Staff at the Washington Center for the Performing Arts is renewing a discussion about parking — or the lack thereof — in downtown Olympia.
Located near Fifth Avenue and Washington Street, the center has an interest in parking because of its status as a downtown destination.
Many older patrons have complained about the lack of parking near the venue. Other concerns include few parking options for disabled residents, staff say, or the hassle faced by vendors who sometimes circle the block several times in search of a parking space. Nighttime parking raises safety concerns for patrons who walk back to their vehicles after a show.
Parking also becomes more difficult to find when other venues such as Capitol Theater and Harlequin Productions host events at the same time.
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To move toward a solution, the center hosted an “idea meeting” Wednesday afternoon with staff, volunteers, downtown stakeholders and a couple of city liaisons.
Jill Barnes, executive director, said the center needs to do a better job of informing patrons about parking. Another suggestion that surfaced Wednesday was to hire volunteers who can escort patrons back to their vehicles at night, similar to a program at the Broadway Center for the Performing Arts in Tacoma.
“We want people to come down here. We want them to feel safe and comfortable,” Barnes said. “There are safety concerns, and there’s the perception of safety.”
Negative perceptions of safety have been partially shaped by the downtown street community or the presence of loiterers. Anne Larsen, the center’s marketing director, said downtown Olympia is safer than most people think — especially when they’re surrounded by hundreds of like-minded people with discretionary income in search of entertainment, food and drinks.
“There is no safer time to be leaving the Center in downtown Olympia, even at 10 p.m., than when you are with a thousand other patrons who just enjoyed a live performance along with you,” said Larsen, suggesting the need to create a positive perception of safety for the sake of all downtown businesses. “When downtown is successful, we’re all successful.”
Another concern, at least with having enough parking to go around, is the projected population growth in downtown Olympia. City officials expect an influx of 5,000 new downtown residents in the next 20 years.
Jim Haley, president of Thurston First Bank, said downtown will attract more traffic as the economy continues to improve. At Wednesday’s meeting, he suggested that stakeholders explore short-term and long-term solutions for parking with this growth in mind.
“It’s going to get worse before it gets better,” Haley said, “because downtown is going to get better.”
Downtown Olympia has several private lots for paid parking. Karen Kenneson, parking supervisor for the city, said she would contact private lot owners such as Diamond Parking about occupancy rates. She noted that city-owned lots offer free parking on nights and weekends.
On-street parking is free after 5 p.m. on weekdays and all day on weekends with no time limits. The city reports there are a total of 2,268 metered parking spaces downtown.