Nickel-and-Diming

Will downtown parking meters moonlight? Don't count on it.

It was 1996. Downtown was as yet pre-vitalized, Bayou Place still unopened, and the baseball stadium not even in the planning stages. The soon-to-boom downtown's powers-that-be approached a wary populace on bended knee, virtually begging Houston's good burghers to return home to downtown. In November of that year, City Council offered a carrot: free parking on Saturdays. The Municipal Courts Administration, which oversees parking matters, anticipated the change would benefit central city businesses and civic events.

The Downtown Management District plastered 3,000 downtown parking meters with smiley-face decals advertising the civic good fortune of free street parking after 6 p.m. weekdays and all weekend long. The courtship continued as late as October 1998. Convention and Visitors Bureau CEO Jordy Tollett was quoted in the Houston Business Journal as saying that lowering parking meter rates would encourage citizens to partake of Houston's freshly minted urban joys. "We're still in the very early stage of rebuilding," Tollett said then. "Let's not start nickel-and-diming people when you're trying to get them to come down here."

Less than two years later, it seems, downtown has passed the early stage of rebuilding. Bayou Place is open, as are numerous new clubs and restaurants, with the 42,000-seat Enron Field fast approaching opening day. And with City Council preparing for hearings on a plan not only to reinstate meter charges on Saturdays, but to extend meter operations to 10 p.m. on weeknights as well, the carrot may soon cede its position to the stick.

Free night curbside parking has prompted another downtown fight.
Deron Neblett
Free night curbside parking has prompted another downtown fight.

"For years," says Councilmember Annise Parker, "we had free evening parking, trying to get people to come downtown. Now that people are coming downtown, we have a different problem."

The problem, apparent to anyone who has tried recently to stow a car within half a mile of a downtown destination, is that with the much-courted influx of restaurant diners and nightspot revelers finally coming in droves, parking hassles have become one of the most compelling arguments downtown has to offer for staying at home in the suburbs.

Exactly why this should be so, and the best solution, depends on which of myriad interested parties you're talking to, and when you talk to them.

There's the city, which surveyed area property owners on the issue in spring 1999. That survey found locals were 100 percent against any changes in meter hours or rates. But the same locals reported worries about the booming, and completely unregulated, valet trade that had followed the restaurant and club boom into downtown. Certain valets were taking up chunks of free curb parking and reportedly coning off empty metered spaces to reserve the spots for their own use, which didn't seem right.

The Downtown Management District, a quasi-governmental promotional organization, weighed in, favoring new meter and valet regulations.

There's also the Market Square Historical Association. Last summer it collected 36 signatures and formally petitioned the city to extend meter hours and regulate valet companies.

Then there's Rasheed Refaey, owner of Tasca restaurant near Market Square, who originally signed the petition. He has since made a formal request that his name be removed and claims that at least 14 of the original 36 signees also want their names off the petition.

There's the Houston Restaurant Association, feeling left out of negotiations, opposing any meter changes and employing lobbyist Ross Allyn to elbow with the city.

And finally there's the city again. Last November it floated two drafts -- an ordinance amendment to extend meter hours, and a new ordinance regulating valet services -- with which, it seems, absolutely no one is completely happy.

Almost everyone agrees that there needs to be some valet regulation to prevent those operators from hogging free on-street parking for profit at the expense of individual visitors, although that's where the agreement stops. For one thing, the city's draft ordinance would enact regulation citywide, and opponents argue that that's not necessary. Downtown, they remind, is exempt from a city law requiring businesses to provide sufficient off-street parking for their clientele, and thus only downtown is in need of additional regulation.

There's also the matter of the fees associated with the proposed valet ordinance. As drafted, restaurant and club owners -- not the valet services themselves -- would be responsible for a $75 permit, plus annual fees for curb space. The proposed rates are $16 per linear foot of roadway for the first 44 feet and $45 for each foot beyond that. A restaurant using the equivalent of two metered spaces for valet operations would take on an annual $704 charge in addition to hiring the valet. A restaurant needing three spaces would owe closer to $1,500. That's just for a valet stop near the door. Restaurants that don't make arrangements with private lots or garages for off-street parking would still have to pay $45 per foot for any on-street parking.

Tracy Vaught, co-owner of Prego in the Rice Village, objects.

"I don't want to have to pay for public parking on the public street if no individuals have to pay, or retail businesses that overflow that don't have a valet. It's as if they're picking on people who use a valet."

Those kinds of dollars, combined with the additional money that would come from extended metering hours, have some downtown merchants complaining that the city is just looking to squeeze extra revenue out of downtown's new popularity. Richard Lewis, the mayor's deputy chief administrative officer, insists that's not true.

"For someone to suggest that the changes in rates or hours of operation is money-driven, or that regulation of valet operations is money-driven, is not based in fact. Period. The reason to adjust rates is to complement adjacent land uses, and that's the only reason to deal with that. If there's some lagniappe there, it's there, but that's not the reason we're looking at it. We have not even tried to prepare any [revenue] estimates on that." Any additional revenues, according to Lewis, would go where all present meter revenues and parking meter fines go: to the city's general fund.

To hear proponents tell it, the proposal is all about curb turnover. Jamie Mize, co-owner of Treebeards and co-author of the original petition, favors extended meter hours, with a two-hour maximum stay.

"If you allow somebody to show up at six and plug the meter for four hours, you've missed the entire point. If you're going to come down and spend an evening downtown, you're encouraged to use a lot or a garage instead of a meter, and save the meters for the neighbors who need that early-evening turnover."

As an example Mize cited Prairie Street, where there are two art galleries that stay open until the early evening. He says employees of downtown establishments park in metered spaces shortly before their 5 p.m. shifts. "All they have to do is plug the meter until six o'clock and they're home free."

Tasca's Refaey, though, thinks any benefit in curbside turnover will be offset by negative impressions generated by pay parking, and continues to think that the lure of increased revenues is behind the move.

"What they're doing is really a bait and switch," Refaey says. He says the valet ordinance is a "smokescreen" to divert the concerns of restaurant operators to the proposal for the high rates. "So they drew attention to this, trying to quickly ram through the parking meter side, which is where the revenue source is," Refaey says. "Now this is all theory, but it's probably fairly accurate."

Just how all the issues will settle into final ordinances, if any, remains to be seen. A Council committee plans to announce dates shortly for two separate public hearings on the proposed ordinances. All sides give lip service to the idea of eventual adjustments, compromises and agreements.

Privately, though, opponents say they expect at least the parking meter expansion to die in committee.

And Richard Lewis admits that if the public hearings return a resounding no to the plans, the city will drop the matter.

"We do not intend to go forward with either of these unless there is strong neighborhood support in the affected areas." If there's not, it'll be dead in the water, he says. "And six months from now, when the ballpark opens and there's no parking spaces in the evenings during games for people that want to go to a bar and drink or whatever Š they're going to be down here beating on us, saying, 'Do something about this.' And then we'll look at it again."

That warning was made by Lewis even more explicitly in a letter he wrote in response to Refaey's opposition: "Changes in on-street parking regulations are probably inevitable if we are to attain the ambiance of New Orleans' French Quarter or San Antonio's River Walk in our 'North End.' "

By the way, the Downtown Management District's own survey shows San Antonio doesn't charge for metered parking after 6 p.m. Neither does New Orleans.

E-mail Brad Tyer at brad.tyer@houstonpress.com.

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