Free parking ends Monday in downtown Tacoma
KATHLEEN COOPER; Staff writer
Three decades of free parking in downtown Tacoma will end Monday.
Starting then, parking will cost 75 cents an hour, and parking on the same block for more than two hours a day won’t be allowed. Parking too long will cost you $25.
The system is initially being financed with $2 million in bonds to buy about 160 pay stations and about 40 single meters. Fees and fines will pay for enforcement, as well as maintenance and operation.
The idea is to ensure that visitors, clients and shoppers can quickly find a spot by getting downtown employees to park somewhere else.
Will it work?
“There will be a shakeout period,” said Steph Farber, owner of LeRoy Jewelers on Broadway and a member of the citizen task force that designed the system. “After that, success is when you drive down the street, there are always a couple of spaces but not a bunch of spaces.”
It might be a good idea, said Brooke Bennett, manager of UrbanXchange on Pacific Avenue. The used-clothing store leases from the University of Washington Tacoma campus, one of the most crowded stretches of Pacific Avenue.
Bennett says she doesn’t hear complaints about lack of parking, but customers do say they circle the block a lot, waiting for a spot to open.
“Only time will tell” if paid parking brings more customers in, she said.
ECHOES OF 1935
Prompted in part to eliminate “chain parkers” – employees and students who repeatedly park and move cars to free spots throughout the day – the city’s move toward paid parking mirrors an effort from decades ago.
By late 1935, some downtown merchants were demanding that city officials do something about “parking hogs.”
“Even with diagonal parking there was little room on the streets for shoppers to park their cars,” read a newspaper caption from a photograph taken in November 1935. “All the available space in front of the stores was being taken by business employees. As the streets like Commerce … became jammed with cars, some merchants started demanding parking meters to force cars off the streets.”
After years of fighting over the issue, the city installed 1,200 parking meters in downtown’s shopping district during summer 1941. The meters stayed until a declining downtown – losing business to the relatively new Tacoma Mall – saw its parking meters covered in 1976, then removed entirely in 1977, the accounts show.
Since then, Farber said, downtown parking zones were inconsistent. If a business needed a loading zone and two 15-minute spaces, for example, they could get it – and those “exception” spaces kept that designation even if the business moved away. That led to parking zones with no discernible pattern all over downtown.
“We started out with a really screwed-up parking system,” Farber said. “We had more exception spaces than Seattle and Portland put together.”
Plus, the “chain parkers” reduce parking space turnover and frustrate visitors, particularly in the busier areas of downtown such as around UWT and in the Theater District.
75 CENTS TO START
In October 2009, after months of outreach and study, the City Council approved a paid street parking program for downtown. The goal is a 15 percent vacancy rate – one open space for every seven spots.
The initial rate of 75 cents an hour probably will go up as the city tries to find the optimal price that ensures the vacancy rate.
Employees and students who must park downtown every day can pay to use one of about five dozen public and private off-street parking lots and garages. The city also hopes paid street parking encourages more use of public transportation, car pools and biking.
Installation of the approximately 160 pay stations began in August and finished last week. Another 40 or so single meters for some side streets that can’t be conveniently served by pay stations will be installed through the fall. And about a month ago, all of downtown shifted to a two-hour zone. New signs were posted, and city crews are planning to repaint curbs.
Farber said he was surprised how few business owners expressed anxiety about paid parking.
“I expected an enormous amount of resistance, and we’ve not had it,” something he attributed to keeping merchants informed through the process.
Most business owners or managers interviewed for this story are taking a wait-and-see approach.
Tina Miller, an owner of Hello, Cupcake near UWT, said her customers don’t complain about lack of parking.
“When people go downtown in a major city, parking is expected to be an issue,” she said.
Her customers do say they like the 15-minute spots in front of her Pacific Avenue shop, so they can quickly pick up an order. Most customers say that if they circle the block, something will open up.
The shop’s 11 employees park south of the campus and up the hill. Miller pays $180 every three months for a spot at the Washington State History Museum across the street.
On the north end of Pacific Avenue, Learning Sprout supervisor Marcia Nelson said paid parking could help business. Parking outside the store used to be a one-hour zone that was strictly enforced.
