Jeremy Ogul | Editor
After a two-month trial period last fall, the City Council agreed Jan. 13 to continue to offer free parking in the downtown village area through the rest of 2015.
The council voted last fall to suspend the enforcement of paid parking with the hope of providing some relief to small businesses in the area that are being disrupted by construction on streets, sidewalks and landscaping in the vicinity of La Mesa Boulevard. Construction began last summer and will continue through the end of this year.
Parking officers are still enforcing the two-hour and four-hour parking limits but are not checking to see if meters are expired. As a result, revenues from the parking meters dropped significantly from $20,400 in September to $2,200 in November, according to figures provided by city staff. (The $2,200 was deposited into parking meters by drivers who apparently did not know parking was free, despite stickers on the meters and signs in the street notifying visitors of the free parking.)
A city staff report acknowledged that it was difficult to say whether the free parking had actually attracted additional shoppers to the area, but the city has received positive responses from business owners.
“We’ve received a mix of comments, some positive, some negative, but it seems most of them are generally supportive of free parking,” said Bill Chopyk, the city’s community development director.
City Councilmember Kristine Alessio said she thought it was worth taking note of the words of one citizen, who told her, “No one would pay to park in that mess.”
Mayor Mark Arapostathis said it was up to the council to remind business owners and visitors to the village that this is a temporary outreach program, not a permanent policy change.
“Don’t get used to it,” he said.
Members of the city’s parking commission were not pleased with the council’s decision. At their meeting on Jan. 20, parking commission members said cutting off the parking meter revenue was not fiscally responsible.
“We’re just hemorrhaging. We’re just bleeding out money here,” said Jim Wieboldt, a member of the parking commission.
Commissioner Lynn McRea said she was concerned that members of the City Council did not have all the information they needed to make an informed judgment on the fiscal impact of offering free parking.
Projects on the parking commission’s to-do list include repaving parking lots in the village, which haven’t been re-sealed since 2010; adding lighting to the Allison Avenue and Lemon Avenue parking lots; and installing two public restrooms to accommodate user demand in the village.
“The maintenance is my largest concern,” said Commissioner Gina Franklin. “Without dipping into the one-year reserve, there’s a lot of parking lots that are going to go without any kind of maintenance.”
Chris Gonzales, the city program coordinator assigned to the parking district, said the city would budget for the cost of maintaining the lots. The real impact, he said, would be a much slower accumulation of money in reserves.
—Reach Jeremy Ogul by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.