Saturday, September 29 brought a halt to Seattle’s four-decade-old Ride Free Area, which had allowed riders free passage through key areas of the city from Battery to S. Jackson streets. While eliminating the Ride Free Area may raise an additional $2 million per year for the city, it also compounds problems already caused by high street parking rates for downtown and Chinatown/International District customers, employees, and businesses owners.

Mike Fagerness, an operations manager who bikes to his job at Pike Brewing Company, said high parking rates have generally kept him out of downtown. He worries that with parking rates as high $4.00 an hour in some areas, and the recent end to the Ride Free Area, the city is sending the wrong message to people who need to be in downtown.

“It’s crazy. People are just being pushed out of the city,” Fagerness said.

Part of that push began in 2010, when the Seattle City Council and Mayor Mike McGinn directed the Department of Transportation (SDOT) to create a Performance-based Parking Program to set street parking rates and hours of operation. Under the program, the setting of parking rates is somewhat formulaic, with decisions based on occupancy data. Rates are set so that, on average, one to two spaces are available per block for visitor and shopper access.

“In the last two years, SDOT has made many adjustments in all 23 neighborhoods that have paid parking,” said SDOT Communications Director Rick Sheridan. “Last summer we met several times with our Parking Sounding Board to talk through potential parking changes. In general, there seems to be a positive reaction to using neighborhood specific parking data to make decisions versus applying a one-size fits all approach, where all paid parking areas have the same parking rules.”

On-street parking rates in the Chinatown/International District have been at $2.50 per hour since 2009. Prior to that, rates were at $1.50 per hour. SDOT said it did not change the rates in 2012 because data collected showed occupancy had been within the target range of an average of one to two available spaces per block.

While SDOT is not proposing a rate change for the Chinatown/International District in 2013, neighborhood business owners have questioned whether the occupancy data is enough to account for impacts on business.

Alberto Lopez, who works at the Panama Hotel Tea and Coffee Shop, said business has been slow ever since the implementation of the parking rate changes.

“Many small businesses are getting affected by this because we need to pay a lot for parking,” Lopez said. “And not just customers. Even employees, we pay a lot in parking.”
Lopez said customers are choosing to go to places where they don’t have to worry about paying for parking.

Tom Kleifgen, co-owner of the International District boutique Momo on 6th Avenue and Jackson, said the parking rate hike in 2009 from $1.50 to $2.50 an hour was too hard on businesses. Kleifgen also criticized the city’s decision in August 2011 to extend paid parking hours in the neighborhood to 8:00 p.m., up from 6:00 p.m.

“People who came down here for inexpensive meals were suddenly faced with the fact that now there’s another $5.00 charge for them to come down here and have dinner,” Kleifgen said. “I’m not sure if that’s constructive for businesses.”

Kleifgen said efforts by neighborhood businesses to reach out to city officials about the parking rates were futile.

“[The city] got a very negative response from the community about extending the hours, and then they went and did it anyway,” Kleifgen said. “To me that’s not very responsive.”

When asked whether there is a concern that occupancy data might not be enough to account for lower income neighborhoods, Sheridan said: “This policy [of using occupancy data to set rates] is in the Seattle Municipal Code and set by the Seattle City Council, so changing the policy would require city legislative action. In data collected over the last two years, on-street parking in the Chinatown/International District is about two thirds full on average during the weekday and very full in the early evenings, especially on days with sporting events. These results indicate that the parking rate is set at the right level to ensure drivers can find parking in the neighborhood.”
Kleifgen said that raising rates is counter-intuitive if the goal is to make parking easier to find, especially if high parking rates prevent people from choosing to go to certain businesses in the first place.

“I understand the city needs to create revenue, but until we have mass transit that’s on the level that Europe might have where people move around freely, people just need their cars,” Kleifgan said. “We are an inner urban community that depends on people coming in from all over the city.”
As Seattle continues to plan its future in mass transit, this writer believes city officials need to take a closer, present look at the way it determines its parking rates. The Chinatown/International District rate of $2.50 an hour is just too high for a neighborhood with a proliferation of small businesses and low-income residents.

Photo caption:  A view from 6th Avenue facing Jackson Street in the International District. Photo credit: Travis Quezon.

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