No more free parking

Why is the city planning to charge people to park downtown evenings and Saturdays? Well, it’s not about the money …

PACKED PARKING<br>As this scene shows, finding a parking space in the core area of downtown can be tough sometimes, even past weekday business hours. That’s why the city wants to begin charging for parking there after 6 p.m. and on Saturdays.

As this scene shows, finding a parking space in the core area of downtown can be tough sometimes, even past weekday business hours. That’s why the city wants to begin charging for parking there after 6 p.m. and on Saturdays.

Photo By Meredith J. Cooper

What about time limits?
One of the recommendations of the downtown charrette held in spring 2006 was to abolish time limits on parking and use pricing to manage occupancy rates. But, like several other recommendations, that will require new, expensive meters the city cannot afford right now.

Before too long, evening and Saturday visitors to downtown Chico are going to start paying for something they’ve always gotten for free: parking. And as sure as that little red “flag” pops up when a meter runs out of time, a lot of them are going to be plenty ticked off about it.

Last week (Oct. 16) the City Council voted unanimously—with two members (Ann Schwab and Larry Wahl) disqualified because they own property downtown—to extend parking meter hours to evenings and Saturdays. Had the council done so to solve an obvious problem, the response might have been muted. But that’s not the case.

Even the editors of the Chico Enterprise-Record are confused. In an editorial four days later, they noted that when the council decided a couple of years ago to extend meter hours, it was to finance a new parking structure. “Now, the parking structure has been abandoned and the city is charging for more parking hours because, well, we’re not sure. The rationale is to ‘manage’ the parking. Whatever that means.”

Certainly anyone who has driven downtown on, say, a Tuesday evening to attend a City Council meeting and found plenty of parking available just about everywhere is going to wonder how come, all of a sudden, it’s no longer free. To that person, the newly money-hungry meters are likely to look like a solution in search of a problem.

It not really clear why the council extended the hours. To some extent the issue got lost in the shuffle of a wide-ranging and often meandering discussion about downtown parking as a whole. One has to look back in the record to obtain some explanation.

Councilmembers were acting on a report, from Capital Project Services Director Tom Varga, on the progress being made on implementing solutions derived from the Downtown Access and Parking Plan. The council developed that plan, in turn, based on the report on the Downtown Access Planning Charrette held over five days in the spring of 2006.

In the charrette report, transportation consulting firm Nelson\Nygaard noted that, according to studies, parking is “fully occupied in the core of downtown on evenings and Saturdays, partly because there is no incentive for employees to park on side streets or adjacent blocks.”

The report recommended that, in order to realize the fundamental goal of 85 percent parking space occupancy (leaving one or two spaces empty per block), evening and Saturday pricing should be implemented, but only in the central core and at 25 cents per hour, not 50 cents. Parking would remain free and unrestricted elsewhere downtown.

Two community members spoke against the extended hours last Tuesday. One was Denise Bell Corona, who with her husband, Sal, owns Caffe Malvina, on Third Street “right across from the parking structure,” as she put it. There’s plenty of parking downtown in the evenings, she said, and if the city starts charging for it, more people will stay away, and evening businesses like hers will be affected.

Also voicing opposition was Ernie Washington, an attorney whose offices are downtown. “I don’t see a need for it,” he told the council. “If somebody comes downtown for dinner and gets a 15-dollar ticket, they’re not going to come again.” He urged the council at least to limit the extension to a six-month trial period to see how it works.

Perhaps the strongest supporter of extended meter hours is Alan Chamberlain, a private strategic planner whose business is located downtown and whose online blog, “Dog’s Breakfast” (, includes a running discussion of issues related to downtown.

Chamberlain told the council he agreed that evening and Saturday metering would improve downtown business, he said, by forcing employees and owners to park elsewhere, freeing up spaces, especially in the core area.

But Chamberlain also stipulated that extended meter hours needed to be accompanied by other changes. One is to guarantee that the money raised be specifically earmarked for improving parking availability downtown.

“I’m not talking about quantity of parking spaces,” he explains on his blog, “but rather the quality of parking in the central core. I think that since every parked car represents an ambulatory pedestrian, some of this revenue could be used to improve the pedestrian environment and walkability of the city center.”

The councilmembers talked at length about a number of parking-related issues, including enforcement, how meter revenues could be put back into downtown, adding more parking signage and diagonal parking. There was some discussion of being “flexible” about meter pricing and times, and some councilmembers called for elimination of the two-hour limit during evening hours.

But at no time did any councilmember point back to the original Nelson\Nygaard recommendations to explain why the meter hours were being extended.

At this point, nothing is written in stone. It will be up to Varga and his staff to come up with a set of recommendations.

One problem is that the city would need to buy expensive new meters to have flexible prices and time limits. Meters that currently are set to provide 60 minutes for 50 cents can’t be programmed to begin charging only 25 cents at, say, 6 p.m.

That’s a bigger problem than it seems. If the keystone of the parking plan is using pricing to maintain an 85 percent occupancy rate, too high a price could force too many people to park elsewhere, defeating the purpose.

Councilwoman Mary Flynn said in a phone interview Monday that she hoped that “in the not too distant future the city could use more sophisticated meters” that not only have time-sensitive pricing but also collect data on parking space use. “Our meters are antiquated,” she said. “They don’t provide much information.”

The city can’t afford new meters right now, but the money generated by the extended hours could be used to purchase them.

So 50 cents an hour it probably will be, though for how long and exactly where is uncertain. And it all could change in six months, Flynn said; if the extended hours don’t have the desired effect, they will be changed or abolished.

But it’s important, she added, that people understand that “parking has value.” It’s costly to provide, and cities all over the country are using parking prices to manage traffic. Chico has to do this kind of management for the simple reason that downtown is next door to the university, which has failed to provide sufficient parking for students and staff, causing an overflow into downtown.

“We’re not doing this to generate revenue,” she added. “We want to keep the cars moving. The more movement, the more business downtown. And all the money generated will go back into downtown. That’s the bigger picture.”