Wednesday, June 21, 2006 | Inside one of several entrances to Park It On Market, a multi-level parking lot at the corner of 6th and Market streets in downtown San Diego, there’s a small plaque tacked to the wall. Anyone who’s interested, and who gives the plaque more than a cursory glance, might be surprised to read the following words:

A public investment in downtown.

That plaque is the only hint parkers have that Park It On Market cost taxpayers upwards of $7 million to design and build. Because the lot displays a number of Ace Parking signs, parkers could assume it’s part of the private Ace empire – another lot like any other in the sea of paid parking spaces downtown.

But Park It On Market and a few other lots like it are not supposed to be like all the others. It’s publicly built and owned – and managed by Ace.

The Centre City Development Corp., the downtown’s redevelopment arm, got into the business of building parking lots in San Diego to address the parking needs of a revitalized downtown – to provide a service its officials saw as essential and that the private sector was uninterested in building. Providing publicly funded parking was also supposed to keep parking affordable for people who work downtown, by giving them a publicly owned alternative to private parking lots.

But the president of one of the largest parking services companies in San Diego says he told CCDC a long time ago that private companies were more than willing to build their own parking garages, and points to a multi-level parking structure his company just built as an example. Meanwhile, many downtown workers and residents are unaware of the taxpayer-owned parking, and others say they don’t use the lots because they are simply too expensive.

Taz Rashid parked her car in Park It On Market on Tuesday morning. She said she heard of the lot through a friend, who told her it was the best deal for all-day parking to be found in downtown. She looked surprised when she heard the lot was owned by the CCDC – the city’s downtown redevelopment arm – and not a private company.

“I just thought it was an Ace Parking lot, because it says Ace Parking everywhere,” she said.

A block west of the parking structure, Lucas Hunt tends bar at Moose McGillycuddy’s Pub on 4th Avenue. Asked if he knew which parking lot nearby was publicly owned, Hunt guessed correctly. But he said he parks his car about a block south of Park It On Market because the private lot is cheaper. Told about CCDC’s policy of building parking lots downtown, Hunt said parking remains a nightmare for workers downtown.

“I think it’s pretty crazy. I looked at my budget last night, and I’ve spent $30 on parking this week already.”

Frank Alessi, CCDC’s vice president of finance and chief financial officer, said he understands that parking is still a big issue for people who live and work downtown. That’s why CCDC’s latest plan for downtown addresses parking as a major concern, he said, and mandates that private developers provide more parking when they build downtown.

Alessi said it’s wrong to think of Park It On Market and other CCDC-owned parking lots as subsidized parking. The reason CCDC decided to provide those lots was to provide a service that was essential to downtown’s growth, he said.

“The concept is: in order for the economics and for Gaslamp and for the city to be a viable downtown, we have to provide the infrastructure. Nobody builds a shopping center without parking, because it’s not going to survive economically,” Alessi said.

Parking is part of downtown infrastructure and therefore falls within the purview of CCDC, Alessi said. In 1997, when CCDC approved the Comprehensive Downtown Parking Plan, it was assumed there were few private companies willing and able to build and manage parking structures downtown.

Paul Chacon, president of Five Star Parking in San Diego, said he told CCDC officials for years that the private sector would eventually step in and build parking lots downtown. He said his words went unheeded, but that the nine-story parking structure his company opened in June 2004 at the corner of Columbia and West C Street is evidence that the private sector is more than willing to provide the parking San Diegans need.

“Parking development-wise, CCDC is my biggest competitor,” Chacon said. “What they are doing is subsidizing parking, and they don’t need to do that.”

Alessi disagreed. He said there has been a very strong need for CCDC to build parking lots downtown as land has been swallowed up by residential developments. There’s also a need for a public body to compete with the private sector and keep providing cheap and affordable housing, he said.

“There may be a time when the public doesn’t need to be involved in parking,” he said. “There used to be a time when we were involved in the development of housing, because nobody would build downtown.”

At least some downtown workers and merchants are all for CCDC providing parking that is affordable and that keeps the competition on its toes. But they said the fees charged at Park It On Market are simply not a very good deal, and that it’s cheaper to park elsewhere.

Park It On Market currently charges $1 an hour between 6 a.m. and 6 p.m., $3 from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. from Sunday to Thursday and $7 all night on Friday and Saturday nights. When there’s a ball game or a special event, the rate goes up to $10 for the night.

Across the street, there’s a surface lot run by the Parking Company of America. Daytime rates there are $4 for 0 to 2 hours and $6 for 2 to 9 hours. After 5 p.m., it costs $5 for up to 9 hours from Sunday to Thursday and $10 on Friday and Saturday nights.

Another lot, across from the Parking Company of America lot, is run by Central Parking Systems. Their rates are $2 for 1 hour, $4 for 2 hours and $8 for 10 hours. Friday and Saturday nights cost $10 after 5 p.m. and ball game parking is $17.

For most, Park It On Market would seem cheaper than these neighboring lots. But many Gaslamp District workers still choose not to use it. Some said that’s because their shifts straddle the before-6 p.m. and after-6 p.m. time slots, which means they end up paying the daytime rate and evening rates combined. That means a worker who comes in at 3 p.m. on a Friday and leaves at 6:30 p.m. ends up paying $10 at Park It On Market, instead of $6 or $8 at the two other lots.

Others said they find cheaper parking just a couple of blocks away and walk to their places of work.

Phillip Marcotte works at Gaslamp Photo, less than a block from Park It On Market. He parks in an Ace Parking lot two blocks away because he saves a dollar by doing so. He pays $5 for the whole day, and said it would cost him $6 at the CCDC lot.

“Bring the rates down, give me $4 instead of $5,” Marcotte said.

Alessi said CCDC sits down with Ace Parking, which manages Park It On Market, and works out what rates are fair for downtown. The rates are aimed at ensuring that the lot remains 99 percent full at all times, he said, and they have proved effective so far.

“We’re not looking for more than covering costs and some,” Alessi said. “We’re not out to gouge the public.”

Paul Tooyserkani owns Opium Gallery at Market Street and 4th Avenue. When Park It On Market opened up across the streets, he said merchants nearby were delighted at the prospects for their businesses, but said the result has been the opposite of what he hoped for. He parks 10 blocks away most days to avoid paying what he thinks are the exorbitant parking fees nearby.

“They’re using [Park It On Market] to generate more money for themselves, but it’s not doing anything for our customers or residents downtown,” Tooyserkani said.

Alessi said he feels for business owner like Tooyserkani and people who work and live downtown, but said that the parking issue in San Diego has always been a serious problem and was not going to be solved overnight.

“I suspect those people wish there were six more Park It On Markets,” he said

Please contact Will Carless directly with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips. Or send a letter to the editor.

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