Proposed parking structure runs into flak

What a surprise, right?

Mark Stemen thinks building a new parking structure will encourage people, particularly students, to drive.

Mark Stemen thinks building a new parking structure will encourage people, particularly students, to drive.

photo by tom gascoyne

Want to set off a controversy in Chico? Two words: “parking” and “structure.”

There’s a history here going back nearly 20 years, beginning when the structure that sits on Salem Street between Third and Fourth streets was first envisioned and quickly ran into heavy opposition.

A dozen years later emotions erupted over a proposed four-story parking structure at Second and Wall streets, home of the Saturday farmers’ market. The Chico City Council voted to extend the use of parking meters to help fund the structure. A petition against that action was launched and qualified with more than 4,000 signatures of city voters. The structure was never built.

There is a common thread here: a long-proposed parking structure for Chico State. It was used as an argument against both of the above-mentioned projects, as follows: Students take up the downtown parking spaces, and a university multistory lot will fix everything, so no structure is needed.

A few weeks ago the university announced it was moving up the planned building of a 330-space structure on Second Street between Chestnut and Normal. Construction will begin next year.

Opposition has sprouted and played out via the communication channels of the day: e-mail and Facebook.

On Nov. 28, the sustainability division of the Associated Students posted a protest of the structure. A few days later, Jody Strong, the assistant director of AS Programs, politely asked Robyn DiFalco, the AS sustainability director, via e-mail to take down the protest.

To wit: “… [T]he AS (and AS Sustainability therein) is expected to be supportive of this project. … AS Sustainability doesn’t need to officially ‘support’ in any specific way, but to actually have a post in opposition to the project can’t happen.…”

The structure would consist of four levels, with office and retail space on the ground floor, most likely including the University Police and the University Box Office, which are both housed in temporary buildings that will be razed when Taylor Hall is expanded.

The argument against the structure says that encouraging automobile use, in this day of carbon footprints and climate change, is wrong and that alternative forms of transportation should take precedence.

The goal of the school’s 2009 Transportation Demand Management Plan “is to promote walking, biking, transit and other forms of alternative transportation as convenient, safe, and practical means for campus trips.”

But the plan also calls for the parking structure, which early estimates suggest will cost about $14 million. It will be paid for through the sale of bonds and an increase in parking-permit fees.

Fourth-year student Brionne Saseen is the office manager for the AS Recycling and Sustainability programs. She is personally against the parking structure but says she understands the university’s efforts to meet both the campus’ and the local community’s needs.

“I can see that a lot of students are not necessarily happy about creating a parking structure on campus,” she said. “But there is also a wide number of students in support. There is a real divide.”

One of those speaking out against the structure is professor Mark Stemen, a member of the city’s Sustainability Task Force and frequent attendee of City Council meetings.

Stemen says the school should do more to promote bicycle riding, something a parking structure does not do. He thinks the Second Street corridor that runs in front of the campus should be more bike-friendly. He calls the street a death trap for bikers.

Fritz McKinley, the city’s Building & Development Services director, said it’s hard to measure how much the structure will alleviate downtown’s parking pressure. Parking would be reserved for students and faculty from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. on weekdays and open to the public on weekends. During summer months, parking would be reserved for the same hours Mondays through Thursdays.

The city is looking to change Second Street to a one-way corridor with bike lanes and diagonal parking. As such, McKinley said, the city and the university are working to coordinate their respective projects.

Chico State President Paul Zingg acknowledged that he has received numerous e-mail protests of the project from faculty and students. But, he adds, many of the protestors are misinformed.

“I believe the authors of this correspondence are mostly motivated by heartfelt concerns about sustainability-related values,” Zingg said in an e-mail. “In brief, though, I think the criticism fails to acknowledge the nature, need and context of the structure, as it is much more than a parking facility.”

The redesign of Second Street, he added, “will make that thoroughfare more pedestrian- and bicycle-friendly.”

Stemen agrees the overall plan includes environmentally considerate notions. But the new parking structure sends the wrong message.

“Look, from Cancun to Kendall Hall, we’ve seen no action on climate change. That is the underlying sentiment to all of this. The parking structure is symbolic of that.”