Taking the creative path

Draft report urges many changes to improve parking downtown

ONE POSSIBILITY <br>Among its many suggestions, the Charrette report suggests narrowing Broadway to two lanes and widening the sidewalks to allow café seating.

Among its many suggestions, the Charrette report suggests narrowing Broadway to two lanes and widening the sidewalks to allow café seating.

Courtesy Of HDR Town Planning

Who owns the spaces?
Did you know that almost half of the more than 4,000 parking spaces in downtown Chico are privately owned? Many of them go unused, the charrette report states.

Downtown Chico does not need another parking structure—yet. That’s a principal conclusion, but far from the only one, of the recently released draft report on the Chico Downtown Access Planning Charrette held March 23-27.

Instead, the city can improve its downtown parking situation considerably by using a variety of creative strategies that would not only improve parking, but also greatly enhance the downtown area, the report suggests.

The illustration-rich 89-page report was prepared by the groups that conducted the charrette: HDR Town Planning, an urban-design firm, and Nelson/Nygaard, a transportation planning company, both located in San Francisco. The charrette was a workshop involving several hundred people over five days in which ideas were posed, critiqued and refined to come up with a series of recommendations about both parking and circulation downtown.

The report probably is not going to satisfy those who are convinced a new parking structure is needed now, though it doesn’t rule out the need for one in the future, depending on what other steps are taken in the meantime.

The charrette relied heavily on data collected for a November 2003 report on downtown parking prepared by the Roseville engineering firm Omni-Means, but it also updated that data by including the results from a doubling of meter fees initiated in 2005. That hike, which originally was intended to help pay for a new parking structure at Second and Wall streets, had the unintended consequence of reducing parking in the downtown core area, thereby freeing up more spaces.

The current report is a work in progress, said Claudia Stuart, the senior planner who represented the city in the charrette process. City planning staffers have already begun analyzing its recommendations and will present a report to the City Council in coming weeks as to their feasibility. She said the council expects to begin public discussions in the fall, after the university is back in session.

The city has posted the report on its Web site (www.chico.ca.us), along with an e-mail link so people can comment on it.

Currently, the report states, only nine to 12 downtown blocks, all at the north end of downtown and close to the university, are full most of the time. Downtown as a whole is occupied only 58 percent of the time, and Municipal Lot No. 1, the site of the proposed parking structure, only 70 percent of the time.

The biggest constraint on new development downtown, the report states, is the city’s high parking requirements. Although its research shows downtown nonresidential development generates a parking demand of 1.6 spaces per 1,000 square feet of floor area, the city currently requires developers to provide three to five spaces for each 1,000 square feet or pay $16,000 per space as an in-lieu fee.

If those requirements are left unchanged, downtown development will continue at recent rates, growing by about 26,000 square feet per year and providing sufficient parking spaces to keep up with demand, the report states.

If the requirements are relaxed, however, and the amount of downtown development increases, more parking will be needed. The report makes several recommendations, all premised on the idea that the goal should be 85 percent parking occupancy, the optimal balance between resource efficiency and space availability.

The recommendations are a creative blend of possibilities ranging from putting parking beneath new buildings to abolishing parking time limits and relying instead on escalating (cheaper the first two hours) and differential (more expensive in high-use areas) parking fees to prioritize parking-space use. This spreads the parking around and increases availability in high-use areas.

Other recommendations are to collect meter fees in the evenings and on Saturdays in the downtown core, but at only 25 cents per hour; use multispace meters (pay stations) that take credit cards and bills; buy up or lease private spaces, stop leasing out spaces in public lots, and discourage or restrict new private nonresidential lots; and so forth.

The report also states that nearly 500 new parking spaces can be created by turning the current parallel parking on several downtown streets into diagonal parking.

In addition, it presents several recommendations designed to increase the use of alternative transportation downtown, including new bike paths and a new bus transit center.

Two tests should be met before the city spends millions of dollars on a new parking structure, the report states. First, “Will downtown parking be at least 85 percent occupied when a garage is complete?” Second, “Is it cheaper to add new parking than invest in alternatives to reduce parking demand or provide peripheral parking?”

It anticipates, however, that if the city relaxes its parking requirements, one and possibly even two parking structures will be needed in the future.

Parking-structure proponents and opponents alike are welcoming the report as a take-off point for further community discussion. Katrina Davis, director of the Downtown Chico Business Association, the primary backer of a new garage, acknowledged the report had “some very creative ideas, but we still believe a parking structure is needed.”

Pointing to San Luis Obispo, one of the cities mentioned in the report for its creative approach to parking, she noted that the city had recently begun building its fourth downtown parking structure.

Karl Ory, a leader of the anti-parking-structure group Friends of the Downtown, called the report “an incredible snapshot of what could happen downtown. I hope it will produce a lively discussion.”

He said he hoped all of the stakeholders—the DCBA, developers, bicyclists and downtown lovers of all stripes—will participate. “There’s no reason we can’t start over and have a discussion that’s comfortable for everyone,” he said.