Car light housing forum wrap-up

20170928_184626.jpgPalo Alto's Planning and Transportation Commission just completed its review of the Comprehensive Plan.  Although the plan itself spans a vast array of topics, the Commission spent much of their review time talking about parking policies.  

The reason that parking policies have moved front-and-center has to do with housing (and development more generally).  Palo Alto's new Comprehensive Plan recognizes that there is a housing crisis in Palo Alto, and has committed to a significant increase in housing unit construction.  However, our community fears some of the undesirable side effects that come with this commitment: chief among these are traffic and parking issues. 

To help our community learn more, Palo Alto Forward hosted a lively discussion with experts from TransForm (transportation policy think tank and advocate), Palo Alto Housing (affordable housing developer), and Harmonie Partners (market rate housing developer focused on walkable infill developments).  

The event attracted ~50 people, largely from Palo Alto, but also some from neighboring communities.  There were several planning commissioners as well as former and current city council members.  

The thrust of the discussion was around the consequences of high "parking ratios" (the number of parking spaces per unit of housing that has to be built).  A large portion of the total cost of projects goes into parking, and much of the parking is often under utilized, because it is "captive" (located within a private property).  

Nina Rizzo, from TransForm, gave a description of their GreenTRIPS certification program (she described it as "akin to LEEDS, but for transportation), with some examples of buildings that have taken innovative approaches to reducing car dependence.  The certification recognizes residential projects that have taken significant steps to reduce reliance on cars. She also introduced the GreenTrip Connect tool, that allows planners and citizens to understand the need for parking on a building-by-building level, taking into account the type and location of the building.  


Candice Gonzales, CEO of Palo Alto Housing ("PAH"), built on TransForm's example.  Many PAH projects do not need excessive parking, since their residents often do not own a car; the population served by PAH are low income, with a significant percentage of special needs.  Candice explained that even with the lower parking ratios that they have been permitted, when they spot check their parking structures, they almost always find them under-utilized. 

Finally, Wendi Baker, Partner at Harmonie Partners, talked about some of the difficult realities of building housing with less parking.  In addition to zoning barriers and neighborhood resistance, there is a fundamental issue of financing: lenders are conservative, and until there is a proven market for "car light" developments, financing may be difficult to arrange.  Wendi walked us through a project-- Los Gatos' North 40-- to show how a less car-centric community can be created when many factors (such as a dense downtown area, or easy public transit options) are not available.  They worked across multiple agencies to create connections to established bike trails, and also have built a mixed use community to keep a lot of trips close to home. 

Below is the video of the GreenTrips presentation (we had an unfortunate battery failure after her presentation, so did not get to record the other presenters :(


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