Envisioning downtown

The debate over a downtown parking structure morphs into a discussion about the future of downtown

See for yourself:
The full report on the Downtown Access Planning Charrette is available in the Resource Library on the city of Chico’s Web site (www.chico.ca.us--click on Planning Services). For the CN&R’s story on the report, see “Taking the creative path,” Newslines, June 22, 2006.

Faced with a controversial and complex set of proposals to deal with downtown parking and traffic, the members of the City Council on Tuesday (Jan. 16) did what all wise leaders do in such situations: punt by delegating.

At issue was city staff’s report on the results and recommendations of the Downtown Access Planning Charrette held in March 2006. The charrette was widely criticized at the time, especially by supporters of building a new downtown parking structure. Since then, though, people apparently have read its report, because there was a general consensus Tuesday that its many recommendations—including, if needed sometime down the line, a parking structure—should be considered as part of a comprehensive plan for downtown.

The matter has shifted, in other words, from a debate about a parking structure to a discussion of the entire downtown area, its parking and traffic needs and possible solutions.

Some 23 people addressed the council, many of them downtown business owners pleading for more parking downtown, whether gained via the creative ideas contained in the charrette report or by building a new parking structure. Downtown architect Steve Gonsalves, representing the group Downtown Access and Parking Coalition, also gave a 15-minute PowerPoint presentation.

“Ample parking is key to success downtown,” he said, but it needs to be considered along with other goals. For example, one of the report’s recommendations, using differential meter rates to spread cars around, “won’t work unless coupled with an improved pedestrian environment. We need a comprehensive plan.”

In the end, the council voted 5-0 (with Councilmembers Larry Wahl and Ann Schwab disqualified because they have financial interests downtown) to direct city staff to come up with a plan for implementing some of the more “feasible” recommendations in the charrette report that can be done short-term and bring that plan back to the council.

Councilmembers also voted unanimously to have City Manager Greg Jones and his staff design a process for coming up with a long-term “vision” of downtown and how it can be integrated into the upcoming city general plan.

What became clear during discussion of the report was that some of its recommendations—adding parking spaces by converting some streets from parallel to diagonal parking, for example—were immediately doable, while others—widening sidewalks on Broadway, which would be expensive and disruptive—were problematic.

Downtown business owners’ concern about a lack of parking, whether real or merely perceived, dominated much of the public comment. Several questioned the report’s contention that a proper ratio was 1.6 parking spaces for every 1,000 square feet of business space.

Reading off a list of businesses that had moved out of downtown to shopping centers—Clifford’s Jewelry, Sports LTD, Kinko’s—real estate broker Carlton Lowen noted that in their new spaces, they enjoy rations of 5:1,000, not 1.6:1,000.

“Retail is the biggest parking hog there is,” said Susan Shaw, owner of Tom Foolery, on Third Street. “If I had known that the goal of the city is to provide me with 1.6 spaces per 1,000 square feet, I wouldn’t have come downtown.”

But Ali Sarsour, until recently a long-time member of the city’s Parking Place Commission, noted that when Tom Foolery was located in the North Valley Plaza mall, he worked right across from it at the Radio Shack store. “North Valley Plaza was a ghost town,” he said, “despite miles and miles of parking spaces.”

And so it went, a debate that’s been going on for years and shows no signs of stopping. Downtown business owners look at the acres of free parking mall stores enjoy and say they can’t compete. Shoppers want to know where their parking is and drive right to it, not have to search it out, they insist.

But others note that downtown will never be able to provide that kind of parking—structures are simply too expensive—and must rely on its attractiveness and mix to draw customers.

A new element has been added to the discussion, however: an emphasis on the lack of parking for employees.

Alan Chamberlain, a downtown-based planner and designer, lamented the lack of a “managerial class” downtown. With some 60,000 feet of vacant space, there’s ample room for new offices downtown, he said, and with such businesses come professionals who in turn eat and shop downtown. But “a business with 12 employees needs a hundred hours of parking a day,” he said, and it’s not available.

Nor is money to build a parking structure, however. The council’s decision last year to double meter rates to generate funds for a structure backfired, driving the number of parkers down in a way that largely offsets the increased revenues. And fewer parkers means less downtown business.

Besides, the city needs to come up with $25 million to build the first phase of its new police facility, its highest current capital priority.

For all those reasons, the council decided to move forward incrementally, with the goal in mind to create a long-range plan designed to incorporate a wide array of creative strategies to make downtown more attractive and accessible.