Parking garage foes launch referendum

A loose-knit coalition opposed to building a multi-level parking garage at the Municipal Parking Lot No. 1, home of the Saturday Farmers’ Market, has taken out referendum petitions.

The referendum, which requires the collection of about 3,800 valid signatures of registered voters who live in the city (10 percent of the total) by June 17, if passed would undo the City Council resolution passed May 17 to extend the hours of parking meter enforcement by 32 hours per week—adding the hours of 6 p.m. to 10 p.m. on weekdays and 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. on Saturdays.

The extended hours and a doubling of meter fees, which were approved a year ago, are both set to go into effect July 1 and would raise about $10 million of the estimated $15 to $18 million needed to construct a five-level structure.

The coalition is made up of a number of diverse interests, according to one member who asked to remain anonymous, and has met a number of times at a downtown cafà. Just this week the organization, tentatively known as Friends of Downtown, appointed Cheryl King, a local schools demographics consultant, as its spokesperson.

“We’ve sent out 1,200 mailings asking for signatures and funding,” King said. The organization is now looking for a downtown headquarters.

There is no shortage of reasons why coalition members think the multi-level, multi-million-dollar garage is a waste of taxpayer money, ranging from it’s simply being unneeded, to the Chico State University master plan that calls for a state-funded structure on Second Street in the next five to 10 years, to fears that the viability of the popular Farmers’ Market will be threatened.

Proponents of the garage, in particular the Downtown Chico Business Association, say the market will be accommodated and allowed to operate on Wall Street between the new structure and the Garden Walk Mall/Brick Works building. Opponents say that is tantamount to shoving the open-air market into an alleyway.

On May 17, the council voted 5-0 to go forward with the meter extension and also voted to give more weight to alternatives sites and solutions as the environmental-impact report is put together. In that vote Councilmembers Ann Schwab and Larry Wahl were conflicted out because Schwab is part owner of a downtown business and Wahl’s wife owns the parking lot that serves the Post Office on Fifth Street. Their financial interests could be influenced, positively or negatively, with the construction of the parking structure and the extension of parking-meter hours.

(When council voted to increase the rates a year ago, Schwab was not yet on the council and Wahl abstained when the final resolution was adopted. He did, however, vote in favor of two previous motions of intent leading to that final resolution.)

Three years into the process, the only location considered thus far has been the Wall and Second streets site. The city hired an engineering firm earlier this year to conduct soil compaction tests under the existing lot. And at this point three designs have been adopted for consideration, and all three are based on that location.

Still, Vice-Mayor Maureen Kirk at the May 17 meeting suggested that the parking lot that serves the City Municipal Building at Flume between Fourth and Fifth streets be considered as an option of equal weight in the EIR.

Others have suggested a multi-leveled structure be built on the city-owned lot at Salem and Second, across from the Madison Bear Garden, the site of the city bus transit station, or at least the shelter that serves as a station.

The referendum will be circulated at the Farmers’ Market and other high profile public events like the Friday Night concerts in Children’s Park. Signature-gatherers will most likely not be welcomed at the DCBA’s Thursday Night Market.