Parking yes, open space no

City Council votes to move forward with parking garage, holds off on making Bidwell Ranch open space

DON’T PARK ON MEFormer Mayor Karl Ory pleads with the Chico City Council to reconsider plans to build a parking structure downtown at Second and Wall streets. The process to this point, he argued, has left out the voices of those who may question the need for a new parking garage. “I urge you to go back to square one and bring us together for the good of the downtown,” he said.

DON’T PARK ON MEFormer Mayor Karl Ory pleads with the Chico City Council to reconsider plans to build a parking structure downtown at Second and Wall streets. The process to this point, he argued, has left out the voices of those who may question the need for a new parking garage. “I urge you to go back to square one and bring us together for the good of the downtown,” he said.

Photo By Tom Angel

Split decision: City Council audience member Kent Wooldridge pointed out that a survey by the DCBA of downtown merchants (returned by less than 30 percent) indicated that 50 percent of those who answered agreed there is a parking problem downtown; 48 percent said there was not; 2 percent said they didn’t know.

A three- to five-level parking garage for downtown Chico inched closer to reality this week, while an effort to rezone the 750 acres known as Bidwell Ranch stalled yet again at a marathon Chico City Council meeting.

After fielding 60 one-minute testimonials from (mostly) opponents and supporters of a downtown parking garage, the council voted to move forward with an environmental-impact report (EIR) as well as plans to finance the structure through increased parking-meter fees and extended hours of enforcement for those meters.

Plans for the garage, tentatively set for Municipal Parking Lot No. 1 at Second and Wall streets, have been quietly moving through the process since 2002, when a study by a Roseville-based engineering firm suggested the downtown core—the area bordered by Flume, Third, Normal and First streets—is 331 parking spaces short and in 20 years will be 639 spots underserved. The whole downtown will suffer a 962-space shortage, said the Omni-Means study.

In May 2004, the City Council voted to double meter rates from 25 to 50 cents per hour and agreed to consider extending the rates sometime later, which it did this week. In a complex schedule, the city will enforce meter use an additional four hours a day, from 6 p.m. to 10 p.m., but at only 25 cents an hour during that time, and put them in play all day Saturday, same hours and rates, with the exception of the 10-hour meters, which will cost 25 cents an hour all day Saturday. Simple.

The changes are set to go into effect July 1.

The increase would be enough to finance a $10 million revenue bond that would buy the city a three-level garage. But the needed 700 new spaces require a five-level structure, which will cost $15 million to $18 million. The city would look to its redevelopment funds to cover the added costs, said City Manager Tom Lando.

Parking Lot No. 1 is host to the popular Saturday Farmers’ Market, which vendors and patrons fear will lose its appeal if stuck inside the structure or made to move to another venue. City officials and garage supporters, led by the Downtown Chico Business Association, have tried to assure the Farmers’ Market folks that they will be comfortably accommodated by whichever plan for the project is chosen.

Still, the farmers and their fans have adopted a don’t-mess-with-success attitude toward the structure and its potential to disturb or displace the market. And it is not clear whether the market operators will have to feed the meters for the parking spaces it utilizes on Saturdays, now that they’ve been added to the meter-enforcement time.

The council’s decision to move forward with the EIR tweaked the process a bit by including a vote to give equal consideration to alternatives to the Second and Wall streets location, until now the only place serioulsy considered for building. The EIR will look at alternatives as equally viable options. Those include building the structure on the parking lot that serves the Chico Municipal Building on Fourth Street or providing alternative transportation, like a downtown shuttle service, that would eliminate the need for more parking. The EIR will also look at modifying downtown streets by changing some parallel-parking spots to diagonal spaces, which increases the number in a given area.

The council eliminated one option, that of including retail space in the parking structure, because, in the words of Councilman Dan Herbert, the city should not “be getting into the landlord business.”

Councilman Andy Holcombe cautioned that the council needed to consider “what is best for the downtown as a whole, as opposed to simply mitigating for a parking structure. If we study the alternatives we may find other ways beyond the structure.”

Vice Mayor Maureen Kirk said that, while she believes more parking is needed downtown, it may be more appropriate to build a structure on the lot that serves the Municipal Building, where the estimated year-long construction process would affect city employees rather than downtown businesses.

Of the 60 people who spoke on the matter, two-thirds opposed a parking garage, saying it was unneeded and that the meter fee increase was an odd way to try to attract more consumers downtown.

Attorney Denny Latimer, whose office sits cattycorner to the Second and Wall parking lot, said he’s never in his 20 years at that location had a parking problem for his clients and has never had problems finding parking as a downtown shopper.

Attorney Ernie Washington said the multi-story garage would be “deleterious to the downtown,” and Debora Abbott, of Friends of the Farmers’ Market, handed the council petitions with 1,200 signatures from people who she said opposed building the structure at Wall and Second.

Early on Herbert got mad at the enthusiasm shown by structure opponents and told them to knock off their clapping, as it was slowing down the meeting.

Charlie Osborn, president of the DCBA, said he as a downtown business owner supported both the meter increase and building the structure at Second and Main.

Katrina Davis, executive director of the DCBA, said the “parking problem is proof that we have a thriving downtown” and that the structure was needed if we wanted to “thrive into the future.”

Cheryl King, on the other hand, asked, “If there is so much trouble with parking, why is the downtown so viable?”

After an hour and a half the council put an end to the public testimony and voted. But the debate is far from over.

The decision to rezone Bidwell Ranch as open space will come back as a consent agenda item on June 7, after city staff asks the Army Corps of Engineers to clarify whether the land can qualify as a mitigation bank after it’s been zoned as open space.

The Army Corps can designate environmentally sensitive land containing vernal pools and endangered plants as a mitigation bank to protect it from development and serve as an environmental placeholder so that other sensitive ecosystems may be developed. But if the land in question is already protected by its zoning, the reasoning seems to go, then there is no profit in also making it a mitigation bank.

This week the council—at least the required four members—was set to rezone the controversial property that has served as a battleground in the war between developers and environmentalists for the past 20 years. Part of the argument for protecting the land from housing development was its value to the city as a mitigation bank, whereby the city can realize profits in the form of mitigation credits sold to developers who want to pave over critical habitat in other parts of the city.

But on the day of the meeting, the city received a letter from the Army Corps indicating that the agency, which enforces the federal Clean Water Act, was not necessarily going to sign off on the land as qualified mitigation material, as the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service had done.

Because the rezone is an amendment to the General Plan, which can be amended only four times a year, and because it was tied to three other rezones, which taken together counted as only one amendment, leaving three more for the year, the council voted to hold off on a final decision until the next meeting in June. In that time it hopes—though Lando cautioned it probably won’t happen—to get clarification from the Army Corps. Even if the corps says no dice to the mitigation designation, Kirk, the swing vote in the case, said she will vote for the open-space rezone.

Those in the audience who have for so long tried to get the land off the table for development groaned.

But Councilman Larry Wahl tried to temper their disappointment by reasoning, “It’s sat there for 20 years. It’s not going anywhere. Let’s not be hasty.”