A parking lot near the Palo Alto Baylands will be transformed into a shelter for people living in cars, equipped with a shower, a lot attendant and case managers charged with helping residents find stable homes.
The City Council unanimously approved on Monday a proposal to lease the lot at 2000 Geng Road to Santa Clara County for three years. The county would then partner with the nonprofit Move Mountain View, which operates the safe lot program in Mountain View, to run the Baylands location.
The site, which is located near the Baylands Athletic Field and the Baylands Golf Links course, also includes buildings that were briefly used by the Palo Alto Fire Department as a temporary fire station. With Monday's vote, the 24,000-square-foot lot is set to be Palo Alto's first safe parking location, though numerous council members suggested that it probably won't be the last.
"The longest journeys start with that first step," said Vice Mayor Tom DuBois, who last year co-authored a memo with Councilwoman Lydia Kou advocating for safe parking programs.
The parking lot will be able to house about 12 vehicles, said Amber Stime, executive director of Move Mountain View, which has recently expanded its Mountain View operations to include five lots. Stime told the council that in addition to providing a 24/7 place for residents to park, the safe parking programs in Mountain View offer other services that have proven to be critical during the COVID-19 pandemic. This includes monthly COVID-19 testing, a food pantry and case management.
"It's not just a parking lot to park your vehicle, it's more of a wrap-around service that we've been able to provide," Stime said.
According to the organization, an average stay by a vehicle dweller in a safe-parking program has been 120 days. Because of the turnover, and the fact that many vehicles include more than one resident, the site will have a "multiplier effect," said Santa Clara County Supervisor Joe Simitian, who worked with cities to identify sites and led the county's effort to allocate funding for safe parking.
"The goal is to move people through the program, out of the program, into a better place. Frankly, to some level of service and housing that's really lasting and long term," Simitian told the council Monday.
If the Geng Road site can accommodate 30 to 40 people at a time (given that some vehicles have multiple residents), and it turns over four to five times a year, that means about 200 people benefit from its services annually, Simitian said.
"And that's no small accomplishment for a single site," Simitian said. "After this site has proved itself to be a success that I feel sure it would be, you can be sure I will be back, chatting with you about other sites in the future."
While everyone on the council supported the program, not everyone was thrilled about doing so. Mayor Adrian Fine said he had some reservations about the remoteness of the Geng Road location and suggested that the conversation would have been different if the proposed site for safe parking was near California Avenue or at Cubberley Community Center, an area that served as an impromptu shelter for vehicle dwellers before the council, spurred by neighborhood complaints, moved in 2013 to ban them from Cubberley and to keep the facility closed at night.
"What does it mean about us as a community that we're enthusiastic to support vehicle dwellers in a parking lot in the Baylands where it's out of sight and out of mind? And what does that say about us?" Fine said.
Councilman Greg Tanaka wondered whether there might be more lucrative uses for the lot. Under the terms approved Monday, the city will lease the land to the county for $1 for three years. The county will bear all the costs of making the needed site improvements, partnering with the nonprofit group and providing case management services, which all council members agreed are crucial to the program's success.
Tanaka suggested that it might make more sense to lease the land and invest money directly in homeless services (the city already leases a portion of the site to car dealership Anderson Honda). He also suggested that the proposed lease with the county be amended so that the city would have the flexibility to opt out or modify the agreement after a year.
"Three years is a long time and I want to make sure we have some control over it," Tanaka said. "Not just that we can negotiate again, but that we have direct control over how this program is conducted."
DuBois, a strong supporter of the program, pushed back against the idea that the city should look for ways to make money off this site rather than dedicate it to safe parking.
"Sure, we can lease this to a startup, a car dealership, a coal factory," DuBois said. "But I think we have a responsibility to the residents, and that includes those living in vehicles. … I reject the idea that our city's filter would be maximizing money without taking care of people."
Most council members were happy to approve the proposal, which represents a change in Palo Alto's approach to safe parking. In January, the council agreed to limit the program to local congregations that would provide overnight parking to up to four vehicles. While several congregations expressed interest in the program, they halted their efforts once the COVID-19 pandemic hit and shelter-in-place orders took effect.
The city still plans to move ahead with the church program (which the council calls "Tier One") and with a proposal to partner with corporations to use their lots for safe parking ("Tier Two"). But the council was pleased on Monday to be able to skip straight to "tier three" — the use of a city-owned site for a larger program.
Councilwoman Alison Cormack lauded the fact that the Geng Road would offer 24/7 parking, rather than being limited to overnight use. Councilman Eric Filseth said the site is "reasonable," while Kou called the new staff proposal "truly awesome."
"We are moving faster than we thought we would," Kou said. "I know that there were a few obstacles, but this is 24/7 and it's a huge step forward."
Meanwhile, several local congregations are preparing to resume their suspended plans. Rob Schulze, pastor at Peninsula Bible Church, told this news organization that his church has formed a committee dedicated to exploring a safe parking program.
Eileen Altman, associate pastor at First Congregational Church of Palo Alto, informed the council Monday that her church has also been considering adopting such a program. A major challenge, she told the council, has been including case-management services in the program. She suggested that Palo Alto's decision to invite Moving Mountain View could address that problem.
"My hope is that this effort might then allow faith communities to partner with this effort so we can expand their program with our faith communities in Palo Alto," Altman said.