How free parking garages became a thing of the past in Downtown Santa Cruz
When retail manager Megan Hunter arrives in Downtown Santa Cruz for a shift, she drives past the city’s pay-to-park garages and lots, skirts the crowded, smaller free lots, and heads straight for her covert spot.
"I have a secret parking spot,” says Hunter, who works at clothing store Sway. “It's actually in a lot for a certain job, but I park there anyway. Paying for parking is a pain, and it's frustrating. It's like I'm paying to go to work."
Hunter shared her story in response to questions about recent changes at the River Street parking garage. The first floor of the facility was converted from free to paid parking beginning July 15, when rates were matched with those of all other municipal parking garages.
The parking rates are now a minimum of $1 for the first two hours and then $1 per hour with a maximum of $5 per day. The cost of monthly parking permits at the River Street garage also increased—from $16 to $31 per month—to match the other garages.
Twelve of the city’s 20 downtown lots and garages are still free, comprising of 450 of the city’s 2,250 total parking spaces north of Laurel Street. Prior to the River Street conversion, there were 900 free parking spots, says City Manager Martin Bernal. Downtown workers buy an average of 1,500 parking permits each month, with some areas having a waiting list for permits. However, the top two floors were mostly empty at River Street garage, says Marlin Granlund, City of Santa Cruz parking programs manager.
"The model we were using with that garage just wasn't working," Granlund says. "We also wanted to make our parking garages consistent with the cost of each other."
All four garages have been converted over time, starting with the Locust Garage in 1996, the Soquel/Front Garage in 2000, the Cedar/Church Garage in 2010 and, now, the River Street garage in July. Additionally, two lots were converted in the last three years. When asked why the city has gradually moved from free to paid parking, Granlund says the shift stems from January 2008 recommendations from the Cedar/Cathcart Financing Task Force, a group created in 2006 to study a potential five-story parking garage. The project was put on hold due to the economic downturn that started in 2008, when Granlund says many developers and businesses canceled plans for projects that were expected to require additional parking.
The 2002 Master Transportation Study, created by the city and UC Santa Cruz to evaluate local transportation needs, is also cited for influencing the change. According to the MTS, “the ultimate goal of the study [was] todevelop a set of paid parking recommendations that, if implemented along with other MTS policies, would encourage the use of transit and other alternative modes of transportation." It concluded with many suggestions, including the reduction of public parking downtown.
Granlund explains that the shift means they collect less revenue from parking tickets—which are paid to the city’s general fund—and more from parking fees, which stay within the parking department. After the city converted the Cedar/Church garage and Cedar/Cathcart lot from free to paid parking in 2010, the city’s revenues from parking tickets decreased from $42,080 in Fiscal Year 2010 to $31,407 in Fiscal Year 2013. The department saw a rise in income from parking fees, however, over the past three years from $931,000 in 2010 to $1.4 million in 2013. Granlund says this money helps pay for public restrooms, parking maintenance, security and more.
In the last five years, he says $137,305 was spent on security cameras, $242,441 on restrooms, $142,092 on lighting upgrades, $292,175 on painting projects and $75,000 on a sidewalk scrubber. However, he says the price tags of these projects did not influence the conversions to paid parking.
"We are constantly trying to improve and maintain our parking garages, and revenue from parking user fees and other related fees from businesses pay for these improvements," he says.
Downtown businesses pitch in to the department each year, as well: Parking Deficiency Fees paid by these businesses totaled $794,504 last year. The city itself is not required to pay this, despite having around two dozen free parking spaces around City Hall that some complain are filled by city workers early each weekday morning.
Regardless, Granlund says there are currently no plans to convert further areas to paid parking because he says the current downtown supply and demand is balanced overall.
"In some areas we have a surplus but in other areas we have a major deficit, as in the southern portion of the parking district," Granlund says.
He says demand could easily change if additional merchants fill existing vacancies. If further conversions are needed, they will require input from the city council. The council has supported such changes for four public parking areas since 2010, when it was decided that money from the parking department’s budget—an enterprise fund—would pay for an additional police officer to patrol the downtown area.
“There was a general fund deficit that was going to reduce the number of police officers in downtown," says Granlund, adding that the Cedar/Cathcart lot was converted in order to pay for an additional officer, as well as new security cameras, and to help cover costs of the city’s sidewalk scrubber program.
However, he says conversions to paid parking were never influenced by increases in crime.
"Security and safety was one factor, but not from any recent—or past—spike in break-ins [in parking lots and garages]," he says.
Some people see the conversions as a positive change that can guide commuters to consider alternative forms of transportation. A growing movement by people concerned about the environment would prefer to see people using public transportation or using bicycles to commute, and making parking less affordable works as an incentive in their eyes.
"The more we encourage people to use alternative types of transportation, the better," says Amelia Conlen, director of People Power, a group that advocates for sustainable transportation options.
Conlen says going from free to paid parking prioritizes parking for tourists and shoppers, and encourages daily commuters to consider biking and busing for their commute. But not everyone agrees.
"I just think it's ridiculous," says Santa Cruz resident Les Gripkey, who is not in favor of these conversions. "We have downtown [merchants] complaining about business and then the city takes away free parking?"
During the 2010 conversions, Gripkey responded by creating a web page to help people voice their opinions about parking in Santa Cruz.
"I was surprised that there doesn't seem to be much reaction from the businesses now," Gripkey says, referencing the most recent change at the River Street garage. "Converting free parking to paid parking is one more barrier to shopping in Downtown Santa Cruz."
At least one business owner is trying to see a silver lining.
"We don't want customers to go away, but if this supports safe and secure parking, then I am in favor for it," says Casey Protti, owner of Bookshop Santa Cruz. "As a Santa Cruz native, we've come to expect free parking—we're kind of spoiled. Visitors and tourists are usually impressed with how cheap our parking is compared to other cities."
Bonny Doon resident Felicia Menten also sees the parking situation in downtown as an improvement over what’s to be found in other locales.
"Out of every parking garage I've ever parked in [in other cities], this is the cheapest," she tells GT while feeding the River Street garage pay station.
Menten says she drives downtown about twice a week, often to visit the farmers’ market. She says she parked at the same garage when it was free and will continue to park there now that she pays for it.
"I don't have the time to drive around in circles looking for free parking,” she says. “It's just easier to park here.”
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