Park it here

Some of you may remember the mighty political battle that erupted in the early 1990s over the proposal to build a three-level downtown parking structure. That’s when then-Councilmember Mark Francis infamously labeled the opponents of the structure as a bunch of “non-producers,” suggesting they were not contributing members of our local capitalistic society. These “non-producers,” ironically, reacted by producing T-shirts with “Non-producer” printed on them. A referendum to stop the structure was launched. Turf wars broke out over where referendum signature collectors could stand on the sidewalk. It was a good, old-fashioned political donnybrook, Chico style. Political careers were made and lost on this one.

The parking lot at the center of the controversy now sits on the east side of Salem, spanning the block between Third and Fourth streets. The opposition got run over by the pro-car/pro-parking-lot people. Today, most of us don’t give the parking structure a second look. It’s got a couple of elevators and a nice piece of public art on its western face. It’s part of the city skyline now. Chico’s social fabric did not unravel. But I remember that, soon after the lot was constructed, a woman who worked in a dental office on Third Street, in the shadow of the new structure, complained about how she couldn’t see the sky anymore when she looked out of the office’s window. All she could see, she said, was a brick-and-mortar building. I am reminded of her observation as I sit in my office on a bright fall day and look out across Flume Street to Municipal Parking Lot No. 1 (pictured below). The sky is blue, and the remaining leaves on the liquidambar trees that line the lot are yellow and red. And the little shrubs that run along the east side of the lot are a sort of crimson. As parking lots go, this one’s not bad looking. And it’s the home of the Saturday Farmers’ Market.

This week the City Council voted “conceptually”—that means it will happen so far down the line that you can’t blame the current bunch—to construct a four-level parking structure at Lot No. 1. And to help pay for that project, the council also voted to increase hourly parking meter rates to 50 cents (with additional 10- and 15-cent increases in the distant future), extend the weekday parking meter enforcement from 6 p.m. to 11 p.m., and start enforcing meter use on Saturday and Sunday. How’s that for a proposal to get a serious political skirmish started? Not only will those non-producing, anti-capitalist, anti-vehicle people get up in arms again, they’ll be joined by the car folks, who don’t like pumping quarters into parking meters when they come downtown. And what about the Farmers’ Market people? Will they be stuck on the ground floor, with tons of concrete between them and the open sky? Or will they move to the top floor, where they run the risk of attracting local adolescent boys who will pool their change to buy cantaloupes and watermelons just to drop them off the edge of the building and watch them smash on the sidewalk below? The idea for this parking lot revolution comes from a study by an engineering firm called Omni-Means, which has offices in Roseville and Redding. The company said parking in the north part of the downtown was poor and that the condition would spread if nothing was done. I kind of wish the study would have suggested to the city something more like, “Yeah, you have a festering parking problem. You really ought to encourage more people to ride their bikes.”