City Hall

Mayor, Council Spar over Parking Rate Change in Chinatown

In a duel over data, council members spar with the mayor over his decision to lower parking rates in Chinatown.

By Erica C. Barnett March 7, 2013


In a letter to Mayor Mike McGinn last night, city council members Tom Rasmussen (the head of the council's transportation committee) and Tim Burgess (who's running for mayor against McGinn) argue that McGinn's decision to lower parking rates at night in Chinatown is "unsupported by [parking] occupancy data"—and imply, without directly saying so, that McGinn's decision to lower rates in the neighborhood came in response to complaints from businesses in the area, who argued that they've lost business since the previous, higher rates went into effect. 

"There appears to be an inconsistency in how the data is being interpreted and utilized for rate-setting purposes for different neighborhoods and we are troubled by the apparently selective use of our adopted City rate setting policy," Burgess and Rasmussen say in the letter.

McGinn's Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) decided last month to eliminate paid parking after 6:00 on the "periphery" of Chinatown (previously, drivers had to pay for parking until 8:00 at night) and to lower rates from $2.50 to $1.50 an hour after 5:00 in Chinatown's restaurant "core," making Chinatown the only neighborhood where rates vary by time of day. (The city also lowered daytime rates on Chinatown's outskirts).

Image from City Council central staff parking report.

"We request that you provide us with the data and analysis that supports your decision to reduce parking meter rates in the Chinatown/International District parking area," the letter continues. "Also, we would like to know why you have not directed rate decreases for other neighborhoods that appear to be eligible for a reduction. ... The City must apply its parking rate policies consistently and fairly across every neighborhood, even if sometimes that means fewer dollars in our budget." 

Burgess and Rasmussen are basing their statements on a memo from the city council's central staff, which found that, based on the city's goal of having one or two parking spaces available on every block (between 70 and 85 percent occupancy, on average), 13 neighborhoods should have their rates reduced—and that Chinatown isn't one of them. (Among those neighborhoods: Roosevelt, North Belltown, Uptown, south Capitol Hill, and parts of Ballard.) Moreover, the memo says, rates in Chinatown should actually be increased at night. 

In that memo, council staffers looked at occupancy rates throughout Chinatown and found that in the evenings, average parking usage was over 85 percent—meaning that in the more highly trafficked core of Chinatown, the parking rate was considerably higher.

Both Burgess and Rasmussen tell PubliCola that the city agreed not to change rates at all, anywhere, in 2013; now that that's apparently no longer city policy, they say, they should look at every neighborhood to make sure the parking policy is being applied equitably—even if that means losing money. 

Burgess: "What I want is consistency and fairness in the application of the policy. ... even if that means that revenues are going to drop a bit in 2013." 

Rasmussen: "A lot of other neighborhood business districts [besides Chinatown] are very sensitive about rates, and if we look at the data and see that [lowering rates] is warranted for their neighborhood, they will expect an equal application of our policies."

In response to the council members' letter, SDOT director Peter Hahn said there weren't enough people parking on the edges of Chinatown to justify the higher parking rate and evening hours even though parking was above the city's target level in the restaurant core, and predicted that if the city lowers rates and ends evening hours on the periphery of the neighborhood, drivers will distribute themselves more evenly throughout the area. 

And he denied the suggestion that the city decided to reduce rates in Chinatown in response to restaurant owners' and merchants' complaints that they were losing business. 

"The decisions and changes we are making in the CID and other neighborhoods are not revenue based. They are not arbitrary," Hahn writes. "They are data-driven, and grounded in the policies Council adopted. We wholeheartedly agree with those policies." 

"SDOT welcomes the opportunity to meet with you and your staff to walk through the details in the 2012 report and how we applied the data in the report and existing policy informed the changes in the CID and other neighborhoods. I am sorry we were not invited to do so in advance of your sending this letter."

In addition to saying it would not change rates in 2013, SDOT told city council members that the agency's existing parking meter machines, which date from 2010, were not equipped to handle parking rates that change by time of day. That, however, is precisely the policy McGinn has implemented in Chinatown. SDOT spokesman Rick Sheridan calls the new policy a "pilot project to test the ability" of the machines to handle changing rates by time of day. 

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