Ever since Palo Alto rolled out its first residential parking program in College Terrace a decade ago, limiting all-day street parking exclusively to residents, programs that restrict parking by non-residents have become a hot commodity — and an object of exasperation — in one neighborhood after another.
Despite the heavy demand, the programs have frustrated city workers, local employees and neighborhood residents, who generally agree that the permit systems are unnecessarily complex to set up and operate. Residents of neighborhoods with the parking programs, which apply to 28 percent of the city's households, find them necessary but still, along some streets, ineffective.
Meanwhile, employers, who must rush to get their permits with an urgency normally reserved for "Hamilton" tickets, fume about the limited supply.
Now, a movement is afoot to change all that. A new analysis of the city's residential preferential parking (RPP) programs, which the City Council plans to discuss on May 13, makes 35 recommendations for revamping the city's policies.
Among the broadest of these is a proposed shift from the existing system of limited pre-paid permits, which the report describes as "rigid," to a more dynamic system in which rates and supplies fluctuate based on demand.
The report from city transportation consultant Wayne Tanda also recommends that the city standardize the cost of employee parking permits in these programs and — to discourage on-street parking — make sure that the permits cost more than parking at garages or parking lots.
Tanda also recommends that the city make the various neighborhoods' programs uniform, barring "extenuating circumstances." Inconsistencies currently include, but are not limited to, the number of resident permits, the cost of such permits and the number of single-day permits, Tanda wrote.
In the Crescent Park program, for example, each household can get two permits. In Southgate it's three, and in Evergreen Park it's four.
The College Terrace program limits long-term parking (beyond the two-hour limit) to permit holders and only sells permits to residents. The downtown program and the one around California Avenue sell a limited number of permits to employees, with the quantity fluctuating every year based on staff recommendations and the council's changing preferences.
The Crescent Park program, established in 2016, is different in that it bans overnight parking. It is the simplest of the city's programs and most dissimilar from all the others.
The various districts also use their own individual software permit-management systems, which Tanda recommends bringing under new "comprehensive parking permit and citation management system."
"The differences give the impression that city residents do not receive equitable treatment," Tanda wrote of the recommendation for greater uniformity.
The differences, however, reflect each neighborhood's unique problems and ambitions. Downtown residents and their counterparts in Evergreen Park and Mayfield — the two neighborhoods that border the California Avenue business district — have parking restrictions designed to keep out commuters. Southgate residents' program targets Palo Alto High students and their cars.
A portion of Old Palo Alto near the California Avenue Caltrain station has petitioned for a program to thwart Caltrain commuters, who prefer to park for free on Old Palo Alto streets rather than pay to park in the Caltrain lot. The City Council will review that proposal on Monday.
In concrete terms, to help reform the permit system, Tanda and City Manager Ed Shikada are recommending adding new positions to the newly created Office of Transportation, one of which would be a much-needed second "parking manager." Those who have occupied the city's current parking manager (or "transportation planning manager") position have not lasted on the job for long. The city has had three different people in the post since spring of 2016. The last person to fill it, Philip Kamhi, resigned in April 2018 and has not been replaced.
A new report from Shikada highlighted the challenge of filling this position.
"Due to the complex nature of the program and the high demands for constituent relations, this staff position is very vulnerable to burnout and frustration," the report states.
If adopted by the council, the report's recommendations have the potential to upend the city's existing residential permit programs. As such, some of the residents who had spent years putting the existing programs together are greeting the recommendations with skepticism.
Neilson Buchanan, a downtown resident who served on the stakeholder group that helped design the downtown program, said he has been talking with neighborhood leaders in his district and in Evergreen Park. While the residents agree with most of Tanda's recommendations — including creating a more consistent payment program for employee permits and increasing the costs of non-resident permits — they vigorously rejected his recommendation that the city make the districts more consistent with one another.
"College Terrace rightfully has a standard for no non-resident parking. Evergreen Park seeks significant reduction (of employee permits) upon completion of a large commercial garage for commercial area around California Avenue," states Buchanan's summary of the residents' comments, which were submitted to the city. "Downtown North has consistently been receptive to lower-income merchant-class workers to have permanent, limited access to its residential streets.
"(The) staff report suggests that this level of differential is not desired due to administrative burden upon staff. Much of this burden is due to poor system design and high staff turnover."
The council will consider Tanda's broad recommendations, as well as residents' feedback, on Monday night. It will also consider the city's next steps for addressing the latest requests for neighborhood parking districts.
Chris Robell, who is leading the Old Palo Alto effort to establish a permit program, hopes the former effort doesn't delay the latter. He and his neighborhood submitted their initial petition for a program in May 2018 and it is still, in the best-case scenario, months from implementation.
The city's municipal code calls for the council to adopt or expand residential parking zones by September. But Transportation Planning Manager Sylvia Star-Lack warned the city's planning commission in March that it could take longer because data must be collected and the department's staff is shorthanded.