by all-day parkers."
Now, Evers wrote, visitors no longer have a place to park between 7 a.m. and 6 p.m. Even the residents themselves often can't park.
Evers noted she because she doesn't have a driveway or a garage, she "can't access my own home if I leave a spot open for even an hour."
"This is a sudden and unnecessary hardship, and it has changed the character of our neighborhood much to its detriment," Evers wrote.
Her block, as well as the 1200 and 1300 blocks of Waverley, are among the dozen now seeking annexation to the parking district, which is bounded by Alma Street, Palo Alto Avenue, Guinda Street, Bryant Street and Lincoln Avenue. Other blocks that have petitioned for annexation are the 800 block of Forest; the 800 and 900 blocks of Hamilton Avenue; the 300 block of Kingsley Avenue; and 500 block of Lincoln Avenue; the 800 block of Lytton Avenue; and the 400, 500 and 600 blocks of Seneca Street.
Planning staff are recommending that these blocks, which lie south of Bryant and east of Guinda, be brought into the parking district. In addition, the staff is also recommending that the district be extended beyond these blocks to account for the parking spillage that will occur once the borders are expanded. Residents of those additional blocks would still have to submit a petition showing support before the parking limit would take effect.
Not everyone is thrilled about the proposed annexation. Norm Beamer, president of the Crescent Park Neighborhood Association, predicted that the types of parking problems will spread to his area. New downtown developments that are allowed to pay a parking-assessment fee rather than provide on-site parking will only exacerbate the problem, he said.
Beamer said many people park their cars farther from downtown and then travel to work by bike or skateboard, thus enabling commuters to park outside of even the expanded district proposed by staff, which is based on commuters' "standard walking distances" (about half a mile maximum).
"As they institute a permit district on Seneca, you'll see people parking on Chaucer," Beamer said. "Once they do it on Chaucer, people will start parking on the next one."
One change that Beamer said would help the situation is limiting permits to residents, a system similar to the parking program in College Terrace. Earlier this week, Beamer and John Guislin, a Crescent Park resident who belongs to the city's parking-permit stakeholder group, submitted a proposal to the council that residents of each neighborhood be allowed to select the type of permit program they'd like to see.
"Now is the time to take action to establish a comprehensive program for Crescent Park like in College Terrace that acknowledges that residential neighborhoods may request a Resident Only Parking Program to protect them from increased intrusion resulting from ongoing development," Guislin and Beamer wrote. "If residents of neighborhoods like Crescent Park are going to be forced to pay permit fees to park near their homes, then the program needs to eliminate the parking intrusion that is the source of the problem."
Planning staff agree that the number of permits issued to downtown employees needs to be reduced, but they are recommending a more gradual approach to achieve this end. So far, the city has sold 6,693 parking permits, which includes 4,551 resident permits and 2,142 employee permits. Under the staff proposal, the number of employee permits that would be sold next year would be capped at 2,000, and permit holders' parking spots would be geographically distributed across downtown so that no particular area gets saturated. After that, staff is proposing to decrease the number of employee permits by 200 annually, until 2026, when no employee permits would be sold.
The idea of limiting employee permits and distributing parkers geographically has received general support from most members the stakeholder group, according to a letter by Michael Hodos, a Professorville resident who serves on the group.
Not everyone shares this view, though. Sue Nightingale, co-owner of the business Watercourse Way, submitted her own letter arguing against employee limits. Such a step, she argued, is unnecessary because the existing system, which already charges workers for permits to park on the street, appears to be working.
"The most impactful change to help alleviate the stress on inadequate parking supply for customers, employees and residents would be to create more parking," Nightingale wrote. "Designate it for employee use only."
It will be up to the council to decide on Dec. 14 whether and how to limit the employee permits and the best way to disperse employee vehicles throughout downtown. A new report from the Department of Planning and Community Environment offers three options. One would rely on traditional neighborhood designations, with a certain amount of permits assigned to Crescent Park, Downtown North, Professorville and University South.
Another would create three concentric zones, one just outside downtown's commercial core, another one just outside that one, and a third one covering the more peripheral areas, including the southern portion of Professorville, the northern edge of Downtown North and much of Crescent Park. This option, which is favored by staff and most stakeholders, may also include a pricing structure in which employee permits cost more if they are closer to the downtown core.
The third option would create 11 "microzones" in the permit area, which would allow for more precise vehicle distribution but also create new challenges in enforcement and management, according to the staff report.
While residents in Crescent Park and beyond remain concerned about new developments and their implications for downtown's parking mess, city staff is more hopeful about the future. The city has recently launched a Transportation Management Association, a group charged with encouraging employees to take alternate modes of transportation and with reducing the drive-alone rate by 30 percent. If the group achieves this goal by 2030, off-street parking spaces, as well as garages, would be able to accommodate downtown's parking demand, assuming there is little or no downtown job growth, according to the staff report.