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Petaluma's attempt at a clean, well-lighted place for cars isn't gaining many advocates
Good news! As of July 1, the downtown Petaluma parking garage is free again. Now the bad news: There's no guarantee it will stay that way. Back in April, after months of remodeling and nearly $800,000 in physical improvements, Petaluma's Keller Street parking garage was officially reborn. True to promise, it is no longer the dark, ominous, pigeon-packed, graffiti-dotted, urine-stained, vandal-attracting atrocity it once was. There are full-time guards to chase away thieves and taggers, and a cagelike mesh to discourage the presence of pigeons. And for the first time in years, the stairwells do not smell like a neglected urinal.
On the other hand (and it's a very big hand), the once-free garage started charging patrons half a buck per hour to park there, and it employed a confusing, frequently malfunctioning prepay system involving memorization of space numbers and little coin-operated kiosks. The result was that after three months of operation, the nice and shiny garage remained mostly empty, abandoned, deserted, which was costly to the city as well as to the merchants whose patrons ought to be filling those fresh new spaces every day.
According to original estimates, the downstairs portion of the refurbished garage was expected to bring in $9,000 a month but brought in far less than needed to maintain the facility. The two upstairs levels, set aside for monthly permit holders--$35 for the second level and $20 for the top--weren't doing much better. Local employees, expected to be the primary takers of the upstairs monthly permits, were more or less boycotting the garage, parking instead on the already congested streets, while shoppers, intimidated or confused by the new system--or angry at having been ticketed for exceeding their allotted time--apparently found other places to shop.
"People are upset," agrees Jeff Mayne, president of the Petaluma Downtown Association. "The first three months [didn't go] well, and the downtown merchants are taking the flack. Since the parking garage went to a pay system, a lot of merchants [showed] a loss in revenue."
Although the loss in revenue could be attributed to a soft economy, businesses are ready to blame the parking garage. Art Kusnetz, manager of Copperfield's Used Books, says they've had the worst sales "in the eight years we've been open. Traditionally, used book sales go up during a recession, but our sales are down, because people are reluctant to come downtown and deal with parking."
Tuttles Drug, which used to be easily accessed from the garage's nearby handicapped spaces, distributed flyers, in effect to apologize for the inconvenience of the new pay system and to suggest that disgruntled patrons complain to the city.
Early Work Learning Center, the popular toy and education supplies shop that has become a popular downtown institution, was forced to move, taking over an abandoned furniture store a mile away. One attractive advantage to the new location was prominently mentioned in postcards sent out to frequent customers: "You'll love our free parking lot!" it read.
Since the garage's new security guards were required to do double-duty--patrol the garage for signs of trouble and distribute tickets to cars who've parked longer than they guessed they would--some people found they'd rather stay home than risk getting a ticket. One longtime Petaluma businessman, who asked not to be identified, says that he used to have breakfast three times a week at Hallie's Diner on Keller Street, directly adjacent to the garage, but after finding a ticket on his car after exceeding his hour by a few minutes, he's now reluctant to park there and admits he's patronizing Hallie's only once a week or less.
"Clearly," says Mayne, "something had to be done."
Following a contentious meeting on June 17, wherein numerous downtown merchants met with representatives of the city and the department of economic development and redevelopment, it was decided that the bottom floor of the garage would be made free again--for two months only. According to the new agreement, a task force will be formed to dream up solutions to the problem.
"Basically," Mayne explains, "we've got a two-month grace period in which to find ways to finance the maintenance of the downtown garage, while encouraging people to come downtown and shop." Those solutions could include keeping the garage free while slapping merchants with a fee to subsidize the facility's maintenance and security costs, installing parking meters on the streets to raise revenue, or refiguring the parking garage so that people pay on their way out for whatever time they used.
"Here's the bottom line," says Paul Marangella, director of economic development and redevelopment. "The garage is safe and clean, with not one reported incident of vandalism in three months. But the garage is not working for the merchants. Still, maintaining the garage requires a certain amount of cash flow, but that anticipated cash flow isn't coming, because for whatever reason, people aren't using it."
Marangella looks forward to building a sense of collaboration between the downtown merchants, the consumers, and the city of Petaluma.
"The garage is a critical asset to the vision of downtown," he says. "The question is, how do we use this resource that is supposed to create economic vitality in the downtown area? How do we make it work for everyone?"
Petalumans now have two months to find the answers.
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From the July 10-16, 2003 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.