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NW parking plan delay lets new ideas circle the block

Expert says city's metered spaces are a valuable commodity
by: CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTT Portland's busy Northwest 23rd Avenue shopping area could get parking meters under a delayed city parking plan. Critics worry the plan would hurt businesses and cost residents too much.

Northwest Portland's latest parking plan probably won't get a vote this spring as originally thought.

The Northwest District Association has endorsed the plan, but most business owners on Northwest 21st and 23rd avenues oppose it. Some Northwest Portland residents appear divided on its merits.

Meanwhile, national parking guru Donald Shoup says he has a better idea, not only for Northwest Portland, but also for the entire city.

The Northwest Portland parking plan is ready to go. Portland's Bureau of Transportation proposed budget for 2012-13 includes $1.5 million in revenue expected to be collected once the plan is in effect. The city could spend at least double that amount installing parking meters and signs.

The plan calls for parking meters on 21st and 23rd avenues and $45 annual parking permits for residents.

Business owners worry that paid parking throughout Northwest Portland will drive shoppers to other areas or malls where parking is free. A number of nonprofits, including DoveLewis Animal Hospital and private school CLASS Academy, have told the city their employees and visitors will be overly burdened by parking restrictions.

Freeloaders to guests

It doesn't have to be this way, says Shoup, a professor of urban planning at UCLA and author of "The High Cost of Free Parking," which has become something of a parking bible among transportation officials nationwide.

Shoup is a proponent of what he calls performance-based parking, and he urges cities to start viewing their on-street parking as a commodity.

He believes those 23rd Avenue shop owners will find they don't lose customers -- if paid-for parking is correctly implemented in Northwest Portland.

The current plan prices parking meters at $1.60 an hour, just like in downtown. That's the wrong price, Shoup says, at least at the beginning. He would start with a low price, maybe 50 cents an hour, and raise the price if spaces are always occupied.

Shop owners won't be able to complain about lost business, Shoup says, if all the parking is occupied. And they will see shoppers coming and going more frequently, getting back into their cars before their meters expire.

Shoup says free parking on commercial streets such as 23rd Avenue and the neighborhood's residential streets should be abolished. There's that commodity idea again -- every spot has value. But he wouldn't necessarily place the burden of payment on the homeowners and renters.

Many of Northwest Portland's all-day parkers work in the neighborhood or are commuters who use the neighborhood as a free park-and-ride lot, walking or taking the streetcar to jobs downtown. Those are the people who should pay for the commodity, if the city is going to keep residents happy, according to Shoup.

Shoup, who has consulted with Portland transportation officials, would have free or very inexpensive parking tags for residents, but tags that would allow those from outside the neighborhood to pay as much as $45 a month for permits allowing them to park all day on side streets.

"If we turn people from freeloaders into paying guests, everyone will say, 'We want those people here,' " Shoup says.

Shoup would sweeten the pot for neighborhood residents. The proposed parking plan would have the city and the neighborhood splitting revenue from meters and permits -- 51 percent to the neighborhood and 49 percent for the city. But the split would only occur once revenue exceeded expenditures for all those meters and signs, a predicted three years into implementation.

The way to sell the plan to both residents and store owners, Shoup says, is to dedicate a large share of the parking proceeds to the neighborhood in which they are collected. The promise of cleaner sidewalks and pothole-free streets might sell everyone on a parking plan, according to Shoup.

What the city has to do, he says, is negotiate a revenue split that will get everyone in Northwest Portland on board.

Parking in SF

At any given time, according to Shoup, about a third of the cars driving around areas such as Northwest 23rd Avenue and its side streets are cruising for parking. That, he says, is a waste of gasoline and contributes to slower traffic. Performance-based parking can eliminate most of that cruising, and Shoup has a model city that he says is in the process of proving his point: San Francisco.

A year and a half ago, San Francisco's Municipal Transportation Agency, with a $20 million federal grant in hand, placed sensors in pavement of its street parking spaces in about a quarter of its neighborhoods. Today, in many of the high-traffic downtown and tourist neighborhoods, an endless stream of data is available to city traffic engineers on exactly when each parking spot is taken and when it is available.

The goal, according to Shoup, is to have all the street parking spaces on any one block full at all times, except for one free space. That way, the city maximizes the revenue, but drivers are always aware that anywhere they go there is likely to be a spot open for them.

Commodity pricing is the means toward that end. Each month, San Francisco's parking meters change their prices to reflect the latest supply and demand data. Streets on which parking spaces were hard find have their hourly parking meter rates go up. Streets with too many unoccupied parking spaces would see their rates go down.

More than 40,000 people have downloaded a smartphone application guiding them to open parking spots in parts of the city.

One block in the Fisherman's Wharf neighborhood had morning street parking at $3 an hour in August 2011, when the program began. Only 27 percent of the block's parking spaces were occupied.

Today, the meters require only $1.75 an hour for those same spaces, and occupancy is up to 56 percent.

