There is a huge parking structure in downtown Chico’s immediate future, but not many people know about it yet
Tried to park downtown lately during a weekday or a Saturday around noon? It’s not easy. A cursory tour of the central shopping blocks—First to Fifth streets between Salem and Wall—does not readily yield many, if any, open parking spots. Let’s say you want to buy a yo-yo from Bird in Hand for your 8-year-old nephew’s birthday. Can’t disappoint the lad, so with admirable intentions you approach your destination—the upscale knick-knack store that waits on Broadway between Third and Fourth streets. But you find there is no parking available on either side of the street. Gamely, you drive south across Fourth and discover the same situation.
So you wheel right onto Fifth, cut through the Bank of America parking lot (barely missing the guard who sloshes coffee out of his Styrofoam cup as he dances out of your way) and turn right on Fourth. You’re back on Broadway. But nothing’s opened up, or, if it has, some other bastard’s beaten you to that coveted spot.
You make two or three more of these fruitless laps and consider trying the parking structure at Salem. But after you calculate the circuitous route you have to take just to get to an entrance, you abandon the idea. Besides, the only spots open there these days are the ones on the top deck, and they’re all reserved by drivers willing to fork over the $550 a year to secure them.
You know there are plenty of spots available south of Sixth Street, down there in muffler-shop, waterbed-emporium, tire-store land. But damned if you’re going to park it there and walk the two blocks north to reach the retail shops.
So you figure to hell with Bird in Hand and you head out of town to mallsville, where there’s plenty of parking all the time. Never mind that you may have to walk the equivalent of three football fields across shadeless blacktop in 100-degree heat.
Until the downtown gets more parking, you tell yourself as you hoof your way toward the shimmering horizon that is Gottschalks, your downtown shopping adventures are history. Nobody shops there anymore anyway, you figure with Yogi Berra-like logic; it’s just too damn crowded.
In other words, another parking garage is coming our way. No, not the one Chico State might build—and not the one (or is it two?) included in Enloe Medical Center’s expansion plans. This structure will sit, barring a miraculous intervention, at municipal parking lot No. 1, more commonly known as the site of the Saturday Farmers’ Market.
We’ve been down this road before. In August, 1993, the Chico City Council approved on a 5-2 vote a $3.75 million, 270-space structure to be built on Salem between Third and Fourth streets. And oh, what a fight to get there. A loosely knit group called “The Coalition” had come together then and got labeled by a pro-structure city councilman as “non-producers,” which became their rallying cry.
And though it lost in the end—members failed to qualify a referendum to force a vote—the coalition opened a philosophical debate that is with us today: Is our town such a slave to automobiles that are we willing to spend tens of millions of dollars to accommodate their ever-growing presence in our town?
(Just last fall, the City Council passed an ordinance increasing the maximum legal weight for vehicles driving on our streets from three tons to a whopping seven tons in a surrender to gas-guzzling SUVs.)
On the other hand, does a parking shortage, perceived or real, threaten the health and vibrancy of the downtown by driving shoppers away? And will a limited number of parking spots cripple the downtown’s ability to grow upward into a dense urban environment of tall buildings that house offices and condos, allowing people both to work and live in the heart of Chico.
Opponents of the Salem Street structure argued it was unneeded and would increase traffic and pollution in downtown Chico. In 1991, the city and the Downtown Chico Business Association (DCBA) struck a deal to increase parking meter rates from 10 to 25 cents per hour to fund the project.
This time around the DCBA has suggested, and the city has agreed, to increase parking meter fees from 25 to 50 cents an hour to pay for the next structure and possibly extend the enforcement of metered parking into the evenings and weekends, so that the patrons of all of Chico’s downtown businesses share the burden.
And, once again, opponents say it is unneeded and will only increase traffic downtown.
Some of the original players from that last parking battle are still around. Scott Gruendl, a planning commissioner at the time, was against the structure. But today he’s the mayor and says that, with interest rates so low, now may be a good time to issue a bond to build another parking structure.
Richard Elsom, another outspoken parking structure opponent back then, now works for the Downtown Chico Business Association, the organization that is pushing for a new structure.
David Guzzetti, a former councilman who voted against the Salem Street structure in 1993, shrugged his shoulders when asked about the latest parking proposal.
“I don’t know,” he said. “Is it better to drive around and around looking for a place to park? Maybe it’s time to grow up.”
And Mark Francis, the former Bank of America vice-president and councilman who infamously called the structure opponents “non-producers,” is now a vice president at Umpqua Bank.
He bristles a bit when the past is brought up.
