Monday, January 25, 2010

Managing Parking Downtown

Tonight the City Council took one of the final steps toward installing a system of paid parking on certain blocks downtown. By a vote of 5-2 (with Councilmembers Monahan and Andrews dissenting, as they usually do on this issue), the Council voted to purchase 62 pay stations that will be installed on Main Street, California Street, and a few other sidestreets downtown where almost all parking spaces are in use almost all the time.

Even though this was mostly a procedural items (we approved the concept of paid parking almost three years ago), it got a lot of publicity around town today because the Star chose to highlight it in an advance story titled "Ventura Poised To Charge For Downtown Parking Spaces". The online responses were not universally negative -- many people praised the idea -- but the range of reasons why people thought paid parking is a bad idea was pretty amusing. One person said that paid parking can't be sustained because downtown is doing so poorly; another person said that paid parking shouldn't be instituted because downtown is doing so well.

There's no question that paying for parking anywhere in Ventura is a big adjustment from what we're accustomed to, so it's understandable that a lot of people don't like the idea. But I think it's important to put the paid parking downtown in context. We're not charging for parking everywhere. In fact, the parking garage and all the public parking lots and the vast majority of onstreet parking spaces will be completely free of charge. We're charging at certain very high-usage downtown locations as part of a larger system of managing parking. In addition to paid parking, we're also using time limits on parking as well as residential permit parking as a way to manage the entire system. (See map.) This also requires better management of parking lots -- such as the one at Foster Library, which will be undergoing some changes.

Here's the idea: Some onstreet spaces downtown are in use 95-100% of the time -- especially along Main Street -- and so some people who come along looking for a space never find one. Meanwhile, other areas downtown are not anywhere near full. By creating a system of paid parking, time limits, and residential permit parking, we can free up spaces along Main Street and elsewhere for people who are only going to be there a short time (or are willing to pay money to park there), while encouraging other folks to park in the lots and garages, which are free.

The number of spaces that will have paid parking is small. There are about 7,000 parking spaces downtown, including about 4,000 public spaces. Of those, about 2,000 are in the garage and in lots and about 2,000 are on the street. The paid parking will apply to 431 spaces -- 280 on Main Street and the rest on the side streets. (I had previously said 280 altogether, but I was wrong.) If you choose to park in a paid space, you can pay with a credit card if you want and the system automatically tracks which stall your car is in, so you don't have to return to your car to put a piece of paper on the dashboard, as you do at the beach. If you find youself way down at the other end of the street and you're running out of time, just go to the nearest pay station and add more money.

One of the big fears is that people won't want to pay the parking fee, so they won't park in the spaces, and businesses downtown will suffer. But the paid parking system we're buying allows us to adjust the parking fee to meet the market demand. Our goal is to have, on average, 85% of the parking spaces used, with 15% vacant. (This is, of course, slightly lower than the situation now.) If we institute paid parking at $1 an hour (which is probably where we'll start) and use goes down to only 50% or 60%, then it's easy -- because it's a computerized system -- to lower the price until the usage goes up. If usage is too high -- 95-100%, which means no spaces are available -- then we can raise the price. In other words, we can respond to the market by changing the price, just as a private business would.

Although this kind of system is new to Ventura, it's pretty common throughout Southern California these days. You may have seen this kind of system in Glendale; I've used it in downtown Riverside. It definitely takes some getting used to -- no doubt about it. But once it is in place, we should be able to manage parking much better than now; and you'll have the choice of paying to park in an extremely convenient location or walking a little bit to park for free.

The money that's generated from the parking system will also help downtown. The money will go into a fund for downtown projects -- anything from picking up trash to steamcleaning sidewalks or even to help pay for an additional parking garage. Throughout Southern California, these parking revenues have helped make downtowns more attractive, not less.

Of course, if we charge for parking on the street in high-volume locations, then we have to manage offstreet parking better as well. So, for example, at Foster Library, we are working with the library agency to free up more parking spaces for library patrons. By getting some library employees to park all day in the upper lot, we're going to increase the number of spaces for patrons in the lot behind the library from 11 to 22, and the number of spaces for persons with disabilities from 2 to 4.