If you find parking difficult in downtown Bellingham, city officials are hoping that a series of steps proposed for early next year will make that often-grueling task easier.
It might cost you more money — but it could also cost you less, depending on when and where you park.
“We’re not trying to create revenue, we’re trying to promote turnover and manage parking better,” said Clark Williams, superintendent of transportation and public facilities.
Williams said in an interview Wednesday that several changes are under consideration over the next few months, including:
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▪ New fees for parking in Fairhaven.
▪ End free Saturday parking and change the hours of paid parking.
▪ An hourly rate increase.
▪ “Demand” pricing that charges more during peak use.
▪ Promote the PayByPhone mobile app and replace meters with pay stations.
▪ Increase the cost of fines.
Williams said details of the proposal hinge on the conclusions of a study that will be presented to the City Council as one initiative in the spring.
He said that despite public perception that parking is hard to find, downtown has an adequate number of spaces — about 1,300.
“We don’t have a parking problem in terms of capacity,” Williams said. “We just can’t seem to get enough people to use the parking garage. That’s totally under-utilized.”
He means the Commercial Street Garage — formerly the Parkade — which has 425 day-use spaces and three floors of monthly reserved parking for downtown workers and residents on Commercial between Holly and Magnolia streets.
Kari White of Bellingham said the garage entrance seems confusing.
“I miss (yoga class) sometimes because I drive around and around,” she said Thursday in response to a social media inquiry. “I know I need to try the parking garage.”
Mason Luvera, communications director at the Downtown Bellingham Partnership — an independent nonprofit that promotes downtown — said Friday in an interview that the city consulted various local organizations as it developed the plan.
“For the most, we continue to receive positive feedback” from residents, property owners and merchants, Luvera said.
Luvera said the city recently added more lighting and security at the garage in response to fears about crime and loitering in the area.
Public art projects are planned to help keep the street around the garage open and inviting, he said.
Both Luvera and Williams emphasized that parking revenues pay for many downtown improvements, including winter holiday decorations, flowers in summer, and weeding of garden beds.
“Those funds, 100 percent goes to reinvigorate downtown,” Luvera said. “It gets reinvested in the core, which is important because most people don’t know where that money goes.”
All Bellingham parking costs 75 cents an hour, and there’s a two-hour limit for most streetside spots but no limit at the garage.
It’s enforced from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. weekdays.
In comparison, Seattle has demand parking rates that range from 50 cents an hour in certain areas during the morning to as much as $5 during the afternoon downtown, according to the city of Seattle website. Parking is free on Sundays, except in private lots.
Mount Vernon has no meters and all parking is free, a Public Works Department official said.
According to Bellingham’s proposed 2019-2020 budget, the parking services fund had $2.7 million in reserves in November 2018.
City Council members are discussing the next two-year budget, which projects $4.6 million in revenues through 2020, and plans for $7.2 million in expenses.
Luvera said parking studies show that people will circle a block several times to find a spot closer to their destination, rather than taking the first available space only a little farther away.
“You look at people who go to Bellis Fair,” Luvera said. “You park at Target and by the time you get to Macy’s you’ve gone almost double the distance you’d go downtown. But it feels different because you’re outside.”
Using Google Earth, the distance from the middle of the Target parking lot to the store’s front door is about 170 feet.
To get to the center of Macy’s it’s 1,800 feet — the same distance from the Commercial Street Garage to the Farmers Market.
From the garage, it’s just 690 feet to the Mount Baker Theatre, about the distance from the back of the Target lot to the store’s front door.
And yet people sometimes seem to hunt endlessly for a spot in front of their destination.
“People will drive around because they refuse to park more than a block away,” Williams said. “It’s a perception thing that I don’t really get.”
Both Luvera and Williams said much of the downtown street parking is taken up by people who work downtown — a phenomenon that Luvera especially doesn’t understand.
“That’s counterintuitive,” he said. “What you’re doing is taking a space away from a potential customer.”
Williams said that although people hate to pay for parking, they love using the new app.
“We find the compliance rate going up and the tickets are going down. The app alerts you when you’re overdue and lets you add more time,” Williams said.
“I find the app really easy to use,” said Mandi Willman of Bellingham, in response to a social media inquiry. “I hate change so it’s just easy for me to be able to use a phone.”
In addition, Williams said the city will be asked to raise parking fines from the current $30. He said the city now loses money when it issues a ticket because of rising administrative and court costs.
As much as people complain about parking, Luvera said studies show that a large percentage of people who attend the Downtown Partnership’s events will walk, bicycle or bus downtown to avoid traffic and parking hassles.
“Bellingham is growing but we’re taking a strategic step to get in front of that growth,” he said. “We’re lucky to have a community that values sustainability.”
Paid parking ensures availability because of simple supply and demand, Luvera said.
“When we do it, the merchants hate it and the people hate it,” Luvera said. “But when parking is free, people park their car and leave it all day long. We’re a growing community and to ensure the viability of parking, we need to have paid parking.”