Council takes easy first steps on downtown parking

Downtown parking is the Rubik’s Cube of city puzzles, so it’s no wonder that when the members of the Chico City Council tackled it Tuesday night—after much strenuous twisting and turning—they didn’t solve it altogether.

Actually, nobody expected them to solve it. The intention was for them to authorize taking certain easy and relatively inexpensive staff-recommended steps that could be implemented in one year to improve parking in the area, and they did so. The bigger and thornier issues were put off until later.

For one, the council voted 5-0—Councilman Larry Wahl recused himself because he owns downtown property and Councilwoman Ann Schwab was absent—to authorize the city to convert sections of Hazel, Chestnut, Salem and Flume streets from parallel to diagonal parking. This will create an additional 96 parking spaces at a cost of $170,000, or $1,770 per space.

The council also voted unanimously to implement a public information program both to combat the perception of a downtown parking problem and to advise downtown visitors of the parking options. The cost is estimated at $20,000. The council also agreed to implement a pilot program with the firm Zipidy, which has an office in Chico, that would test a cell-phone-based technology that allows meter payment, monitored parking space availability and notification of remaining time available to be handled remotely. The program will be set up on three downtown blocks.

Long range, the council adopted what some call the “85/30” standard for determining when a parking structure is needed. The optimal maximum occupancy rate is 85 percent—about one empty space on each block face, on average. When the city is no longer able to manage parking so that the 85 percent rate is maintained consistently or create additional spaces for less than $30,000 (the per-space cost of a new parking structure), it will build a new structure.

This confused Councilman Steve Bertagna, who worried that the threshold wouldn’t be applied until all of downtown was at 85 percent occupancy. “The south part of downtown is never going to be at 85 percent,” he noted.

Capital Projects Director Tom Varga agreed, noting that the standard would be “applied widely” but that, in determining parking needs, the city would focus on “hot spots” such as the crowded downtown core.

The council also referred several issues to its Internal Affairs Committee, including Saturday and evening meter use, increased parking fines for repeat offenders, and enhanced police enforcement of meter violations.

This pleased Rick Tofanelli, owner of Nantucket. “Meters and parking fees are merchants’ best friends,” he told the council, because they free up parking spaces.

The staff recommendations were the outgrowth of a report presented to the council on Jan. 16 that was the product of the Downtown Planning and Access Planning Charrette held in spring 2006.

Among the mid-range (two to three years) recommendations to be considered later are establishing differential meter pricing and eliminating time limits to manage demand; using multi-space meters (one per block face) that accept bills and ATM and credit cards as well as coins; identifying a preferred site for a new structure; and eliminating or relaxing downtown parking requirements on new businesses.

One of the complexities of the parking situation is that two distinct groups need places to park: customers and the people who work downtown. When the latter take spaces from the former, shop owners complain. But those who would like to put offices in the 60,000 square feet of unused space downtown say they cannot do so without employee parking. And those new workers would likely be good customers of the shops, they note.

City staff is working to resolve the problem, but it will take time. For now, the plan is to evaluate the parking situation in a year and then twist the cube a few more times to determine what further steps to take.