Parking lines drawn

The fight over the proposed downtown parking structure promises to be a donnybrook

MORE PARKING PLEASE Downtown mover and shaker Alan Chamberlain expresses his support for a downtown parking structure during an informational meeting held in the Chico City Council chambers May 10.

MORE PARKING PLEASE Downtown mover and shaker Alan Chamberlain expresses his support for a downtown parking structure during an informational meeting held in the Chico City Council chambers May 10.

Photo By Tom Angel

Parking fees: So far the city has doled out about $120,000 on studies and consulting for the parking structure. It will spend another $350,000 just to get to the point where it will commission an environmental-impact report.

With angry whispers, snippy remarks and over-enthusiastic applause, the battle over the proposed downtown parking structure went public this week during an hour-long informational meeting held in the Chico City Council chambers.

Hosted by City Manager Tom Lando, Assistant City Manager Greg Jones and Fritz McKinley, the director of public works, the meeting was designed to explain the process up to this point and then field questions from the 50 or so people who attended.

Jones announced early on that the meeting was being held partly to correct some of the misinformation circulating about the project, slated to be built on the existing parking lot at Second and Wall streets, track how the city had gotten to this point in the preliminary design process and explain what was next.

The interested parties in the audience seemed to fall into three groups—officials and supporters of the Downtown Chico Business Association, the organization pushing for the new structure; Friends of the Farmers’ Market, who are concerned that the vitality of the popular Saturday produce venue could suffer if disrupted or displaced by the construction of the project; and a third group that is philosophically opposed to the automobile culture.

There have been complaints that the process thus far has been somewhat less than public and that the only people involved are those who support the plan.

McKinley said there have been 15 public meetings dating back three to five years, beginning with the commission of a parking study that indicates the city will be underserved with parking availability in the coming years as the population and the enrollment at Chico State University continue to expand.

McKinley also pointed out that there have been two public workshops held this year with a third scheduled for next month and that the matter is on the City Council’s agenda for the May 17 meeting.

The structure will be financed through revenue bonds that will in turn be paid for though the doubling of current parking meter rates beginning in July, as per council decision. The hours the meters are enforced will be extended from 6 p.m. to 10 p.m. and all day Saturday. There is no date yet in place for the extension enforcement.

The city is looking at three options, all of which call for five levels of parking and would keep the Farmers’ Market outdoors. Earlier it had been suggested that the market could sit on the bottom level of a structure, an idea that was not well received by market officials, vendors or patrons.

One option would close Wall Street permanently and convert it into a plaza that would accommodate the market and allow for 74 food vendors and 718 parking places in the structure. A second option closes Wall only on Saturdays to allow for the market, which would have room for 80 stalls. Such a design would provide 675 parking places and incorporate retail space on the side of the structure facing Wall. Option 3 would also close Wall only on Saturdays.

McKinley said under option No. 1 the plaza would be built first, and when it was finished the market would move its operations there, allowing work to begin on the parking garage, which is expected to take 52 weeks to complete. Prior to that there will be six months’ worth of design and document preparation followed by a request for construction bids.

Questions from the audience, based on tone and content, indicated whether the questioner favored or despised the plans. One woman asked if a traffic study had been done yet on the already congested intersections in the area.

Jones told her that would not happen until after the City Council picked a final design, which he said would most likely include additional crosswalks and traffic controls.

Someone else asked how much each individual parking space would cost the city—reports have pegged that cost at $20,000 apiece. Jones said he couldn’t pin down an exact cost, but that the meter increase and extension would produce enough money to pay for a $12 million to $13 million structure.

The question from audience member Alan Chamberlain was more of a comment: “This is not going to generate traffic, it’s going to solve it,” he said, much to the delight of structure supporters.

A woman asked why alternative forms of transportation were not being pushed by the city, a question that brought a collective groan from the pro-structure folks.

“That’s just so ridiculous,” one pro-parking-garage women said to the person next to her.

A market supporter accused the city of keeping the process on low profile so as to avoid confrontation from opposition to the structure and called for a more broad-based process.

“Where ya been for the past five years?” grumbled another parking-structure supporter.

Former Mayor Karl Ory, a structure opponent, asked Lando, who had taken control of a public meeting tilting dangerously close to chaos, if any of the council actions connected to the structure could be overturned by referendum. Lando said he believed the increase in parking meter rates to pay for the structure was vulnerable to such action.

And on it went, with inquiries as to why other locations were not being considered and why the university, whose students clog up many of the downtown spots, was not building another structure of its own.

The school is considering a new structure at Second and Chestnut, but as Lando lamented, the university’s bureaucracy moves at a snail’s pace and nothing will happen for at least another five to 10 years on that front.

Former Mayor Michael McGinnis asked why the city had failed to conduct a marketing campaign for the city bus service as it had set out to do five years earlier and why the public transit was not mentioned in the study for future parking demands.

Close to the end of the meeting, Lando said, “I understand there is a philosophical question about the structure that we are not going to solve tonight.”

He was right.