Palo Alto parking plan may tip the scales of frustration from residents to workers

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Abby Wittmayer has amassed between 20 and 30 parking tickets in the last year alone, or more than $1,000 in fines.

Wittmayer works at Whole Foods in downtown Palo Alto and, believe it or not, would rather search for a new street parking space every two hours than pay $466 for an annual pass to use a garage.

Other workers and customers choose to park a few blocks from downtown on residential streets, which has been a free option. But this practice has left many homeowners with limited parking and even less patience.

Now it’s the business owners and employees’ turn to be angry.

A plan before the Palo Alto City Council would require a permit to park on certain residential streets. The permit would be free for households, but not for others. “It is hard to estimate the cost until we get a better understanding of what [community members] are willing to accept as a perimeter of the program and include details like number of households and parcels,” said Jaime Rodriguez, the city’s chief transportation official.

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Above are two proposed color zones for the downtown area. Click on the maps to zoom in.

Currently the perimeter is defined by Alma Street to the west, Embarcadero Road to the south, Guinda Street to the east and Palo Alto Avenue to the north.

Permits would be available to all households in the area, while no more than 40 percent would be offered to commuters and employees of downtown businesses, according to Aaron Aknin, the city’s acting director of planning and community environment. Free short-term parking would continue to be offered under the plan.

In a 4-3 vote, the city’s Planning and Transportation Commission approved a measure last week to allow residents with permanent disabilities to buy an on-street parking spot directly in front of their home for $250 a year. To be eligible, the resident would have to demonstrate that he or she does not have on-site parking, including driveways or garages.

The commission is also considering increasing the free parking limit from two to four hours for streets closer to downtown. Regions in the downtown area would also be divided into 10 color zones.

Interim Planning Director Aaron Aknin presented an alternative plan that would increase the number of zones from 10 to 17, in an effort to prevent employees from parking in the same zone for more than two hours. In both plans, employees would still have to purchase permits.

The city would issue “hanger permits” that the holder would display on the car’s rear-view mirror.

“From a business point, it would allow workers to transfer those permits between employees based on their shifts and for residents to give out to friends or family visiting,” Aknin said. “Hangers would be able to used only for specific households they are issued to. We don’t want to create a black market for people selling these on Craigslist.”

Parking in downtown Palo Alto

Mike Folan, a store manager at Whole Foods, oversees 200 workers, 80 of whom can be found in the store at any given hour. Folan is a resident of San Jose. Just like his employees, he goes to work primarily by car, which he has to re-park every two hours. “You are in the middle of something — your team member wants to talk or your customer wants to talk, and your alarm goes off to move that car and you can’t leave them there. There is already a ticket on your car. Every single time,” he said.

Palo Alto residents like Mark Nanevicz hope the city’s proposal will alleviate parking scarcity on neighborhood streets.

“At this point I believe it will have a positive effect on the residents, allowing some to finally be able to have access to their house, which in my case has been impossible for the last 15 years,” said Nanevicz, who was part of a group which first proposed the idea in 2000.

Nanevicz understands why employees are reluctant to pay for parking, but also believes that residential parking has suffered as a result of the current system.

“Yes, I believe it will have a negative impact on some business owners who take advantage of our unlimited, unrestricted, and free parking in our neighborhood. But it is not designed for them, obviously,” Nanevicz said. “We can provide some parking permits for those willing to pay but parking is not for free.”

Folan is sympathetic to homeowners’ frustrations, but questions the effectiveness of the proposed solution.

“I get it. The residents want to be able to park in front of their houses. If I lived here, I would too,” he said. “But the city’s proposal allows a maximum of 40 percent non-residents (to park on residential streets). I don’t see where everyone else would be able to park.”

During Folan’s five years as a store manager, there were no major parking program changes. The last changes were made in 2004, recalled Michael Hodos, a longtime resident of Professorville, a district in Palo Alto often overwhelmed with cars.

“Color zones were put in place in response to a request from retail businesses that their employees were keeping away that customers by parking in front of the store,” he said.

Hodos conducted a survey. Every morning, for two weeks, he would sit in front of his house and ask people who would park if they worked downtown and, if so, where. To his surprise, every one of them was an attorney, a banker, an investor. Not a single hourly worker. “I think this lower-paid employee business is a red herring. It is a tiny percentage of the problem,” Hodos said.

Commuters can continue to park in the downtown business district if they are willing to pay for access to the nine off-street parking lots and garages. The costs of these are $466 per year, $146.50 per quarter or $17.50 per day.

Tony Ciampi, who has worked as a gardener in Palo Alto for 20 years, circulated a petition after the Sept. 25 Planning and Transportation Commission meeting. He said the petition has received more than 120 signatures.

Ciampi believes that paying for a permit would not solve the parking shortage, but could lead to employees seeking jobs elsewhere. “The permit won’t alleviate the problem, it would just be a deterrent,” Ciampi said. “If everyone pays for a permit, we’ll still be in the same position we are now.”

He has proposed giving residents sole access to the parking spots directly in front of their properties — but other spots on the street would be up for grabs.

In terms of public transportation alternatives, VTA (Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority) offers an annual pass for $770, while Caltrain offers monthly passes that range from $73 to $338, depending on the number of travel zones.

The parking problem is expected to worsen in the coming years as new developments bring more workers and customers, all vying for the same parking spots.

Photo and time-lapse video: Vjeran Pavic/Peninsula Press. Maps courtesy: City of Palo Alto

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