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Feb. 4, 2023

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Vancouver weighs parking needs of visitors, employees

By , Columbian politics reporter
5 Photos
In 2017, the city began shifting its parking policy by increasing the price of parking. The free 20-minute option was also later removed from meters.
In 2017, the city began shifting its parking policy by increasing the price of parking. The free 20-minute option was also later removed from meters. Amanda Cowan/The Columbian Photo Gallery

Should the city of Vancouver finance parking garages? As downtown businesses grow and flourish, the decades-old question has been posed once again.

“We’re not waiting around for that question to be answered,” said Chad Eiken, Vancouver’s community and economic development director. “We’re looking at other options and other ways to relieve some of the pressure.”

A recent study by Dixon Associates found that despite anecdotal experiences of limited parking, the city actually has ample space already available.

“Overall, the on-street system is working pretty well,” Eiken said.

The rule of thumb is, if more than 85 percent of a city’s on-street parking is full, then there’s a problem, said Teresa Brum, Vancouver’s economic development division manager. The Dixon study found even during the summer — the busiest time in downtown Vancouver — parking capacity didn’t exceed 85 percent.

“That doesn’t mean we aren’t having people having a problem finding (a convenient) place to park,” Brum said.

Despite the conclusion that there’s plenty of parking, the city is planning to add 1,225 new spaces at city parking lots, the waterfront, the Port of Vancouver and by restriping some streets to create angle parking.

Eiken said the city is getting pressured to add more parking. Even newer buildings lack convenient parking, in part because the city offered low parking minimums as an incentive to build a project in what was a sleepy downtown.

“(Developers) took advantage of that for the reduced cost, but now they need new parking. Whose job is it to solve that problem?” he said. “Really, what we’re hearing from the business community is the city needs to be a partner at least in building parking in order for them to make it pencil. That could take a number of different forms.”

The city could donate land to build parking, agree to lease spaces in a private garage for public use, or build a parking garage and lease it to a private operator. But the decision still comes down to policy.

“Should the city be in the business of building parking for visitors — people who are just coming down wanting to shop and eat — or should we be building parking to serve employees?” Eiken said. “There are not many other cities we know of that build parking for employees, even in the downtown area.”

Portland, for example, hasn’t built new parking structures since the 1990s, Brum said.

“They haven’t had a problem growing downtown Portland, so if we look at cities like Portland or Seattle where they’re not building garages and instead working on density and making downtown the best place to do business, that would be our goal as well.”

Surface parking in downtown is not a good use of land, Eiken added.

“The land is more expensive, and it really is wasted space,” he said.

Parking initiatives

While adding new parking may alleviate some pressures downtown, “we can’t build enough to ensure everyone will always be able to have a place to park,” Eiken said. Instead, the city would rather reduce the demand for parking by working with businesses to encourage employees to walk, bike, carpool or use transit to get to work.

One incentive for downtown employees has already launched. In July, the city created a “purple permit,” as Brum calls it. Downtown employees making $20 an hour or less can apply. The permit costs only $20 a month, but the parking spots are on the periphery of downtown, requiring permit holders to walk a little farther.

The concept came about after the city added pay stations near the courthouse.

Almost overnight, the formerly free parking spaces emptied. After a couple of months it was clear that hourly parking in that area is not something that people are willing to pay for, Eiken said.

Staff conceived the purple permit concept and created the zone at the west end of the government district. No employees have applied for permits so far.

On the east side of downtown, the city has been trying to add a parking garage at Library Square for a decade.

“In order for the city to participate in a parking structure, we need to have a private project on that site,” Eiken said.

The city was approved for the Local Infrastructure Financing Tool program, which allows the city to retain state taxes generated on the property by the private developer and use the money to pay down the parking garage debt. The city was approved for up to $12.5 million with a cap of $500,000 a year. But there’s a clock on the funds.

“The program ends in 2044, so basically to get the full 25 years and $500,000 a year, we need to be under construction next year,” Eiken said.

As time continues to move forward, the cost of the parking garage continues to increase. When the city was first approved for the LIFT program, the garage was estimated to cost about $20 million. That cost is now estimated at somewhere between $30 and $35 million and climbing.

“We can’t build it with just the $12.5 million, and we can’t generate enough in the hourly parking rate or monthly lease rates to close that gap,” he said. “So the taxpayers have to kick in the balance.”

With ongoing construction plans downtown, the city is also trying to find temporary solutions for displaced employees. About 170 parking spaces will be lost when construction begins at Providence Academy, so the city is looking at alternative spots nearby. A vacant lot at Main Street and East 15th Street may prove useful.

“Our land-use code will allow it to be used for parking if it’s serving people who are being displaced due to construction,” Eiken said.

Council direction

At first glance, the city council is largely supportive of developing satellite parking lots and less supportive of investing in parking structures.

“I would rather not be in the parking business,” said Councilor Bart Hansen.

Councilor Alishia Topper agreed when it comes to surface parking but wants to keep any policy direction open to ensure city staff can work without restrictions. She is also supportive of fostering public-private partnerships, another favorite of the council.

“There’s no silver bullet, but let’s build partnerships, let’s do what we can to provide parking for people who need to park and multimodal for people who want to walk or bike,” Topper said.

Councilor Linda Glover said the focus for parking policy should be on the patron.

“We could discuss this for years and never come up with the right conclusion,” Glover said. “It’s a big guess.”

Mayor Anne McEnerny-Ogle said she’s advocating for a focus on satellite parking. Creating satellite parking lots could allow employees to park off site and take designated transit — something resembling the Ryd, an unusual looking green car currently operated by LSW Architects — to and from their workplaces.

The council will host a second workshop to consider the “meat” of the policy on Oct. 1.

“Mayor (Royce) Pollard a number of years ago said he dreamed of a day we would have a parking problem and traffic problem downtown,” Eiken said. “Now it’s here, so we have to figure out how to balance the growth with the livability.”

Columbian politics reporter