Olympia has a budding problem with downtown parking. Many visitors find it inconvenient to travel a few blocks to find a vacant space. The ongoing boom in apartment construction may make this still-quaint problem more irritating in the coming years.
In the long run, this should be seen as a good thing, a sign that the once beleaguered downtown area is beginning to recover and grow as more of us go into the city to shop or dine.
It may open up possibilities for bigger investments in a parking garage project down the road. Up to now, a parking structure has been more of a mirage for those who want a denser downtown environment.
The boom in housing is adding about 217 dwelling units downtown this year, in addition to smaller projects added in the past two years. This housing renaissance has been a long time coming.
Two projects scheduled to open for tenants this year are located in what recently were parking lots. The biggest is the 123 Fourth Avenue building, which adds 138 apartment units and about 120 parking spaces at the intersection of Fourth Avenue and Columbia Street in the city core. The project covers a former half-block-long parking lot.
Similarly, The 321 Lofts project is adding 36 units near Thurston First Bank and Three Magnets Brewing Co., displacing a couple dozen parking stalls. The bank and brewing businesses occupy what once was a state office building that became surplus — and dwelling units have been constructed upstairs there, too.
These are all welcome developments that answer a longtime complaint that Olympia has too much subsidized housing downtown and not enough of the market-rate apartments that draw tenants with enough spare income that they spend it in their neighborhood.
A loophole in city codes could make the parking crunch worse than it needs to be. The city has assumed that developers of large housing projects would provide adequate parking for tenants. Mayor Cheryl Selby wants to put a parking requirement for housing into codes later this year.
That sounds like a good idea.
The city also may hire a consultant to look at the occupancy rates for parking stalls on city streets — and even the possibility of a parking garage. Data kept by the city shows parking is not overbooked in most areas most of the time, and people can find a place to park if they go a few blocks away.
Consultants can be costly, but good information is gold if a city is going to make big investments. We hope any study considers a public-private partnership, given the benefits the resurgence has been for business owners, and also what technology Olympia could use to help. Cities like San Francisco have been using phone apps to help motorists in congested areas find open parking spots.
A new campus building at Capitol Way and 10th Avenue, which is expected to house the State Patrol, is on the site of a former parking garage, so that development could worsen the parking pressure there.
Talk of relocating the Thurston County Courthouse to the northeast downtown area opens other possibilities for structured parking.
Much is in play as our downtown evolves. This dynamism is a good thing. The parking situation requires a smart strategy and careful planning. The point at which a parking garage will become financially feasible is worth knowing well in advance.