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Parking denied, but maybe not for long

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Summer Triato is losing business because her customers can’t find parking. That would be regrettable, but understandable, if not for the fact that Triato can walk around her Central Eastside Industrial District neighborhood and see plenty of unused parking spaces all day long.

Triato, who runs the event space Union/Pine on Southeast Sixth Avenue and Pine Street, has taken the lead in an effort to rejigger the parking in her area. If she can solve her problem, she just might set the city on the road to surmounting parking problems in a number of Portland’s close-in neighborhoods where residents and shoppers battle over a dwindling supply of available spaces.

Union/Pine hosts weddings, banquets and such. The weddings and banquets aren’t a problem, since most take place on weekends and evenings when people who work in the Central Eastside aren’t taking up nearby street parking spaces.

But Union/Pine has turned out to be more successful than Triato envisioned when she and husband Patrick Triato opened the space five years ago. Union/Pine is funkier than the Oregon Convention Center or the meeting spaces offered by large hotels, so clients including Nike, Adidas and Under Armour have been booking it for weekday corporate events. Some of those events will bring as many as 50 people from Beaverton or Hillsboro, all looking for parking.

“They’re willing to pay at a meter or a parking garage. They just want a space, and there’s nothing,” Triato says.

Well, not quite nothing. According to a 2010 study by the Portland Bureau of Transportation, there were 7,000 spaces in accessory parking lots in the Central Eastside, many of them vacant at any given time. Another PBOT study revealed that during peak daytime hours, nearly four in 10 parking spaces in the Hollywood District were empty — and situated in accessory lots.

Accessory parking lots are those tempting places — some large, but most small — attached to businesses and apartment buildings. They usually have signs warning drivers that the parking is for customers or tenants only. The signs are required by a city ordinance that says accessory lots can only be used for customers, employees or residents.

A recent tour of Triato’s neighborhood found close to 100 unused parking spaces in accessory lots within walking distance of Union/Pine at 10 a.m. on a Tuesday. There were five empty spaces here, and 10 there, in half-full lots belonging to banks, restaurants and retail shops.

In January, the city decided to seek better use of those spaces with a Central Eastside pilot project. Owners of accessory lots could sign up to lease their excess parking spaces on a monthly basis to business owners who could use the spaces for employees. They also could lease the spaces to eastside residents who drive to work and are desperate for nighttime and weekend parking for their cars — when the shops with the accessory lots are closed.

“The potential is huge,” says Triato, who has become chairwoman of a parking advisory committee of the Central Eastside Industrial Council. Her sentiment is shared by national parking experts who say those accessory lots practically define the concept of win/win if they can be efficiently managed. Accessory lot owners can make extra cash, and neighborhood visitors and residents can stop driving around looking for street parking.

Few takers

But here’s the thing. The city’s pilot project began in January. So far, not one Central Eastside accessory lot owner has signed on.

Last year, the city also loosened the regulations for accessory lot owners in Northwest Portland. They can share their excess accessory lot spaces with residents, local employees and valets. They can even charge whatever they want to lease out those spaces on a monthly basis. But there haven’t been many takers there, either.

Legacy Good Samaritan Medical Center, in the heart of Northwest Portland, has made the change. During weekend and evening hours, the hospital now allows neighborhood residents to park in their mostly empty garages free of charge, says Legacy spokesman Brian Terrett. A few local businesses also have access for their employees. To ensure shoppers aren’t using the spaces, Good Samaritan has installed gates and attendants at the entrance to its garages.

PBOT spokesman Dylan Rivera says Good Samaritan can charge those off-hour drivers to park in its garage. And in July, the City Council is going to consider a measure to allow owners to open all Northwest Portland accessory lots with at least five spaces to public use. The proposed measure would even allow lot owners to offer metered hourly parking in accessory lots.

But first, somebody is going to have to figure out a way to get accessory lot owners interested in renting out their excess parking spaces, and that is turning out to be an uphill climb, Triato says.

Triato and her committee members have been surveying their neighborhood in order to compile a complete list of the accessory lots. So far they’ve identified 255 accessory lots with 10 or more spaces. They’ve started talking to owners of some of those lots. They’re explaining to lot owners that at $100 a month, they can earn an extra $12,000 a year or so for renting out 10 spaces. No luck so far.