“It’s interesting how certain sound/print bites have amazing lives!” he wrote in a recent e-mail. “I think I uttered those words about a dozen years ago, and they are still going pretty strong today!”
Francis notes that the world didn’t end when the structure was finally built.
“Opponents will be hard pressed to show that the existing structure resulted in the demise of downtown, as was the dire prediction a dozen years ago,” he said. “Usage is high. I don’t know about you, but when I am going downtown to shop or eat, I target the parking structure first and don’t end up driving around hunting for a space (that’s got to help the environment!).”
Since the Salem Street structure was such a success, he said, there should little, if any, opposition to another parking garage. He mentioned the opportunity a new structure presents as a “canvas for public art” and notes the existing structure is now operated by solar power.
“I’m surprised that those interests aren’t clamoring for its approval,” he said. “And, as if that isn’t enough, it will be paid for by the users of downtown parking through meter revenues. My God, it’s the perfect public works project!”
He is also cautious, however, realizing this is Chico.
“But, as you well know, you can’t take the politics out of politics. If someone or some group decides to make it an election issue, watch out! Just as there are factions that would support approval blindly, there are others who take a look at the playbook and see that parking structures are to be opposed no matter what the public benefit might be. And if it could help get one of their people elected …”
There are a few other things different this time around. In 1993, opponents of the structure accused Francis, who worked across the street from the proposed structure, and Councilwoman Mary Andrews, owner of a downtown hair-cutting salon, of having conflicts of interest and said they should not be allowed to cast votes on the issue. Opponents even filed a complaint with the state’s Fair Political Practices Commission.
Then-City Attorney Bob Boehm said, however, that there was no conflict, and the two councilmembers voted to approve.
But City Attorney Dave Frank has advised Councilwoman Ann Schwab not to weigh in on the matter because she and her husband Budd own Campus Bicycles, which is located on Main Street between Third and Fourth streets.
One other thing to consider: The structure on Salem took up half a block; the one on Wall will sit on a full city block.
The city purchased the lot at Second and Wall in the early 1980s from Sierra Dodge auto sales with the idea that it would eventually become a parking structure. At least that is what former City Manager Fred Davis told this paper in 1994. At the same time Wal-Mart was setting up shop on Forest Avenue and in the process was paving acres of land for its enormous parking lot. But environmentalists and anti-car crusaders paid no mind; they were focused on the fight downtown.
Some people think the new lot is already a done deal—a company recently conducted soil compaction tests under municipal lot No. 1 to see how it would support a major structure.
Others are hardly aware of the fact that another parking facility is headed this way. The first public meeting on the issue is scheduled for April 4.
And still others say it’s slipped from a sure thing to maybe a 50-50 proposition.
The DCBA has pulled back on the issue of increasing the parking meter fees because the city’s plan is about six months behind schedule.
Lando said the city is right now in the first phase of the plan, having dedicated about $100,000 to pay for meetings and the soil testing. The next phase, he said, would be dedicating $400,000 to an environmental-impact report.
A contract to design the thing, most likely three floors on two stories for $10 million, was awarded last year to a Redwood City-based company called Watry Design, whose motto is, “It’s not the journey, it’s the parking.”
“We’ll have the community meetings. then it will go to council, and we’ll ask if they want us to proceed,” Lando explained. “So far there’ve been no extensive discussions with the new council.”
All decisions affecting the parking structure to this point were made by the council in place prior to last year’s local elections.
Complicating the issue is that the Chico State University master plan calls for another parking structure—like the one built in the late-'90s at the corner of Warner and Second streets—to be funded by the state. The city and the school have met, most recently on March 16, to discuss a possible joint project.
“They say they would like a joint project, but from the experience of working with the university, I know it that it would take 10 years to get it done,” Lando said.
Once the city’s project gets approved, he said, it will take about two years to build it, including 12 to 18 months of actual construction, which means the loss of the existing spaces for that time as well as the displacement of the Farmers’ Market.
“I won’t deny its impact on businesses is a painful process when it’s happening,” Lando said.
What happens to the popular open-air market during construction and thereafter is unknown at this point, though Terry Givens, the market’s manager, notes that Watry has said the structure could accommodate the market by building one floor with a 12-foot ceiling.
She said she can’t imagine that working and doesn’t particularly care for parking structures.
“I don’t live in Chico, but I refuse to park in a parking structure,” she said. “I think the city could do a much better job of pointing out where the parking is in town.”
And she voiced an observation nearly as old as the city itself—a lot of downtown business owners and employees park directly in front of their own businesses. She said the market has experimented with efforts to get its customers to park in the Chico Municipal Building parking lot, two blocks away.
