Parking in downtown Olympia has been a simmering issue for years, with no easy or satisfying solution.
And it’s rearing its head again: In a recent survey of downtown businesses, one of the most common complaints was the lack of convenient parking. Some people say the city should build a parking garage or offer free street parking.
But statistics suggest there’s more than enough parking to go around — provided visitors are willing to walk a few blocks.
At least one business leader sees the perceived problem as a sign of success.
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“Congratulations on having a parking problem downtown,” said Jim Haley, CEO of Thurston First Bank, at a recent Olympia City Council meeting. “It means more people than ever are coming downtown.”
But parking will become more scarce with the additional housing now under construction.
New housing developments such as the 123 Fourth Ave. apartments and the 321 Lofts are expected to increase demand for street parking downtown — and increase the number of drivers circling the block to find parking spaces.
Olympia also predicts another 5,000 residents will live downtown in the next 20 years.
With those factors in mind, the city will hire a consultant early this year to examine occupancy rates and possible solutions, such as a parking garage. The study also could recommend whether the city should change its street parking rates or hours of enforcement, said Karen Kenneson, parking supervisor for the city.
“Now that we’re seeing a lot more construction downtown and more residential units coming, the question people are asking is, ‘Where is everybody going to park?’” Kenneson said. “We’re still a small enough city that people like to park right next to where they’re going.”
Parking by the numbers
The city has 2,268 metered spaces downtown and manages seven parking lots with 364 total spaces. All city-owned parking spaces are free after 5 p.m. on weekdays and all day on weekends with no time limits.
Olympia does not track the number of privately owned parking spaces, Kenneson said.
The ideal occupancy benchmark for parking meters in many U.S. cities, including Olympia, is 85 percent. Meter prices are adjusted to maintain a 15 percent vacancy rate. Anything above 85 percent means the parking rates are too low, and anything below 85 percent means the parking rates are too high.
Several blocks along Capitol Way, Fourth Avenue and Fifth Avenue routinely exceed the 85 percent threshold during peak afternoon times, sometimes approaching 100 percent capacity.
Despite that, city research shows plenty of parking is available.
When conducting its quarterly count of occupancy rates for metered parking, the city focuses on two-hour “purple meters” in six zones in the downtown core. These zones are checked multiple times a day for an entire week during the count.
Five of the zones are bordered roughly by State Avenue to the north, Adams Street to the east, Legion Way to the south and Columbia Street to the west. The exception is Zone 6, a stretch of Fourth Avenue between Jefferson and Plum streets, located east of the other zones.
The most recent occupancy counts were conducted in March and October of 2015. According to the October study, the busiest overall times of the week were Monday afternoon (76 percent capacity) and Friday afternoon (73 percent capacity). Of the six parking zones, occupancy was highest in Zone 4 (73 percent overall), which surrounds the intersection of Fourth Avenue and Washington Street.
The busiest time of day for metered parking is at 4:45 p.m., when occupancy in mid-October averaged about 67 percent overall and 74 percent in the four busiest zones. Both of those categories were 2 percentage points higher in March 2015.
The last 15 occupancy counts dating back to December 2011 reveal the following conclusions about street parking in downtown Olympia:
▪ Parking occupancy is lowest in the morning, peaks at noon, then peaks again at 4:45 p.m.
▪ Friday is the busiest parking day of the week, averaging just more than 70 percent of spaces filled.
▪ December is by far the busiest month for parking, with an average of 78 percent of spaces filled. Every year, downtown parking is free at most meters during the two weeks leading up to Christmas.
▪ The lowest occupancy counts were recorded in November 2012 (55 percent) and May 2014 (50 percent). The highest non-December occupancy counts were 60 percent in May 2013 and October 2013.
▪ The average of all 15 occupancy counts is 63 percent.
▪ The statistics do not count occupancy rates on evenings and weekends when parking is free.
Dollars and sense
According to the 2016 operating budget, the city expects to generate $520,000 in parking fines and penalties, and about $1 million in other parking revenue. In 2015, more than 25,000 parking citations were issued through October, according to the city.
For downtown residents, a parking permit costs $10 per year per vehicle. The city charges $30 to $60 per month for a permit that allows free parking at nine-hour meters in downtown Olympia. Spaces in city lots also are available for a monthly fee.
The Olympia City Council recently approved an ordinance that puts all parking revenue into a fund specifically for parking operations. City officials say the change will make it easier to analyze parking activities. Previously, the money was part of the city’s community planning and development budget.
The city reports that parking revenue pays for parking operations and overhead, with any excess money going toward equipment replacement and parking management. The goal of the ordinance is to ensure parking revenue cannot be blended with other city funds.
Downtown Olympia’s parking is managed separately from the State Capitol Campus, which has about 5,900 parking spots available, according to the Department of Enterprise Services. State lawmakers have required the department to ensure there’s adequate parking during the legislative session.
Up to $300,000 was designated earlier this year for developing a Capitol Campus parking strategy to address a parking shortage there.
A big draw
Right now, one of downtown’s top destinations is the Washington Center for the Performing Arts, a 980-seat venue that attracts more than 100,000 visits per year.
