As Palo Alto considers lowering its parking requirements to spur production of multifamily housing, a newly released study indicates that scores of parking spaces at local apartment buildings currently go unused -- a fact that has some residents crying foul.
The study, performed by the consulting firm Fehr + Peers, evaluated nine different residential complexes to determine whether the parking supply met the demand. Consultants conducted parking counts at five different times of the week -- including days, nights and weekends -- and concluded that in nearly all cases, there exists a surplus of parking spaces.
In the California Park Apartments, an affordable-housing complex that includes 70 spaces, only 41 were filled at peak demand time (a weekday evening), suggesting an oversupply of 71 percent. Oak Court Apartments in downtown Palo Alto, also a below-market-rate development, had 66 parked cars and 107 spaces, according to the consultant.
The trend was similar in market-rate apartment buildings. Downtown's The Marc, for example, has 157 spaces but only 90 cars during peak parking hours; Midtown Court Apartments, behind the Midtown Shopping Center, has 69 spaces and 46 cars; while Tan Plaza Apartments on Arastradero Road had 84 spaces and 70 cars.
Among senior-housing facilities, Sheridan Apartments on Alma Street had the closest alignment between supply and demand, with 21 spaces and 20 cars. In downtown's Lytton Gardens, by contrast, there were 51 spaces and just 35 cars. And at Stevenson House on Charleston Road, there were 50 spaces and 41 cars.
The new study, which the Planning and Transportation Commission discussed Wednesday night, added some fuel to community's the simmering debates about housing and parking and gave both sides something to talk about. For housing advocates, the survey constitutes evidence that the city's parking requirements are too steep and onerous, particularly for providers of affordable housing. Commissioner Michael Alcheck said Wednesday night there are many residents who agree that parking "perfectly epitomizes the concept of low-hanging fruit" when it comes to encouraging housing.
"If our data is demonstrating that our parking standards are greater than necessary, let's adjust them so we don't create hurdles that are expensive and problematic for housing development," Alcheck said.
The city's parking requirements were also highlighted in a memo penned by Councilman Adrian Fine, which outlines a list of policies for staff to explore to encourage more housing. The memo lists the city's requirements for "more parking than is used" and its requirement for on-site (rather than adjacent nearby) parking as significant obstacles to producing reasonably-priced housing.
The new study underscores that point. As part of the new effort to revise parking requirements, city consultants conducted 16 meetings with 22 stakeholders (mostly architects and developers). Most agreed that parking ratios don't reflect demand, that parking requirements are high compared to nearby communities and that existing parking requirements aren't flexible enough to account for high-transit areas.
Alcheck lauded the new data said he hopes the commission will soon have an opportunity to "fix" the city's parking standards so that they better match demand. Others, however, were less enthused about making changes and more skeptical about the survey's findings.
Commissioner Asher Waldfogel also questioned the survey's assumptions, particularly the habits of downtown drivers. Though the report uses U.S. Census data that downtown drivers are less likely to drive than those in other parts of the city, the report also notes that 94 percent of downtown residents own cars (only slightly lower than the 97 percent citywide). While Waldfogel said he would be open to re-evaluating the city's parking "in-lieu fee" program, which allows commercial developers to pay a fee instead of building parking spaces, he wasn't sold on the idea that parking requirements are the big driver in the city's housing shortage.
"I'm not convinced that parking is the real issue that's preventing residential development,"
Neither was Commissioner Doria Summa, who offered anecdotal evidence about her recent trips to various apartment complexes, which in most cases were packed with cars. She suggested that the new study isn't rigorous enough and that it only took a "snapshot" of parking conditions at the various complexes without considering broader issues, such as parking spillover into neighboring streets.
"I'm uncomfortable with the whole approach of increasing housing through underparking buildings," Summa said. "This is kind of what I think this results in."
Several residents shared her perspective and blasted the study for failing to consider the impact of inadequate parking on the surrounding area. Becky Sanders, a resident of Ventura, was one of several residents from her neighborhood to criticize the study, which they argued is being used as the basis for changing the rules and making their parking shortage even worse.
"We have a mandate to try to see if we can reduce, relax parking in order to build more units, more housing, more density. I get that," Sanders said. "I don't think it makes any sense to shoehorn data to try to fit a political goal."
Shirley Wang, who lives on Wilton Avenue, near the site of a proposed affordable-housing development, agreed.
"The study is made up to lower the cost of the building, at the cost of both the existing and future residents on Wilton," Wang said.
Jeff Levinsky argued that city's predictions about parking demand are often wrong and cited his own neighborhood around Edgewood Plaza. The redevelopment of the plaza, he said, filled up neighboring streets, contrary to the city's projections before the project's construction. Similarly, the city has failed to accurately plan for commercial parking in downtown, where the city had recently adopted a Residential Preferential Parking program to deal with the hundreds of commuters who park on neighborhood streets.
"If you reduce our parking requirements, you will imperil our city for 50, 100, 150 or more years," Levinsky said. "That's because the building and its successor and the successor to that building will be grandfathered in with the lower parking requirements."
The city's debate over parking requirements is expected to heat up in the coming months, as the commission considers specific rule changes and as the City Council reviews two multifamily proposals that are proposing reduced parking requirements.
On Monday night, the council will consider approving a "car-light" complex of micro-apartments at 2755 El Camino Real that proposes 68 parking spaces and a robust "transportation demand management" program that includes Caltrain passes, VTA EcoPasses and other incentives for residents to take alternate modes of transportation. Under the current zoning code requirements, which require 1.25 spaces per studio and 1.5 spaces per a one-bedroom units (as well as 19 spaces for guests), the development would have been required to provide 94 spaces.
Later this year, the council also plans to consider the Wilton Court below-market-rate project -- which will feature 61 apartments in the 3700 block of El Camino -- proposed by the nonprofit Palo Alto Housing.
In February, the planning commission debated a proposal to create a new "affordable housing" district that would offer lower parking requirements to projects like Wilton Court. But after two long and heated public hearings, the commission couldn't reach a consensus on the new requirements and the proposal to create the new district fizzled in March.