In a nation of deteriorating urban cores, strip malls and surface parking lots, living in a city with a revived downtown center is pretty great. Spokane is fortunate to have shops, restaurants, galleries, offices and a city park located at its heart. But like every other busy city center in the nation, it suffers from a fundamental "downtown" problem: parking.

"Parking has been an issue in downtown, just as it is in any large city," says Mary Ann Ulik, parking and operations manager for the Downtown Spokane Partnership (DSP), a nonprofit advocacy organization for growth and development in downtown Spokane. Ulik says any time customers have to search for parking, pay for it and risk tickets, there are going to be complaints -- especially regarding metered spaces. The DSP, along with the city of Spokane, works to abate the issue of parking through several customer service programs, like the Courtesy Ticket Program, in which they pre-pay the court for thousands of parking tickets, then hand vouchers to meter enforcement officers, who put friendly reminders to plug meters on the windshields of cars at expired meters instead of $10 parking tickets.

"As of November, we've given out 2,850 [vouchers] from the DSP and 2,600 sponsored by the city," says Dave Shaw, traffic control supervisor for Spokane.

Shaw is in charge of the meter enforcement officers and handles most issues regarding Spokane's meters. The Courtesy Ticket Program, and ones like it, are helpful, but they don't solve the overall problem. And the scope of that problem is large: About 75,000 parking tickets are issued in Spokane every year. That's well over 200 parking tickets a day. (Enforcers do patrol on Sundays and holidays but only write tickets for unauthorized cars in disabled or no parking zones.)

"I have seven patrollers [in downtown] averaging 46 [tickets] a day and non-patrollers averaging four tickets a day," Shaw states. "We'll void a ticket if the driver comes back, though, and the void rate is at 6 percent." That number of tickets brings in an average of $1.2 million a year, all of which goes into the city's general fund -- although much of it is currently being held aside in case the city is told by the courts to use it to help fund the River Park Square parking garage. Only the change paid into the meters goes into the city's escrow account for River Park Square. That account currently holds about $7 million.

As of mid-December, there were more than 20,000 unpaid tickets out in circulation.

"We have a couple thousand that were dismissed or aren't due yet," says Joe Koontz, supervisor of parking violations for Spokane. Many unpaid tickets are from out-of-town visitors. The city hires a collection agency to track down people with delinquent tickets.

Keeping Parkers Happy

All this ticket-writing brings in more than just money for the city; it brings in a mountain of complaints from angry parkers. Shaw says he receives anywhere from 10 to 20 complaint calls a week.

"In every major city, you have to pay for parking, and the reason is to make sure the spaces turn over," Ulik says. "If you didn't have [meters], you'd have people parking there all day long."

The city of Spokane tried free downtown parking in the mid-'90s. After a volley of complaints about the inefficiency of the parking system, the city removed about 300 meters. But they replaced the meters after a few years at many downtown business owners' requests. People -- mostly employees of downtown businesses -- were parking all day in prime spaces, and visitors couldn't find a spot.

"Patrons want to get in, park quickly and get out," Ulik says. "If they circle around and can't find anything, they'll leave, and so we're trying to provide alternative areas for employees to park."

There are about 2,100 metered parking spaces in the wider downtown core, from Division Street to Maple Street and from Spokane Falls Boulevard to Sixth Avenue. Many of the meters on the fringes are 10-hour parking spaces. These are the meters at which the DSP and the city encourage employees to park. The more remote spots are used less by patrons of downtown and are consequently monitored less by parking enforcement.

But putting the meters back in and encouraging employees to park outside the main core hasn't come close to fixing the dilemma.

"This is my third year [at this location], and it seems more punitive than it was to begin with," says Constance Eller, owner of Constant Creations Tattoo on First Avenue. "We try to help pay for our customers' parking. I really wish they didn't have 30-minute meters. It's crazy. Technically, you can't plug the meter if you're parked there already, so you're supposed to go back and move your car around every half hour to hour. How enjoyable of an experience is that?"

