Downtown’s parking puzzle

Chico needs an access plan—sooner rather than later

As discussion at the last City Council meeting showed, the issue of downtown parking is like one of those optical illusions that look like one thing to some viewers and completely different to others. To downtown business owners who on a daily basis hear customers complain about parking, there aren’t enough spaces. But to traffic experts who have counted the number of empty spaces, parking is plentiful.

Who’s right? Well, both are.

That’s because, in this situation, perception and reality carry equal weight. Yes, there are more than sufficient parking spaces right now. But parking is more difficult downtown than it is at shopping centers. Parallel parking is trickier than diagonal parking, especially on busy streets. Parking downtown involves hunting for a spot in a way that mall parking doesn’t. It also costs money and requires correct change, and if you overstay your purchased time, you could get a $15 ticket.

There’s also the matter of in-lieu fees. Parking is included in the lease price of stores at the mall, but business people opening new offices or stores must pay in-lieu fees sufficient to underwrite employee parking—at a whopping $16,000 per space. Overall, there is a lack of employee parking.

So when downtown business and property owners say parking is a problem, they have a point. There surely are many people who don’t shop downtown because they find parking too difficult. And there unquestionably are companies and investors who avoid locating downtown because of the high in-lieu fees and other parking constraints, just as there are a number of former downtown businesses that have relocated elsewhere for similar reasons.

On the other hand, downtown has qualities that no shopping center has. It’s got built-in customer bases at the university, City Hall and its nonretail businesses. It’s got a wide range of eating and drinking establishments, an eclectic assortment of mostly locally owned shops, as well as a world-class hotel. It’s got Children’s Park and the new City Plaza. And it’s got the sense of place that comes with being the historical heart of Chico.

The good news coming out of the Jan. 16 discussion was that, because of the March 2006 Downtown Access Planning Charrette, there is general agreement that downtown needs a comprehensive access plan. As a result, the council decided to move quickly to implement feasible short-term improvements recommended in the charrette report while developing a long-range vision for the area and then folding it into the upcoming general plan update.

The city should proceed on two tracks, keeping the envisioning process separate from the general plan process until the former is completed. General plan updates take years to do. We need a plan for downtown sooner rather than later. The business and property owners downtown, and those thinking of investing in downtown, need to know what to expect.