“I’ve been told it’s a 50-50 probability [that the new structure will be built],” she said.
Across the street from the market is the Garden Walk Mall, which houses a handful of locally owned businesses. Construction of the new lot, some have suggested, would be the final nail in the coffin for a lot of these businesses.
Aaron Hall, co-owner of PCI Computer Services, Inc., doesn’t have a problem with the parking structure. He doesn’t like the market.
“We thought it was a godsend when we first heard about [the structure],” he said. “Then we heard the farmers’ market would still be there. We are not in the business of handing out restroom keys.”
The market, he said, is not conducive to selling computers, so his store is not open on Saturdays.
The owners of Zots, the hotdog cafà in the Garden Walk, are very much in favor of the structure.
“We are really looking forward to it,” said Leslie Montague. “There may be some inconvenience [while it is under construction], but think it will completely make over the area. We understand it could close Wall Street. But we haven’t heard from the city lately, even though they’ve been talking about it for 10 years.”
Katrina Davis, executive director of the DCBA, said her board supports the structure and the location and is working to accommodate the market. She said local architect David Griffith submitted a design to the city and, though it wasn’t picked, there is interest in how his plan allows for the market by not building all the way out Wall to allow for some space along that street and possibly closing it off on Saturdays.
Lando has said, he too, likes that part of Griffith’s plan.
The DCBA board has sent a letter to the city saying it fully supports the parking meter increase but only for a structure to be built at Second and Wall.
“If it’s not going there,” Davis said, “then the DCBA doesn’t support meter increase.”
She said the city’s meetings with the university have raised some concerns with the board. Those meetings, the board thinks, could delay or even derail the project.
“The DCBA wants a firm timeline and commitment that the structure will be built there,” Davis said.
The increased meter fees are tentatively set to go into place July 1. Unless the DCBA gets assurance that the city has the structure on the fast track, it will not support the increase.
“The biggest concern the board had was that meters would go up with an open-ended projected time line for this structure,” she said.
Maureen Kirk is a member of both the current City Council and the one that has made tentative approvals for the structure thus far.
“Do we need the parking structure?” she asked. “We had a downtown parking study that said we did. DCBA insists we do. I am not 100-percent convinced that we do. I have always been a downtown person, and I have always found a place to park if I am willing to walk a few blocks. Even with a structure on Second and Wall, people will still have to walk.”
She said she is concerned that increasing the meter fees could chase drivers away.
“I am hoping we can make the downtown core 50 cents, if needed, and keep it at 25 cents in the outer core. This would free up more spaces in the ‘core’ and reward people for walking.
“It is no secret that I don’t like the location. I tried to get it changed to Second and Salem and no go,” Davis said. “The thought was that too many students would use it. I hate to take out the parking lot and all of the trees. If a parking lot can be pretty, I think that one is.
“There is another school of thought that we put it in the Municipal Center parking lot, but I don’t hear a lot of support for that.”
To her knowledge, former Mayor Karl Ory, who helped stop the university from building a structure at Second and Chestnut 25 years ago, is the only person who’s publicly announced his opposition thus far, but she allowed she didn’t think many people understood where the project stands at this point.
For his part, Ory says building a new structure makes no sense economically, based on the construction costs the city has been presented, which amount to about $20,000 per spot. He also believes the structure is slated for the wrong place.
“This is the wrong location for two reasons,” Ory said. “Aesthetically as the entrance to the downtown, and I always thought this would be a nice place to do some urban homesteading—not all residential but a mix of residential and commercial. I see a nice place to be creative and appropriate for something this close to the [Bidwell] park and the entranceway to town.”
He said he is not sure if he would oppose it if the city was looking to build it somewhere else.
“I would hope I’d be a little more open-minded,” he said. “But if it happens at Second and Chestnut, I have some issues because the voters turned down that site in the early 1980s.”
Ory, who was elected to the council in 1977 and became mayor in 1985, said the city purchased the lot at Wall and Second to provide parking.
“The great thing about surface parking,” he said, “is that you can always convert it to something else.”
Ory said he thinks there is enough parking available in Chico already and that re-striping and converting from parallel to diagonal could add even more.
“We now know that each additional parking space will cost at least $20,000,” he said. “What could we do to avoid a $20,000 cost? Well, every time we can get somebody downtown without adding a park space we’ve saved ourselves $20,000. And every time we re-stripe or add a diagonal space or get an employee to park beyond the perimeter [of the downtown], we save ourselves $20,000.”