A block of Market Street in 2011 had 92 percent occupancy when its meters were pegged at $3.50 an hour. At the current $4.25 an hour, occupancy is 86 percent, so a few more spaces have opened up.

A downtown block of Drumm Street has gone from 98 percent occupancy at $3.50 an hour to 86 percent occupancy at $4.50 an hour.

"We set out to ease congestion, to make our streets safer, to speed up transit and to make our parking system more efficient," says Paul Rose, spokesman for the San Francisco transportation agency. Rose says the pilot program ends in December, but transportation officials are encouraged by the results and hope to implement the system citywide.

The point, Shoup says, is to get people out of the mindset that they have a right to no-cost street parking.

"Everybody wants to park free, but we shouldn't elevate that desire to have something for nothing to a principle of transportation planning," he says.

Not convinced

Meanwhile, Northwest District Association board members expected a vote on the parking plan by the City Council in February or March. But that has been postponed.

Caryn Brooks, spokeswoman for Mayor Sam Adams, says Adams still supports the plan but is having to revisit it in light of the city's budget shortfall. Brooks says no timetable has been set for a possible council vote.

City Commissioner Nick Fish opposes the plan, saying he has heard from Northwest Portland small-business owners, schools and nonprofits "who are worried that the proposed cure is worse than the illness."

"I'm not yet convinced this is the right approach," Fish says. "It doesn't feel like this proposal is fully cooked."

Commissioner Amanda Fritz says she has been hearing many of the same concerns but hasn't made up her mind on the proposal. Either way, she'd like a vote.

"At some point, I would rather have a decision made yes or no, rather than let it fade away," Fritz says.

Matt Grumm, policy manager for Commissioner Dan Saltzman, says Saltzman also is undecided about the plan.

"We have definitely been receiving strong concerns about why we should not be doing this, but we have not seen any neighborhood input supporting this," Grumm says.

Commissioner Randy Leonard declined to comment on the issue.

Making tradeoffs

What none of the commissioners can be sure of is just who supports the plan. Last year, Tom Ranieri, owner of Cinema 21 on 21st Avenue, and Phil Geffner, owner of Escape From New York Pizza on 23rd, presented the city with a petition signed by 116 business owners asking the city to shelve the plan. The neighborhood association has endorsed it, but even board members admit they can't say for certain how much support it has among the area's residents.

An unscientific Tribune survey of two dozen Northwest Portland residents this week revealed a fairly even split, with homeowners, especially those in the less densely populated areas west of 25th Avenue, overwhelmingly against the plan. Renters, especially those in the high-density areas east of 21st Avenue, overwhelmingly supported the plan.

Gustavo Cruz, vice president of the Northwest District Association and chairman of the group's parking committee, thinks the majority of neighborhood residents support the proposed plan, but that most take issue with at least one element once they learn its details.

The details are, by necessity, numerous: Enforcement would stop at 7 p.m., so residents having dinner guests would not have to worry about visitors getting ticketed.

A book of 10 guest passes could be bought by residents for $10, and Cruz says the low rate would appeal to residents but could create a black market for the cheaper parking passes.

Businesses in the neighborhood would be allowed to buy permits for 85 percent of their employees to park in the neighborhood, on the assumption that not all need to drive to work. Some meters would intrude into residential streets, but resident permits would not allow free parking at the meters on 21st and 23rd. Visitors would be allowed to stay on side streets for three hours without permits.

"It's like herding cats," Cruz says. "Every person in the neighborhood has a different viewpoint of what their ideal plan should be."

Ranieri of Cinema 21 takes issue with the idea of restricting parking without increasing the supply, possibly in the form of parking garages.

"If there were actual parking supply in the amount we need here, then you could say 'OK, we would at least have the tradeoff,' " Ranieri says. "You might have to pay for it, but at least you'd have a place to park. You can't fix the parking shortage here by telling people they can't come to Northwest Portland for more than a few hours at a time."

Ranieri says his theater customers constantly remind him of the difficulty they encounter trying to park, but he believes the neighborhood association's support for the parking plan is based on a philosophy that is at odds with business owners' ideas.

"This is what they've been supporting all along, which is restrictive measures to tamp down the number of people who come to the neighborhood. They want to control that," Ranieri says.

Cruz says more parking garages are not the answer, noting that the small paid parking lots that dot the neighborhood are rarely full.

"The problem isn't a shortage of commercial parking, it's a shortage of free parking," he says. "People do not want to pay for parking, so they drive around."

Shoup says a thought-out parking plan can satisfy both interests. He recalls a presentation he made recently in Santa Rosa, Calif. An angry member of the audience said that if the city put in parking meters he would never go downtown again.

And that, Shoup says, may be the point.

"Who do you think will leave a bigger tip in a restaurant?" he says. "Somebody who will come only if they can park for free after driving around 10 minutes, or somebody willing to pay for parking if they can find an open spot in front of the restaurant?"


• SENSING A PARKING SPOT

To see how the sensor project works in San Francisco neighborhoods and business districts, check out the website, www.sfpark.org.