By CLARK MASON
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
A public parking garage doesn’t appear to be in Healdsburg’s future — at least any time soon.
That was the upshot Tuesday night of a joint City Council-Planning Commission meeting which wrestled with a number of thorny issues such as how to keep downtown employees and business owners from hogging parking spaces, whether to install parking meters or charge for parking; and whether to step up parking enforcement.
As far as a possible downtown parking structure suggested in a consultant’s report, “I don’t even see one 25 to 30 years down the road, unless it’s built into some mixed-use thing,” said Councilman Shawn McCaffery, echoing the general sentiment of council members and commissioners.
With a four-story parking garage “people will argue it’s a symptom of losing small-town character,” said Planning Commissioner Jeff Civian. “I’m not ready to commit to a huge garage. Maybe 25 years down the road.”
Council members and commissioners agreed more study and a parking management plan is needed to try to gauge future demand and also look at creating more surface parking, rather than pursue construction of a $9.5 million, 360-space garage on the West Plaza parking lot behind Hotel Healdsburg.
There was consensus to explore the use of underutilized lots for public parking such as at City Hall, or perhaps lease the Bank of America lot on evenings and weekends.
One of the more delicate topics was whether to end the city’s free, three-hour parking to try to create more turnover and whether that should involve street meters, or charging at parking lots.
Commissioner Civian compared enacting paid parking to “political kryptonite. Good luck with that.”
But there were some willing to consider it further, including Councilwoman Susan Jones.
“I’m a huge fan of paid parking,” she said, explaining that when she was police chief she found that two parking enforcement officers were not enough to keep people from overstaying the time limit.
Steffen Turoff of Walker Parking Consultants, said no one likes to pay for parking, but availability is more important than price. “Nobody likes going somewhere and not being able to find a space,” he said.
Real estate agent Eric Drew, quoting the American Planning Association, said free parking contributes to auto dependance and urban sprawl.
Commissioner Jill Hales said the city needs to encourage downtown employees to park farther away.
“I’m not in favor of parking meters. Make it (parking) attractive outside the city center,” she said.
There was consensus Tuesday to abolish the Downtown Parking Exemption District established in 1986, which exempted most new businesses from having to provide on-site parking. The intent at the time was to stimulate new business, reduce the cost of development and maintain the physical integrity of the downtown.
But consultants said keeping the district would put a strain on the existing parking system. Instead they recommended minimum parking requirements be reinstated. Developers could pay an “in lieu fee” to go into a fund that would create public parking, an idea that won support from council members Tuesday.
“I believe how we handle parking will affect how things are developed in the future,” Mayor Wood said prior to the meeting. “In a parking-impacted area like downtown Healdsburg we are really sensitive to that. The future of the downtown really depends on coming up with a really good, long-term solution.”
City officials say parking has been a recurring topic in town.
Mayor Wood said “with the popularity of our community, we still find ourselves with a parking deficit. I believe it is a real problem.”
Councilman Gary Plass said parking can be tight downtown when there are big wine tasting events or during the height of the tourist season.
Normally, he said parking is available around City Hall and some side streets.
“I’ve never heard anyone say flat out they can’t get a place to park. People do get a little frustrated about it, our locals do. When you go downtown, you want to be able to park downtown,” Plass said.
You can reach Staff Writer Clark Mason at 521-5214 or firstname.lastname@example.org.