Triato says many of the lots in the industrial inner eastside are owned by people who predate the influx of marketing agencies, coffee shops and restaurants run by young creatives. And they aren’t all taken with the neighborhood transformation.

“A lot of these businesses are old school,” she says. “They’ve been here 40 years and they don’t like the change, so they say, ‘No, we’re using it for employees. And even if we aren’t using every space every day, we don’t want to deal with it.’

“A lot of businesses that have been here a long time are rightfully resistant to the growth. They want to do what they can to keep things the way they’ve been.”

A few of the lot owners have shown some interest, Triato says, but they don’t want to deal with the hassle of working through the city bureaucracy and managing their parking lots, especially if it brings more traffic into the neighborhood.

On the other hand, the soon-to-be-completed apartment buildings on the east end of the Burnside Bridge are going to bring 2,000 new residents into the central eastside, and some of those residents are going to want room to park their cars.

The stakes are high, says Peter Stark, executive director of the Central Eastside Industrial Council Transportation and Parking Advisory Committee.

“This is an experiment to see what we can do with it, if we can make it fly,” Stark says.

And if it can’t fly?

“The problem is not getting better,” Stark says. “I get calls daily. There are some businesses that just cannot stay because of the lack of parking.”

Hire a pro

The answer, says parking guru Donald Shoup, a UCLA planning professor, is to make the process easy for accessory lot owners. Help them hire parking management companies like Star Park and City Center Parking to meter and enforce spaces by the hour for a percentage of revenues. Lot owners might make less, but they won’t have to deal with a business and regulations with which they aren’t familiar.

City officials have said they don’t want accessory lots to become too profitable, for fear that developers might be encouraged to build more garages instead of needed housing. Shoup calls that idea “preposterous.”

“If the city allows those spaces to be made available to the general public, it will reduce the shortage of parking,” Shoup says. “It doesn’t increase the incentive to provide more parking. It does the opposite.”

Historically, almost all accessory lots outside the central city were restricted because regulations were developed to ensure that each new development — an apartment building, for instance — had spaces built to meet the parking demand it would create, says local parking consultant Rick Williams.

“It was better to build more parking and have it underutilized than to build less parking and have things like congestion and people traveling through neighborhoods,” Williams says.

But now, he points out, many new developments are approved with no parking for residents or customers, so opening up accessory lots makes more sense. “The rest of the city is playing by outdated suburban rules,” he says.

Unintended consequences

There is a counter argument to opening up the use of accessory lots, Williams says. If the city lets lot owners rent their space to anybody, it might encourage commuters to buy the spaces and discourage those commuters from using public transit or biking to work. And developers, if they see accessory lots serving the parking demand, would have one more disincentive for building parking into their projects.

Williams says Portland’s predicament is far from unique. Most cities, he says, haven’t opened up their underused accessory lots.

“Most cities I work with have a policy to encourage shared parking, and then you go into their code and it says all parking approved shall be accessory to the land use for which it is approved,” Williams says.

“Often code doesn’t follow policy,” Williams says. “The mayors and planners see the efficacy of it, but they never get around to changing the code.”

What happens, or doesn’t happen, in the Central Eastside and in Northwest Portland might have national ramifications.

“This is really cutting edge for a lot of cities,” Williams says. “A lot of cities will look to Portland to see what happens.”

Surmounting red tape

Summer Triato and her fellow Eastside Industrial District business owners eventually might have the parking garage of their dreams to help with their parking problems. The Oregon Department of Transportation owns three supersized lots on Southeast Water Avenue and, if all goes according to plan, will be selling parts of those lots and leasing most of the rest to the Portland Development Commission this summer.

PDC officials say they plan to develop those lots — eventually. And since it may take three or four years before buildings go up, PDC is willing to turn the lots into monthly surface parking for now. Down the road, when construction starts, one of the lots will likely be turned into a parking garage, according to PDC.

Gretchen Miller, executive producer of the Central Eastside’s Hive FX, a visual effects and animation company, has formed a company to lease 50 spaces in one of the lots from ODOT through this fall. But it took a lot of time and contact with 20 different city bureaucrats to make that happen.

Since PBOT rules at this point say accessory lots can only be rented by people who live and work in the neighborhood, Miller’s office manager checks the address of everyone applying to rent one of the spaces at $90 a month.

“I know it’s helped the neighborhood dramatically,” Miller says. “It takes time and effort on our end to manage the lot, but it’s worthwhile.”

— Peter Korn

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