Great parking debate

Opinions differ on just how drastic a remodel of downtown Oroville lot should be

Parking Lot A in downtown Oroville faces Montgomery Street, in front of the Municipal Auditorium.

Parking Lot A in downtown Oroville faces Montgomery Street, in front of the Municipal Auditorium.

Photo by Meredith J. Cooper

Historic downtown Oroville is undergoing a lot of changes these days. To walk down Myers or Bird streets today is a much different experience than it was even a few years ago. Buildings have been bought and restored. New businesses have opened up shop.

But while much of the energy downtown has been positive, an unexpected announcement earlier this year was, at least for some, cause for alarm. The city revealed plans in June to revamp Parking Lot A, aka the “Mike” Elisabeth Isch Lot, and remove the 150 or so parking spaces in favor of a community plaza.

For Mayor Linda Dahlmeier, the plan makes perfect sense. The lot as it currently sits isn’t particularly pretty to look at. And a community gathering spot, with a small stage, benches and stations set up for street vendors seemed like a nice fit for the area. After all, it had gotten the approval several years ago of the Arts, Culture and Entertainment District.

Problem is, some of the downtown business owners either weren’t aware of the plan or weren’t aware of its imminence, says Dawn Nevers, assistant planner for the city of Oroville. It resurfaced unexpectedly for everyone, in fact, earlier this year when PG&E announced that the soil underneath that parking lot is contaminated and will need to be cleaned up. (The lot is the former site of a manufactured gas plant that closed in 1926 and is not currently a health hazard, PG&E spokesman Paul Moreno told the CN&R in May. There is no official timeline yet for the cleanup.)

“With PG&E coming in to take out part of the parking lot, we thought, ‘Instead of just putting back the parking lot and following through with the plan to create a downtown center there years in the future, why not do it now?’” Nevers explained. “We wanted to be proactive.”

Downtown business owner and developer Bud Tracy was none too thrilled to hear the news, however. As renovation for the Oroville Inn, which he owns, nears completion, and other business downtown is growing as well, this is not the time to eliminate parking, he says.

“This was something that the city planned four years ago,” he said. “Nobody believed it was going to happen.”

The lot, situated along Montgomery Street between Huntoon and Myers streets, is located in front of the old Municipal Auditorium. It currently contains 153 parking spaces and is the occasional site of community events such as the Salmon Festival and Feather Fiesta Days. The Saturday farmers’ market, held during the warm months, used to be located there, but news of PG&E’s work on the lot in May prompted the market to move to Riverbend Park for the season.

“They wanted a great, big, massive platform in the back of property toward the river,” Tracy said by phone. “Other than when there is a band, there will be homeless. It wouldn’t work. Not in the middle of town, hidden away enough that the lack of activity at the back of the parking lot would draw homeless in.”

Tracy wasn’t alone in his opposition to the plaza concept. He and some other key players got together to form an alliance representing businesses in the historic downtown area. “The Downtown Oroville Riverfront District, the Oroville Downtown Business Association, the Downtown Property Owners, the Oroville Economic Alliance, and the Oroville Area Chamber of Commerce commit to organizing an alliance to deal with review of the planning done to date, and to make positive suggestions for future planning,” reads a petition circulated in July.

The effort worked. The group, dubbed the Historic Downtown Oroville Business Alliance, was born. And together with the city its members have discussed alternatives to the plan introduced in the spring.

“With so much growth happening in the downtown area, they were concerned there would not be the parking necessary to meet that growth,” Nevers said. “Downtown definitely is very active right now. This has actually made the city’s relationship with the downtown businesses stronger. We’re working together. It’s been great.”

Tracy agrees. “Dawn has put us on an email list and is now sending us notices of meetings,” he said. “Now we see what’s getting ready to go on. It’s very helpful. She asked for a meeting with the [alliance] a week ago. We sat down and they presented three alternatives of how it could be developed.”

Those alternatives will be brought before the Oroville City Council on Tuesday, Sept. 20.

As for the alliance members, Tracy says they favor “Option B,” which includes a small park area along Montgomery Street but a loss of only about 15 parking spaces. He’d also like to see the electrical features updated to better accommodate special events. Others, like Dahlmeier, would like to look at all the options more closely.

“My opinion is to take a second look at this and try to be creative about improving the way it looks, and taking advantage of having a partnership in PG&E when it comes to putting it back together in a manner that’s more aesthetically pleasing,” she said.

Part of the problem as she sees it is that the parking lot plan was fast-tracked because of PG&E, but it was supposed to be part of a bigger picture. And that’s getting lost.

“There’s a bigger picture and it needs to work for everybody,” she said. “We’ve done everything the same for so long, and it’s hard to step outside the box. But we’ve got new blood. Let’s not make the parking such a fixture. Let’s create an area where people can actually sit and relax.”