Street parking is scarce in the vicinity and the center itself has no parking, but it has embraced communication as a solution. Box office staff regularly field questions about good places to park. Likewise, the center distributes a map that shows available parking lots and a list of restaurants with a suggestion that patrons visit one before coming to an event.
Executive Director Jill Barnes said the center points people to several pay-to-park lots in a three-block radius with prices that average $3 to $5. Private businesses such as Heritage Bank also have offered their parking lots for evening visitors.
Patrons had long used the parking lot behind Thurston First Bank at Legion Way and Jefferson Street until the lot was fenced off for development. Barnes said she noticed that complaints about the lot’s closure have subsided, and she sees it as a sign that people are finding other places to park.
Barnes would like more handicapped parking in front of the center for disabled patrons, but says downtown parking is fairly reasonable compared to bigger cities.
“Three blocks to walk is smaller than the mall parking lot,” she said. “Even on a crazy day, there’s parking available.”
A parking garage would be good for downtown Olympia, Barnes said, but there are financial limitations for entities like the center.
“We’re a nonprofit,” she said. “We’re not in a position to fund-raise for such a parking structure.”
One nearby example of a parking garage’s potential cost can be found in a proposal for Tumwater’s historic brewery site. Tumwater wants to partner with a private developer and turn the area into an economic hub with residential, commercial and tourism developments.
According to a consultant’s report, the cost for a multi-story parking garage at the Tumwater site ranges from $11.5 million for 300 vehicles to nearly $38.5 million for 1,000 vehicles. The latter’s size is estimated at 320,000 square feet. The report suggests that a parking garage could generate income and offset the cost by incorporating other uses such as housing, restaurants and retail into the design.
Some garages downtown serve the private sector. The Washington State Employees Credit Union (WSECU) headquarters at 330 Union Ave. SE has a six-floor parking garage with 469 spaces. The structure opened in 2009 as part of a $65 million construction project that included a new credit union headquarters.
But the parking garage is available only to WSECU employees and tenants who rent the spaces. WSECU spokeswoman Ann Flanigan said the garage is limited to private use because of insurance and the potential liabilities that come with public use.
“It will meet our needs for quite a while,” Flanigan said of the garage.
Aleena Schneider, general manager at Harlequin Productions, said a public parking garage or other parking options would be welcome on nights when its 212-seat State Theater is full. Patrons typically park on the street and in a city lot behind the theater at Fourth Avenue and Washington Street.
“I think it needs to be considered,” she said. “It’s been talked about for the 15 years I’ve been here.”
Requirements and revisions
In downtown Olympia, new residential buildings and commercial buildings smaller than 3,000 square feet are exempt from parking requirements, according to Olympia City Code. No additional parking is required when converting a building to another use.
New commercial or commercial expansions of more than 3,000 square feet are required to meet vehicle parking standards, unless a variance is granted. The rate is generally one parking space per 350 square feet, said Keith Stahley, director of community planning and development.
Downtown housing developments such as the 123 Fourth Avenue apartments are unprecedented, he said. Not only will that project generate more demand for parking, but the 138-unit development will reduce some of the downtown core’s parking inventory, since it is built on a former parking lot, despite providing a 120-stall parking garage.
“We recognize that growing residential housing is going to have an impact on our parking demand,” Stahley said. “It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to recognize that as demand increases, the likelihood to support a parking structure gets greater. It’s a matter of where the structure would go.”
Downtown Olympia is reaching a turning point where surface parking in the most congested areas may not be the best solution, he said.
“Olympia is in a transition and becoming a more urban place,” Stahley said. “Our parking strategy is going to have to reflect that.”
Olympia Mayor Cheryl Selby said the city will consider a code revision this year that would establish parking requirements for downtown residential buildings.
“The conventional wisdom is that the private sector that would develop market-rate housing would already provide parking in order to be marketable,” Selby said. “We don’t want to assume they’re going to provide some parking. We want more of a guarantee.”
As for a parking garage, Selby sees a potential partnership with Thurston County, especially amid discussions of relocating the County Courthouse to downtown Olympia.
A feasibility study was presented in September to the Thurston County Commissioners with a number of development scenarios. One proposal calls for a downtown “urban block” that contains all county services, including the courthouse, along with nearly 500 county employees and a 1,200-space parking structure.
“I’m very interested in pursuing that possibility with the county,” Selby said. “It just makes so much sense, not only for their future as we grow as a region, but for downtown’s vitality to have that many employees downtown.”
Some business owners say the lack of convenient parking is a threat to their survival. One group that’s discussing possible solutions is the Parking and Business Improvement Area, a self-taxing district with about 435 business owners.
PBIA chairwoman Mary Corso, owner of Courtyard Antiques, said downtown needs more dedicated parking for customers and residents so that they’re not competing for spaces in front of businesses. If not for her own parking lot, many of Corso’s customers would have no place to load large items into their vehicles.
Employees also feel the effects of limited parking. In a recent survey by the PBIA, one respondent bemoaned the limited number of 9-hour meters and noted that store owners and employees are constantly worried about moving their vehicles to avoid parking tickets.
“Unless you are a customer or you are a business, you don’t realize what the issues are,” Corso said. “You’ve got to live it to understand it.”