Ory said he thinks there is still a chance to have a discussion about whether the downtown needs a new structure.
“I’m not out to artificially strangle the downtown by eliminating cars, but there is philosophical stuff here. For instance, you can’t have a drive-thru business downtown [according to the city’s General Plan].
“We’ve already made the statement that we want to minimize the impact of automobiles downtown. Casa Lupe got turned down for the empty lot at First and Main because they wanted to do a drive-thru.” (The drive-thru at Jack-in-the-Box predated the drive-thru ordinance.)
“And I’m not out to bash car drivers—I’m not a bicyclist myself, but I really don’t mind parking a block from where I am going,” Ory said.
Unlike the DCBA, Ory wants the process to slow down a bit.
“Before we decide on a god-awful structure here or a potentially worse structure down the road, let’s talk about supply and demand and come up with a plan to add a couple hundred spaces and see if we can avoid the capital costs of $20,000 a space.”
He said most people are not fully aware that a structure is coming.
“Until they double the rates there will be no awareness,” he said. “When you make that connection in people’s mind, then there will be huge awareness and some uproar.
“Let’s get it out there; let’s talk about this thing.”
Andy Holcombe, attorney, activist for the homeless and low-income housing and now a city councilman, has not been involved with the structure yet. And he’s not so sure it’s a done deal.
“I don’t really have a clear idea in my mind right now how far they’ve gotten in terms of what’s been agendized,” he said. “The old council talked about it publicly, and now it’s gone to the request-for-proposal stage.”
But Holcombe is troubled by the looming parking-meter increase. “We can’t in good conscience say we are raising parking fees to build a parking structure when we don’t even have a specific structure in mind,” he said.
Holcombe said he for one is not philosophically opposed to the parking structure.
“I think having enough parking downtown is vital to our community,” he said. “The downtown is the community asset that needs protection as much or more so than Bidwell Ranch. It is a crucial piece of our community to have a vital downtown, and that means adequate parking, though what adequate parking is I’m not sure.”
He, too, calls for the city at least to examine the idea of switching to diagonal parking as well as enforcing the two-hour limit on the downtown meters.
Building a structure at Wall and Second will certainly change the city’s landscape, he said.
“On the other hand, there was a knee-jerk reaction when they built the parking structure on Salem that it was going to be ugly and ruin the neighborhood. It’s just part of the neighborhood now.
“People who say parking structures by their definition are ugly, you’ll never make happy. And they are sort of tilting at windmills.”
If Chico has a Don Quixote, it’s bicycling enthusiast Ed McLaughlin. He’s been tilting at windmills for most of his 20-plus years in this town. As head of the Chico VELO bicycle organization, he is also a member of the DCBA.
“To me continuing to plan for an auto-centric future is misguided,” he said. “We look at what we are doing now, and we think it’s always going to be this way. And I don’t see where it can always be this way.”
OK, but where do people park?
“They don’t have to park. You could incorporate some parking for residents, but the assumption that every person comes with a car attached…
“There is always an assumption that people are going to drive to wherever they are going—the Black Sea Gallery building or the remodeled El Rey. Maybe they walk or ride the bus or ride their bikes. There are other options, you know.
“And this is Chico; this is a really favorable place to do that. I don’t think we need to replicate the mistakes of every other community that’s made this great investment in parking.”
McLaughlin said the city already has enough parking spaces; we’re just too lazy to take advantage of them.
“It’s that weird psychology of people wanting to park right in front of where they are going,” he said. “Owners and employees park right in front of their places of business.”
He called for stiffer fines against those who abuse the downtown parking laws.
In the meantime, he is confident the parking structure looming on Chico’s future horizon can be stopped. “I don’t know how much of a done deal it is because I’m not on the inside,” he said.
But he thinks this one is on shaky financial ground and doubts the meter fee increase will go into effect when scheduled.
“I don’t think it is inevitable. I think there is enough reasoned opposition, but I’ve been wrong before.”
In the bigger picture, McLaughlin thinks it is time to readdress our reliance on the automobile.
“As long as we continue to make it attractive to use an automobile, people will. And then there are larger issues. Why are we facing this obesity crisis? Because we are not moving. And why are we constantly dealing with pollution issues? And why are we making this commitment to more oil-based activities when it is pretty obvious we are coming to the peak of oil production?
“There doesn’t seem to be a political agenda to harp on these issues. I don’t hear people talking about it anywhere; we just seem to think it’s going to continue to be this way—I don’t think we should.
“We have a love affair with the automobile, but the question is, who is screwing whom?"