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Millions Of Dollars (Still) Parked In San Diego Parking Districts

Parking meters line University Ave. in Hillcrest, April 3, 2017.

Photo by Katie Schoolov

Above: Parking meters line University Ave. in Hillcrest, April 3, 2017.

San Diego Parking Districts Stash Millions Of Dollars


Andrew Bowen, metro reporter, KPBS News


The bus stop at 5th Ave. and Evans Place in Hillcrest is, in a strange way, like an advertisement for cars. On a recent Monday morning, the bus stop bench was littered with newspapers, an old sock, chicken bones, food wrappers and a used condom. The trash, and the stench of urine, could easily convince a would-be bus rider to skip public transit and opt to drive.

“I can’t imagine anybody waiting at this bus stop,” said Ben Nicholls, president of the Hillcrest Business Association.

Reported by Katie Schoolov

The HBA pays for a monthly trash pick-up and power washing at the stop. But Nicholls said it gets dirty again fast, as homeless people dig through the trash can or go to the bathroom behind an adjacent electrical box.

Nicholls also chairs the board of the Uptown Community Parking District, which manages money collected through parking meters in and around Hillcrest. He would like to spend some of that money on more frequent cleaning of the bus stop — doing so, he said, would encourage more people to take public transit into Hillcrest, reducing the demand for parking.

But that spending, according to city officials, would run afoul of state and local laws that strictly regulate how parking meter dollars can be spent. The result of those regulations, Nicholls said, has been a steadily growing balance in the parking district’s bank account. Its budget for the coming fiscal year is nearly $4.7 million, most of which Nicholls predicts will go unspent.

“In terms of deploying all the creative solutions that the neighborhood has come up with, we haven’t been able to do that,” he said. “The spigot is off. We are unable to spend this money.”

Photo by Katie Schoolov

Trash litters the side of a bus stop in Hillcrest, April 3, 2017.

Fee vs. Tax

Most of the money collected by parking meters — 55 percent — goes to the city of San Diego’s general fund. The remainder stays in the community and is managed by the city’s parking districts.

The restrictions on their spending is due to the legal definition of the money drivers pay to park their cars at metered spots. State law classifies it as a fee, meaning the parking district must spend it only on things that alleviate the parking situation in that neighborhood. If it were classified as a tax, the districts would have far more discretion on how to spend their money — but changing that classification would require a public vote, and the approval of two-thirds of voters.

Guidelines for how to legally spend parking fee dollars in San Diego have been laid out in two legal memos from the City Attorney’s Office, written in 2010 and 2014. They address several hypothetical spending ideas, including enhancements to public transit stops.

“Whether any enhancement is necessary would likely require an objective study to analyze the impediments for ridership, whether aesthetic enhancements at a particular bus or trolley stop is required to address those concerns, and whether the enhancement would affect the parking of vehicles within a parking meter zone,” the 2010 memo reads.

In other words, Nicholls would have to prove the trash and urine smell at that particular bus stop is turning people away from riding public transit and encouraging them to drive, and park, in Hillcrest. Absent that proof, the memo explains, the city is at a higher risk of getting sued for misuse of parking meter funds.

Photo by Katie Schoolov

Hillcrest Business Association President Ben Nicholls, left, gestures to trash littering a bus stop in Hillcrest, April 3, 2017.

‘We can do better’

The problems with San Diego’s parking districts are not new. The city auditor completed a report on them in November 2014, finding there was little tracking or measurement of how successful their programs were. The City Council even reformed its parking district ordinance in June 2015, in part to give the districts more spending flexibility.

But the issue continues to pop up at public meetings. At a City Council committee meeting on Feb. 14, Howard Blackson, an urban planner who consults on development and street design, told council members the purse strings were still too tight.

“We should be able to have parking benefits districts that manage access to the places the parking is intended to serve, that manage wayfinding, signage, lighting, sidewalks, the pedestrians, transit support for these parking districts that we can’t do right now because our interpretation is very risk averse and says it’s just for paint and replacing meters,” Blackson said.

Blackson acknowledged later in an interview that there were legal limitations to how parking districts can spend their money, and that some districts are funding projects that reduce the demand for parking by promoting transportation choices beyond just the car. Two notable examples are FRED, a free downtown ride-hailing service, and the bicycle valet program at the I-15 transit plaza.

Still, Blackson said, there are other cities in California, governed by the same state laws as San Diego, that have found more creative, effective and legal ways to spend parking meter revenue. San Francisco changes the pricing of its parking meters based on demand. Redwood City has a similar system, integrated with wayfinding to direct motorists to free spaces.

“We can do better,” he said.

The City Attorney’s Office declined an interview request, but spokesman Gerry Braun said the advice in the 2010 and 2014 memos on parking district spending is still up to date and the office had no plans to review the issue.

Conflicting goals

The City Council policy governing parking districts empowers them to spend money on increasing the parking supply — leasing, purchasing or constructing parking lots and garages, or reorienting street parking to pack more cars into a small area. But Colin Parent, policy counsel for the nonprofit Circulate San Diego, said that goal is in direct conflict with the city’s Climate Action Plan, which aims to drastically decrease the share of San Diegans who drive to work.

“Parking induces driving,” Parent said. “The easier and less expensive it is to park, the more encouraged people are going to be to drive to places.”

An analysis commissioned by the city Planning Department last fall agreed, and suggested putting limits on the city’s parking supply to help achieve its goal of shifting transportation habits away from cars.

The Hillcrest Business Association has resisted sacrificing parking spaces in the neighborhood, and has butted heads with transit and bike activists over how street space should be divided among cars, buses and bicyclists. But when speaking about parking meter revenue, Nicholls agrees the city’s policy is too car-centric.

“San Diego as a region has doubled down on buses and bicycles,” Nicholls said. “So we should be able to deploy these monies for things like making it enjoyable to ride the bus.”


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Photo of Andrew Bowen

Andrew Bowen
Metro Reporter

opening quote marksclosing quote marksI cover local government — a broad beat that includes housing, homelessness and infrastructure. I'm especially interested in the intersections of land use, transportation and climate change.

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