Mixed reactions to Poulsbo’s downtown parking report

Council will discuss topic again at future meeting

After much anticipation from community members and business owners, the Downtown Parking Study Committee’s final report and recommendations were presented to the Poulsbo City Council at its meeting Dec. 6, which centers around a paid parking system for the majority of the downtown area.

The recommended initial rate schedule for years 1 and 2 would be: $1/hour for hours 1-3, $1.50/hour for hours 4-6, and $2/hour for hours 7-8, per city documents. The maximum daily rate for parking would be $11.50. Under the proposal, the rates would increase to a maximum daily rate of $23 after two years.

There would still be free parking in some areas of downtown, such as King Olaf and the underground parking lot at City Hall. There are also two-hour limit spots on several streets. Additionally, employees of downtown businesses would eventually have their own dedicated parking area which would require a permit.

One of the council goals for 2023 was to address parking in downtown Poulsbo, documents state. An advisory committee was established in February, consisting of councilmembers, planning commissioners, city staff and downtown business owners. The committee met several times over the past months. Walker Consultants was selected to perform the study.

Council/public comments

The council chambers were packed at the meeting as many downtown business owners came to voice their displeasure with the proposed parking system.

“I know this will directly impact myself and my family,” Michael Perry said, owner of Timeless Cuts on Front Street. “With the discussions I’ve had with my clients, I have not heard one person say anything positive about the potential for charging for parking downtown. I’ve heard nothing but negatives.”

Suzanne Selfors of Liberty Bay Books advocated for employees to have their own desingated area to park, which she said would alleviate a lot of the congestion at the waterfront parking lot because employees park there.

“I think we all share the exact same goal and that is to make the experience of visiting Poulsbo wonderful and lovely,” she said. “Those of us who own stores on Front Street know that the waterfront lot gets jammed up right away…by employees. (An employee parking area) would take a lot of burden off your merchants and I think we would see a clearing of that waterfront lot.”

Sandy Kolbeins, owner of The Loft, Dalla Baia and Valholl Brewing, was the lone business owner who spoke in favor of the parking plan. He was also on the parking committee.

“Really what it comes down to is I’m willing to try anything because what’s going on right now isn’t working,” he said. “We decided a long time ago that our employees are not to park downtown because that’s for customers. I’m hearing a mix about what the downtown parking lot is for. I think the idea of having a nominal amount just to keep the spots flowing was the idea. It’s not set in stone. Let’s have dialogue, let’s look at this stuff. Let’s not, like the last couple of times, go through it all and do nothing. It’s affecting all our businesses.”

Kolbeins also added that the Historic Downtown Poulsbo Association also did a parking study and asked the city to meet with them to compare plans and come up with an effective solution. Councilmember Gary McVey, who was on the parking committee, said that building a parking garage for employees to park would likely cost $10-$15 million and would only accommodate about 100 cars. McVey added the revenue from paid parking will help the city expand parking options in the future.

“In order for (parking spaces) to turn over you have to have some sort of enforcement mechanism or employees and others will park there for 8 to 10 hours a day,” the councilmember said.

Councilmember Britt Livdahl, another parking committee member, said she has spoken with many tourists who are shocked that parking is free in the downtown area.

“Ultimately, the conversation about paid parking is changing people’s behavior, not just employees but people who live here locally,” she said. “We’re very specific in maintaining parts of downtown that are still free, especially as you get out of the more premium spots. What we’re proposing here is not an absurd parking fee.”

Councilmember Ed Stern, who was also on the parking committee, said he was still undecided on the plan and wants more concrete data presented.

“I have not made up my mind but it would be helpful to me to understand when a good problem becomes a bad problem and to get some data around that…that would compel us to move into some of these models,” he said. “I want to make sure the cure is not worse than the illness.”

Another proponent of having the HDPA share its parking study with the city was councilmember David Musgrove, who owns Hot Shots Java on Front Street. He added that report might have an option that doesn’t require paid parking.

“The data that they’ve collected is impressive, it answers a lot of questions such as what is the cause of the problem, something I didn’t see in this report,” he said. “I would like the council and the rest of the public to hear those options in order to carry this forward in the friendliest ways for the citizens and businesses.”

Mayor Becky Erickson had the last word and was blunt in stating how the current parking situation is affecting businesses.

“The congestion has actually gotten so bad that it’s actually deterring business,” she said. “In other words, people aren’t going to our shops because they can’t find a place to park. We’ve talked about parking ever since I’ve been involved with local government and we never seem to get anywhere with it. Are we going to fix it this time or not?”

Scope of report

Per the consultant’s presentation, a successful parking system in Poulsbo supports a vibrant, thriving economy and community downtown; is welcoming and easily understandable for anyone—from a local to a first-time visitor; offers multiple options that make sense for any user—very short-term, short-term and long-term; leverages existing assets and creates opportunity for future growth; makes it easier and more pleasant to use other forms of travel (e.g., walking/biking); approaches cost neutrality; is transparent about what revenues pay for and how they benefit the community; and follows data and industry standards for effective parking management.

Challenges and limitations include: small Downtown core is both a blessing (great walkability and two-minute walk to any parking facility) and a curse (very limited space—need to work with what we have); learnings from length of stay analysis indicate that enforcement of 2-hour time limits alone will do little to address demand challenges, such as too much demand for facilities along Anderson Parkway and Front Street; reliance on the general fund—at least at the outset—will necessitate impactful but relatively low-cost initiatives, especially on an ongoing basis; employee parking is working now (along 3rd Avenue), but needs to be tracked and managed in the long term; and limited transit service with few plans for expansion in terms of routes or headways.

If the plan is approved by the council, essential steps within the first six months include installing static signage, updating user group allocations to formalize employee parking options and supporting additional parking for mobility-impaired community members, improving communications through a city parking webpage; establishing a rate schedule; and implementing data collection protocols to aid in decision-making and rate changes, documents state.

Down the road, essential steps within 18 months consist of charging for parking in high-demand facilities; refining parking violation schedule by employing first-time warnings for low-level violations, with graduated fines for repeat violators and premiums of high-level offenders; establishing a shared parking program with private parking facilities; establishing a simple permit system for employees and other long-term parkers, with an initial price range of $25-$35 per permit; and begin tracking parking-specific operating costs and revenues so that cost recovery can be calculated and evaluated.

Important mid-term priorities would be to consider establishing downtown parking as a special revenue or enterprise fund with a set cost recovery target and an investment plan for revenues above cost, like funding new parking inventory or supporting other travel choices; and creating a formal framework and strategy for remote parking for events, particularly as events continue to scale, per documents.

Finally, long-term priorities include considering more dynamic directional signage at entry points showing real-time availability information in parking facilities; establishing a more complex long-term parking permit program with options beyond month-to-month parking, such as tiered permit options for people who only drive to work a few days a week, to improve program efficiency and serve more users; and add inventory with a new public parking garage if data collection efforts indicate typical peak occupancy levels above 90-95% (study has determined that King Olaf lot would be a feasible location for a new parking structure in terms of size).

For the budget, increased revenue generated during a fully operational year is likely to achieve 100% cost recovery of Operations & Maintenance at minimum. Ongoing costs are estimated at $50,000-$75,000 for part-time enforcement and data collection. Capital costs are estimated at $100,000-$400,000 for static signage and sensors and/or handheld enforcement tech and parking access control. All are highly variable depending on the tech that’s selected, documents read.

The topic will be revisited at a future council meeting.