Most agree that it isn't the cost of parking downtown that's the biggest problem; it's the time constraints of the meters.

"The parking meters are the barricade," Eller determines. "People can't get past doing that before they can enjoy going to the really great spots down here."

Seeking a Strategy

Griping about downtown parking is a popular pastime everywhere, but Ulik acknowledges that in Spokane it has been particularly vitriolic.

"The whole River Park Square garage [controversy] has reinforced the issue," Ulik says, noting that this is all the more reason for Spokane to find positive ways to update its parking system. Though meters may be inevitable, it's not impossible to create a customer-friendly parking environment. For an example, Spokane doesn't need to look any farther than Boise.

In the fall of 2000, Boise replaced all of its outdated parking meters with new electronic ones. The new meters have a button that, when pushed, gives each parked car 20 free minutes.

"The public just loves it; the 20 free minutes is popular because a lot of times people have to go get change for the meter. That helps them," says Tana Wardle, parking control manager for Boise. "We have Park Cards, too, that you can buy. They are pre-paid cards that go into the meter, just like a debit card, and you can buy those in increments of $10. You take [the card out of the meter] when you've put as many minutes on it as you want. It's really popular, especially for businesses. We also have tokens that we sell to downtown business association members, and the merchants give them out to customers."

"We wanted to give people more options," adds Wardle. "The number of complaints we receive has decreased considerably. We've been pleased."

Boise's electronic meters not only make businesses and patrons of downtown happier -- the city is reaping the benefits, too.

"When we went from mechanical [meters] to electronic, we increased rates and it changed parking habits," explains Wardle. "Employees aren't abusing the parking meters as much, so customers are using them, and we're making more money."

Boise, which has a slightly smaller population than Spokane, issues far fewer parking tickets per year: about 56,500 on average, as opposed to Spokane's 75,000.

Yet Shaw, the traffic control supervisor for Spokane, says a study released about three years ago indicated that the number of parking tickets issued in Spokane was below the national average.

Eller, with Constant Creations Tattoo, says Boise's system would work well here because patrons could control how long they want to park with a Park Card rather than being subjected to the limit imposed on the meter.

"That [system] is totally civilized, and Boise has jumped so far ahead of us with innovative ideas," she says. "Too many people in Spokane are afraid to let go of the idea of how things already don't work."

But Ulik says the DSP has been looking for ways to transform Spokane's parking system for a while. In 2001, the DSP hired the International Downtown Association advisory panel to assess the parking situation in Spokane's city center.

"They came in and analyzed parking issues and how it all relates," Ulik explains. That analysis resulted in the removal of all 15-minute parking meters.

"People were just getting tickets; it was only hurting customer service," Ulik says.

The advisory panel also recommended that the DSP hire an outside consultant to conduct an official Parking Demand Analysis. That study will take place this spring.

"It will look at where people are parking -- the hot spots, the shortfalls," Ulik says. "And we'll look to the future because of all the development and renovation. Changing an office to a restaurant changes the [parking] demand. And resident growth changes it as well. We need a systematic approach to how to proceed with organizing new parking."

Melvin Marks Inc., a consulting firm based in Portland, along with the Spokane Parking Steering Committee, will conduct the parking analysis. The group plans on documenting car turnover and the times on the meters to see if what exists is appropriate, and if not, what the city needs. The report will be released by late spring or early summer.

"It will be a series of recommendations, and it will be up to [DSP and the city] to implement those actions," Ulik says. "Our consultants already recommended we get rid of the 30-minute meters."

But Ulik says she's not sure if Spokane would ever install meters that give parkers 20 free minutes, like Boise's.

"I can't respond to that, I don't know. It'd be something we'd look at as we go along. We'll see what works and what doesn't. Our focus is on customer service with regard to parking, because we don't want parking to be the thing [downtown patrons] remember."

Publication date: 12/18/03

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