“We (once) had people who spent $200, and they go out and find a ticket on their car,” she said. “They said, ‘That’s very unfriendly, and we won’t be back.’ ”
Now customers can pay for two hours, and they can shop and eat lunch before the time is up, she said.
Nelson is concerned that pushing downtown employees into garages will increase the demand there – and raise the prices. She pays $132 a month to park in a nearby garage, and she can’t afford more.
WANTS THREE SPOTS
One business owner on the northern edge of the paid parking zone said it will hurt his business.
Martin Osborn, manager of Puget Sound Pizza on South Seventh Street, said the three spots in front of his restaurant are key to keeping his takeout customers, who account for half his business. He said charging for parking will put him at a competitive disadvantage.
“It’s not that I hate paid parking or that I’m against it,” he said. “They’ve basically given an exception to the entire Stadium District up to me. There are 10 places within four blocks (of me) that get to keep free parking. People being creatures of habit, yes, I think they’ll go for free parking.”
As of Friday, he said, the city had proposed two single meters and one exception space, though Osborn planned to keep lobbying for no meters at all.
Osborn tried, without success, to get the parking task force to exempt those three spots. He also appealed to various city officials, who referred him to the task force. He’s frustrated and thinks the paid parking system is intended to make money for the city, not to create spaces for customers.
“Everyone keeps telling me it isn’t about revenue” even when he doesn’t bring it up, Osborn said. “It’s OK to be honest. People will respect that even if they don’t like what you’re doing.”
City officials and task force members state unequivocally that the point of the paid street parking is not to bring in money for other city services.
Money from parking fees and fines go to the Parking Enterprise Fund, which is for the entire parking system – street parking and garages.
Dana Brown of the city’s Public Works Department said Friday that the most recent financial models for paid street parking show it generating a small amount of revenue almost immediately at current staffing levels.
“It’s a bit of a moving target,” he said. “You can’t predict demand.”
The City of Olympia recently raised some of its metered rates in a move toward what it described as “self-sustaining rates so that parking programs and services pay for themselves.”
The task force and City of Tacoma engineers will be assessing things quickly, including whether the price is right and whether a half-dozen enforcement officers are adequate.
Brown said revenue from paid street parking will pay existing debt on city-owned parking garages, including those near the convention center and the A Street garage near the Russell Building. It also will be used to maintain the parking meter system and other city-owned garages.
He said the city owns more than 40 percent of the off-street parking facilities in downtown. The cost to park there doesn’t cover the debt service, much less maintenance, he said.
Farber said he was among more than 80 people who spoke before the City Council several years ago when it was considering a paid parking plan to bring in more money. That’s a bad idea, he said.
“The reason I’m involved is that it’s not supposed to be revenue-generating for the city,” he said. “This has nothing to do with the general fund. This is inventory control.”
The new system is possible because the city disconnected income from parking, Farber said. And the task force was not just an advisory group. It designed the system.
“It puts the bull’s-eye on us, but we’re trying to make a system that’s usable and not what’s best for the city (budget),” he said.
At the last neighborhood meeting about paid street parking Wednesday, business owners along Antique Row peppered David Carr, the city’s new parking services manager, with questions about enforcement.
The Theater District, around South Ninth Street and Broadway, is full of parked cars most of the day. Chain parkers won’t move unless there’s a strong financial disincentive, they said.
“We’re going to come through more frequently and look at more than the stickers” that come from the pay stations, Carr said. The stickers allow the enforcement officers to be faster, so they’ll go from two-hour routes to one-hour routes.
“We’re going to be more unpredictable,” Carr said.
“But you are going to come by,” said Ron Adamson, owner of Broadway’s Best Antiques.
“Yes,” Carr said.
“We all heard that,” Adamson said to his colleagues.
Later, task force co-chairwoman Chelsea Levy of the chamber of commerce asked the owners to be ambassadors for paid parking, particularly if they have customer complaints.
“The customers aren’t the problem,” Adamson said. “They’re happy to pay 75 cents.”
Kathleen Cooper: 253-597-8546
Staff writer Lewis Kamb contributed to this report.