Pulled out of downtown Napa curbsides nearly 20 years ago, parking meters could return this year – for at least a few months and possibly for good.
The city is planning a pilot program that would create pay-to-park zones along Main, First and Second streets, the busiest routes in Napa’s business district. Drivers would be charged to use about 500 spaces during the test, which could begin as early as this summer and last three to six months.
The experiment would be a dress rehearsal for a possible shift to paid parking in the city core, which ended with the removal of meters in the 1990s. A study released last May suggested metering as one way to turn over prime spaces in busy neighborhoods more quickly, and encourage all-day visitors to use more distant, but less crowded, spots instead.
As the number of downtown hotels, restaurants and shops increases, “we’re starting to anticipate in the near term that there will be a parking crunch,” said the city’s economic development manager, Jennifer LaLiberte, in discussing the parking-meter pilot Thursday.
Though Napa has not yet chosen which areas to meter, the likely candidates will be curbside slots and surface lots as far west as Randolph Street, she said.
A vendor, yet to be chosen, would install 50 to 60 meters, each governing up to 10 spaces, said Shari Cooper, development project coordinator. Each machine would accept cash and credit or debit cards, and possibly electronic payment via smartphone.
Parking fees for the pilot project have not been set, but probably will vary by time of day, and existing time limits will not change, according to LaLiberte.
“The goal is to set the price at a level where there’s about 20 percent vacancy” in the test zone, she said. “The hope is to adjust pricing at peak times; there may be times when the price goes up and times when it goes down, depending on the level of vacancies.”
Walker Parking Consultants, the Illinois company that performed the city parking study, estimated a $1.25-an-hour charge for curbside spaces and a 50-cent rate at off-street lots could garner Napa more than $500,000 a year if it meters 800 busy slots. Startup would require about $840,000 and yearly upkeep $100,000, according to the report.
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Authors also argued an overuse of street parking in high-traffic areas makes the supply look tighter and discourages would-be visitors, even if off-street slots nearby remain plentiful. On a Thursday afternoon in July 2014, 45 percent of downtown spaces were occupied for more than three hours, the report stated.
While the reaction of many downtown merchants remains to be seen, one longtime business owner appeared willing to give the paid-parking experiment a chance – so long as it doesn’t scare off those trying to spend a whole day in town.
“When we had (meters) before, a lot of customers liked to go out to lunch and shop. But usually they would exceed time on the meter and had a ticket when they came back – which didn’t make them very happy,” remembered Barbara Wiggins, who has run The Mustard Seed Clothing Co. on First Street for 30 years.
Key to the acceptance of paid parking, she added, will be customers’ ability to easily re-feed the meters, extend their stays and, thus, spend more money,
It’s frustrating for people who are trying to take advantage of restaurants and shops, but then have to race back to their car,” said Wiggins. “If they have ways to take care of that without going back to their cars, that would be great.”
While Nancy Haynes made no prediction of the pay-to-park experiment’s success, the owner of the Napa Valley Coffee Roasting Co. pointed to earlier challenges that faced people trying to reach her Main Street coffee shop.
“We weathered the closing of the First Street bridge, the closing of a parking lot for a construction staging area; our customers are wonderfully persistent,” said Haynes, who owns cafes in Napa and St. Helena. “Speaking for myself, when I come downtown, I assume I’ll have to park two or three blocks from where I want to go.”
“The good news and the bad news of Napa is that parking is difficult downtown – which is a sign that people want to come downtown, which is great.”