In the Stadium District, Tacoma's growth and urbanizing landscape are easy to see in the parking version of musical chairs that plays out as the workday ends and the masses go in search of groceries at Stadium Thriftway or a bite at Rhein Haus.
Several new restaurants and shops have opened recently in Stadium's business district. During busy hours at Thriftway, employees have been seen monitoring the parking lot with a piece of chalk in hand to make sure people aren't parking for longer than an hour. Violators, signs warn, will be towed.
"It is very difficult," said Elizabeth Pearson, who was walking her dog to Thriftway and back to her apartment on a recent sunny afternoon.
Pearson knew that would be the case when she moved to Stadium a year ago.
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"I made sure to have a parking spot included before I moved in here because I have had that experience with other places before," she said. "A lot of times when I have visitors or people coming, they complain about the parking."
The situation has gotten the attention of city officials, who are considering options that could include a pay-to-park system in the Stadium District.
Stadium's triangle-shaped core business district has the highest occupancies of parking spots of anywhere in Tacoma, said Eric Huseby, parking manager for the city. Parking fills up quickly when Tacoma is hankering for a burger at Shake Shake Shake. Some drivers then resort to parking on neighboring residential streets.
The city's Parking Technical Advisory Group, a citizen task force with Huseby serving as liaison, recently performed a study that shows the packed nature of parking in Stadium and in the nearby St. Helens neighborhood.
The study found that parking spots in 117 out of 202 block faces are more than 85-percent full for hours at a time and is expected to get worse.
It's not hard to see why. Plans are in the works for a by-the-slice pizza joint, 172 apartment units in the new eight-story building across from Rhein Haus and Wright Park and a new senior housing complex with up to 156 units.
"The triangular core of that business district shows higher occupancies than we've seen anywhere else," Huseby said. "One of our most constrained areas is the university area ... so we were somewhat surprised to see in the Stadium District, their occupancies for that triangular business district area exceeded even what we experienced at University of Washington-Tacoma."
The advisory group has had meetings with neighbors and business owners and soon will begin conversations about the future of parking in Stadium. The group wants to have community buy-in before it starts making suggestions to the city manager about how to mitigate parking issues, Huseby said.
"Parking and parking controls and that kind of thing are touchy, so we want to make sure we're welcome with open arms," Huseby said. "We need to have active parking management here."
In the core business district, the report recommends adding additional parking-management tools. Huseby said the advisory group won't know exactly what those could entail until it's done outreach in the district, but he said the group usually seeks the least-aggressive parking controls needed to change people's behavior.
"First steps are looking at time stays to see if they are appropriate, then layering the enforcement piece on top of that and finally, if warranted, then implementation of paid parking," he said.
Time-limited parking already is in place in much of the Stadium business district, but right now street parking is free. If parking controls become more strict, more employees and customers of district businesses likely would seek parking in nearby residential neighborhoods, Huseby said.
Several residential blocks in the Stadium area have applied for protection from that threat via the city's Residential Parking Program, which reserves parking on individual block faces for residents and allows visitors to park there for up to two hours.
"We are excited about our growth, but the parking issues it brings is overwhelming," said Christy Barnes, founder of Carpe Diem Massage and president of the Stadium Historical Business District Association.
Some business owners have said Tacoma's growth is happening backwards, with transit following a boom in activity instead of the other way around. The light rail extension that eventually will cut through the center of the Stadium District and head to the Hilltop won't start running until 2022. Apartment buildings, restaurants and new business are opening now, squeezing the parking situation in a neighborhood that's still car-dependent.
"Big issue is that the construction and higher density will happen long before we have the public transit to handle the flow in and out of the Stadium District ... so people will still be in their cars with nowhere to park ... and they won't stop to eat, shop or play," realtor Sharon Bensen, vice president of the business district association, said in an email.
"The cart is before the horse! The Stadium District businesses cannot survive just on the immediate local residents. As a local resident I have driven right through Stadium Thriftway’s parking lot and found no parking ... and didn’t stop to shop."
Stadium resident Christopher Edwards sees it this way: The influx of people coming to Tacoma from Seattle isn't going to stop anytime soon. In the meantime, the city should be focused on enhancing public transportation to alleviate growing pains, like parking.
Huseby said that's the end goal.
"At the end of the day what we're saying is you need to park in an off-street facility, or we need to have a tough conversation about is it appropriate for you to be driving?" Huseby said. "We're trying to drive that behavioral change as well — maybe take the bus, maybe take light rail, so it all dovetails into the larger city vision."