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Downtown Petaluma parking solution sought

As Petaluma’s central business district continues to expand, local officials are asking downtown merchants to help identify solutions to a parking crunch some proprietors say is detrimental to their businesses.

The Petaluma Downtown Association last week distributed surveys to 500 merchants to gauge feedback on proposals such as extending parking time limits to four hours, realigning sections of Keller and Liberty streets to create additional parking spaces or implementing paid meters. The association is also in talks with the city about constructing a parking structure at the city-owned “A Street” lot at 2 Fourth St.

“Parking is a problem ... some days, there’s just no available parking and people circle the block,” said Holly Wick, who owns Athletic Soles and serves as the president of the association’s board of directors and a member of a parking committee, a panel comprised of merchants tasked with reviewing survey results and hashing out solutions.

Results from the survey were not made available this week. Costs, sources of funding and timelines will become clearer after more discussion with the committee and city staff, said Marie McCusker, the association’s executive director.

“This is the first step,” she said, adding that some merchants have expressed concern over lost business. “These are just ideas coming from various meetings we’ve been having and the survey is the first part of trying to see how people feel.”

While constructing a facility like the Keller Street garage would cost an estimated $55,000 per space, a prefabricated modular parking garage at the Fourth Street lot could be a more affordable long-term solution to create nearly 200 spaces, Wick said. In the meantime, she said limiting traffic flow to one way on Keller and Liberty streets would be a quick and economic fix to add 36 spots.

Petaluma’s core downtown area has more than 1,600 designated parking spaces, according to a 2012 study. Sonoma Marin Area Rapid Transit officials are developing a 50-space lot near the downtown SMART rail station, and the city has strategies in place to manage any increased parking demand when service launches, said Dan St. John, Petaluma’s director of public works and utilities.

St. John said the city will look to the downtown association to gauge the merchants’ pulse and identify a plan for consideration by city officials.

“At the end of the day, we want to work with them to get a plan. We’ll look to them to say this is something they want to recommend to the city. We’re happy to take it forward if they recommend it rather than us say ‘we think there’s a problem, we’re going to read everyone’s mind and solve it this way,’” he said.

Officials have long pondered the city’s options for downtown parking. In 2001, meters were implemented in the Keller Street garage, but were scrapped after 90 days amid complaints from merchants about diminished business, according to city documents.

Mayor David Glass pointed to the failed effort as a sign that the city should take its direction based on businesses’ desires. He said the increased demand for parking in the thriving downtown stands in stark contrast to the conditions before the city invested redevelopment agency dollars to revitalize the once blighted district filled with vacant stores and transient activity.

“What’s happening right now is a good thing,” he said. “The downtown association is taking the temperature and the mood of their body, and that’s a good thing. Hopefully they can find out how is it people want to deal with the issues they’re confronted with that’s better and more viable than what we’re experiencing right now. I’m interested to see what the results are.”

The discussion comes as Petaluma police are bolstering enforcement at the Keller Street garage amid a recent uptick in calls for service, Lt. Ron Klein said. Incidents in the garage, such as a series of May 5 arrests after a rowdy crowd hurled beer bottles and assaulted police officers and several reported incidents of groups jumping pedestrians, have put business owners on high alert in the past two months, Klein said. He asked the public to contact police if they note inappropriate behavior in the facility.

Trisha Gilroy-Bomar, who owns the nearby Rapunzel’s Hair Salon, said her female employees are uncomfortable walking through the dark upper levels of the garage during the evening hours and are forced to move their cars midday, though it’s often a struggle to find parking elsewhere.

“Everyone knows that parking downtown is horrible,” she said. “We’re constantly talking about how terrible the parking is. And so it’s a deterrent for some customers for sure.”

Gilroy-Bomar, who called for increased cleanup and enforcement at the garage last year, said that while conditions have improved, there’s still room for the city to do more, citing the pervasive smell of urine and nefarious individuals loitering. St. John said maintenance crews regularly clean the garage, and McCusker said volunteer crews also lend a hand when possible.

The garage at one point had on-site security, following a $900,000 city project to upgrade the garage in 2003. Funded through the city’s former redevelopment agency, the effort included security cameras, new lighting and the ability to lock down the facility in the evening, according to city documents. Now, the cash-strapped city doesn’t have the means to fund a security guard, and McCusker said the roughly $65,000 collected from the current business improvement tax levied on merchants wouldn’t cover the cost.

Despite historic protest against paid parking, Gilroy-Bomar said she feels she and other merchants would be in favor, especially if proceeds could help fund security in the garage.

“I think it’s anticipated in a growing city that you pay for parking,” she said.

Wick argued that paid parking would cut her business by at least 20 to 30 percent, an option not favorable to local retailers.

“If people can’t find a place to park, they will shop online,” she said. “People are incredibly thrifty and they don’t like to pay for parking.”