New ideas and old challenges were on display Wednesday morning as a visiting panel of parking experts engaged with downtown merchants; advocates for people with disabilities; and workers, shoppers and diners who regularly use downtown parking.
As part of its process for developing the city of Billings’ downtown parking strategic plan, consultant Kimley-Horn has assembled the panel to tour Billings’ downtown parking facilities, see its off-street parking, meet with interest groups Wednesday and Thursday and then make preliminary recommendations, which the panel will release during a public meeting at 6 p.m. on Thursday in the lower level of Valley Federal Credit Union, 207 N. Broadway, near the Back Porch Deli.
A parking spot — even an on-street parking spot — is a tool for economic development. Dave Feehan of Silver Spring, Md., the former president and CEO of the International Downtown Association, said he once calculated that an on-street parking space near retail shops in Fort Collins, Colo., provided about $360,000 in annual sales to nearby merchants. “If you’re allowing your employees to park there,” he said, “you’re creating a situation where people won’t come to your store.”
Boise, Idaho, allows people to park free in its downtown garages for the first hour, and for 20 minutes without charge at downtown meters. Max Clark of Capital City Development Corp. in Boise, which operates downtown parking for the city, called it “the egalitarian thing to do” which “took off the pressure people feel to rush, rush, rush.”
“I give away $2 million in free parking every year,” he said.
But that giveaway has more than paid for itself, said Dennis Burns, a Phoenix-based vice president with Kimley-Horn. During the two years the program’s been in place, the average downtown stay has increased from 2.1 to 3.5 hours. Downtown sales tax revenue has doubled in the past four years.
Officials in Albany, N.Y., have “pioneered progressive parking rates,” Burns said, charging progressively more for hours three, four and five than for the first two hours of parking. “It’s a real balancing act, and you need to get the pricing just right,” he said. “People don’t mind paying a dollar or two for parking, but they hate a $30 or $40 parking ticket.”
Do they ever, said Jeff Petry, parking services manager for the city of Eugene, Ore., where the goal is to “write zero parking tickets,” he said, forming a circle with one hand vaguely familiar to many Ducks sports fans. Eugene has been installing parking meters that can be paid for by cell phone or credit card, which is the preferred method for Millennial parkers, he said. In downtown Eugene, most meters are short-term, and they accept cash.
There are pluses and minuses to both approaches, he said.
“When people use credit cards, they pay for more parking than they need,” he said. People who put nickels and dimes in a parking meter can become anxious about returning to their vehicle before receiving a ticket, an outcome that in Eugene has dropped from 90,000 annually to about 48,000.
During the panel’s kickoff meeting Wednesday, Billings residents shared some of their ideas. Mike Schaer, who owns Computers Unlimited at 2407 Montana Ave., said he doesn’t believe in assigned spaces for his nearly 200 employees and would prefer that the city get rid of downtown parking meters, limit downtown parking to two hours and use technology to scan license plates and mail tickets to car owners who exceed the time limits.
Eliminating assigned slots in such city parking structures as Park 2 would free up about 500 spots “overnight,” he said, “and it doesn’t cost you anything.”
Zam DeShields, community development program manager with Big Sky Economic Development, said her few months in Billings following a move from Spokane indicate to her that at 50 cents per hour, Billings metered parking prices are too low — and there’s not enough parking available “at the right time,” namely, lunch and dinner hours.
DeShields, a member of the Millennial generation, said she prefers meters that don’t accept coins, and Clark — a Baby Boomer — quickly extracted his wallet to show how thin it is.
“I almost never carry cash,” he said.
Burns said that Los Angeles drivers can access a mobile application that tells them which parking lots have openings, “so they don’t have to circle and circle.” Seattle has also installed electronic parking availability signs beneath the Alaska Way Viaduct.
In Phoenix, a growing number of parking structures are covered with solar panels. Many communities now allow bicycle parking in parking structures, since about 16 bikes can fit in a standard parking spot.
“I make my living selling space to vehicles, but I feel we need to be more multimodal,” said Clark. “I applaud bicycle initiatives, and I’m going to do everything I can not to build more parking, because it’s an ebb-and-flow thing.”
Joe Burst, executive director of Living Independently for Today and Tomorrow in Billings, noted that the city council will be deciding Monday whether to eliminate a policy that allows people with disabilities to park free in handicapped spaces.
“There is a misconception that people want free things,” Burst said. “People with disabilities just want to be able to move around like anybody else. Free doesn’t mean anything to people with disabilities if it’s not accessible.”
Vanessa Solesbee of Denver, who managed downtown parking in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, following that city’s devastating 2008 flood, told the crowd that the Wednesday and Thursday focus group sessions are important to helping the panel create its recommendations. A survey at the Downtown Billings website, www.downtownbillings.com (Click on “Park it Here”) takes less than 10 minutes and will help ensure residents have a voice in the process, she said.
“We are not in the storage or enforcement business,” Feehan said at the conclusion of the 90-minute meeting. “Our primary business is creating experiences that people value. To the degree that parking does that, it will support all the other good things you want.”