The study session was held to review changes to downtown parking implemented nearly three years ago. Transportation Manager Jesse Quirion told the council those changes are "working as planned."
The changes included adding pay-by-the-hour parking meters to Plaza 1, off El Camino Real and Oak Grove Avenue, and Plaza 5, off Crane Street and Santa Cruz Avenue. With the first two hours of parking free, users can buy up to seven more hours. And Menlo Park plans to integrate a mobile phone application to let people purchase more parking time on the go; the application will add a $0.35 transaction fee.
The city also created 15-minute "drop off" zones and limited to one hour spaces on Santa Cruz Avenue and several downtown side streets.
Parking space occupancy rates hover in the 80 to 85 percent range, meaning the odds are pretty good of finding a space when you need one, Mr. Quirion said. More people working downtown buy permits for $592 for a year or pay to park all day in Plaza 1 or 5 instead of taking up on-street spaces closer to the businesses.
The city has responded to complaints by making the one-hour-limit signs more visible along Santa Cruz Avenue, staff said.
So far, so good. But as Councilman Rich Cline observed back in 2011, "You can do a great thing with parking, and people won't think it's a great thing."
This proved true as the conversation turned to enforcement. According to the staff's statistics, Menlo Park averages 5.9 citations per parking space per year. On Santa Cruz Avenue, thanks to the one-hour slots, that jumps to 11.
For comparison, Los Altos is 1.21 and Redwood City, 5.31. Of the five Peninsula cities considered, only Burlingame, with 12.5 tickets per space per year, ranked higher than Menlo Park.
Mayor Ray Mueller, after contemplating the statistics, concluded that "if you park in Los Altos you are four times less likely (to get a ticket) than if you park in Menlo Park."
He wants a parking enforcement policy more in line with the practices of Los Altos or Redwood City. Knowing there's a higher chance of finding a ticket on the windshield — "That's not the psychological experience I want (people) to have ... the efficiency of those issuing citations is very good," but "it's happening too much, and it's making us not competitive."
Vice Mayor Cat Carlton agreed, saying she's gotten emails from business owners upset about the horrible experience shoppers have downtown.
Mr. Cline shared that he'd recently gotten a ticket for parking on a white line which, he said, he'd had to do because the adjacent car had intruded into his space.
Comparing ticketing frequency is not as straight-forward as one might suspect, though.
While Mr. Mueller suggested Menlo Park should be more like Los Altos, Los Altos may be thinking they should be more like Menlo Park, according to Menlo Park city staff.
Los Altos only sends a parking officer out when someone complains of a violation, they said, and business owners in Los Altos are arguing that enforcement should be a higher priority.
While Redwood City is also lower, that city also has off-street parking spaces by way of garages that people pay for upon exiting, circumventing the need for time limits.
Public comment during the study session revisited the need to build a parking garage in Menlo Park for downtown employees, and expanding the one-hour limit on Santa Cruz Avenue to two hours.
And maybe the city should repaint those white lines, one speaker suggested. Penelope Huang, who serves on the Transportation Commission, said the parking spaces in Plaza 1 are too small, which not only leads to tickets, but also door dings. Since the lot is usually not full anyway, why not repaint the lines to have fewer, wider spaces, she suggested.
What does the police department make of the call to go easier on the tickets? Police Chief Bob Jonsen told the Almanac that officers enforce parking based on parameters established by the council. If the council decides to change the guidelines, by converting the one-hour zones to two hours, for example "then our officers will enforce accordingly. Otherwise, there are no changes planned on our end," he said.