Long-awaited parking changes on the horizon

Downtown metered parking would rise from 25 cents an hour to 50 cents an hour next year, then to 75 cents in 2008 and $1 in 2010; new rules would go into effect Jan. 1, 2006

Larry Farr, the new president of the Downtown Renaissance Network, said the proposed parking changes are great news for downtown businesses that have been long-starved for open spots.

   Finally, say many downtown business owners and residents, the city’s made some significant headway in addressing its plagued downtown parking system.
   In an attempt to keep downtown business owners, employees and others from hoarding parking spaces all day, beginning Jan. 1, the City Council decided recently, parking meter rates and fines will double.
   And in coming weeks, the council will also consider increasing the power of the Downtown Parking Commission, possibly extending its authority citywide, so there’ll be one entity, rather than several, addressing parking issues.
   “These new measures will be important because they will really solve the problem of keeping spaces available for people who want to shop downtown and get people off the streets who are feeding the meters,” said downtown developer Bob Hall, a longtime parking critic.
   For years, many downtown proprietors and workers have realized it’s cheaper to park in front of their businesses all day and pay the early-payment discount for an expired-meter fine than to pay $3.60 per day to park in the city parkade on Commercial Street.

Under the new parking changes, the city will:

   “If people start to get a couple of $10 tickets, they’ll start moving their cars,” said Larry Farr, newly elected president of the Downtown Renaissance Network, and a parking commissioner since 1998.
   While Farr and Hall are excited about the potential of improved parking availability, they’re equally enthusiastic about another decision the city council made.
In the past, parking fines have gone into the city’s general fund, while only money collected from meters and permits — a smaller amount — went into its parking fund, which pays for things like operations, lot maintenance and parking enforcement.
Beginning next year, however, the new money from tickets and fines will go into the parking fund. In addition to helping pay for daily operations, the new money may possibly go toward purchasing property for a new parking structure in the next few years.
   “Up until now, fine money has gone into the general fund and that should’ve been used to create new parking,” Hall said. “They should’ve been buying empty lots and stack parking to tempt office-use downtown.”
   Hall believes some businesses choose to not locate or build downtown because there’s not enough nearby parking.
   “That’s made it easy for satellite offices and rural communities to suck tenants out of downtown,” he said. “They’ve been able to offer free parking and class-A offices that are wired and have HVAC. No one’s been building those downtown.”
   City Councilman Terry Bornemann said he hopes the city can use some of the money created by the new rates and fees to build up bonding capacity and then approve a councilmatic bond, or put a bond measure before voters, to pay for a new parking structure.
   “I think the days of new surface parking in the downtown are over,” he said.    “Downtown real estate has become much too valuable. I think almost anything we’d look at would be a parking structure, probably incorporated with retail.”
   As the port’s recently acquired Georgia-Pacific property begins to be developed, Farr said, it’s likely parking will be needed closer to the waterfront. He envisions a parking structure going on Cornwall Avenue or Railroad Avenue.
   Some downtown business owners, though, aren’t so sure the new fees and fines will make much of a difference.
   Little Cheerful Café owner Robin Horring said the fee and rate increases may still not be steep enough to encourage large numbers of people to move their cars to lots.
   Meanwhile, a manager at another Railroad Avenue business, who asked not to be identified, said the meter increases may keep some people away from downtown and steer them toward Bellis Fair and other parts of town where parking is free.
   Also, he said, even if the city does build another parkade there’s no guarantee people would use it.
   “People don’t like parkades,” he said. “I have a feeling they just wouldn’t use them. If they can’t find a place to park on the street, they’ll just keep driving around until they find one somewhere else.”

No coins? No problem.
   City officials are considering removing downtown parking meters and replacing them with pay stations, similar to the ones used in White Rock and Seattle.
   “We wanted to look at pay stations because they give customers more convenience to pay with a debit or credit card and they free up staff time,” said Opal Mahoney, Bellingham’s Parking Program coordinator.
   Areas like Railroad Avenue, she said, have a large number of meters and collecting money there is a very time-consuming process for staff.
   Checking pay stations, placed in centrally located areas, would free up time, she said. They are also easier to enforce and audit.
   By the end of the year, said Mahoney, the city plans to put a pay station in the Commercial Avenue parkade. Currently, a full-time employee works there but could be reassigned to take on other parking duties.
   Mahoney has also requested money for a pay station to go in the city’s south lot, near La Fiamma, but there’s no timeline for when, or if, it might be installed.


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