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Originally published February 21, 2012 at 8:02 PM | Page modified February 22, 2012 at 1:03 PM

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Chinatown ID restaurateurs say longer parking hours cut business

Restaurant owners in the Chinatown International District say the longer parking-meter hours that started in August have cut business by as much as 50 percent.

Seattle Times staff reporter

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The streets of the Chinatown International District used to fill up with restaurant patrons every evening as the clock approached 6 p.m. and the parking meters ticked off the last paid minutes of the day.

But the city in August extended parking-meter hours to 8 p.m. in many downtown neighborhoods. Restaurant owners and community leaders in the Chinatown International District say business is down by as much as 50 percent because of the change.

A recent letter to Mayor Mike McGinn signed by seven community groups and almost 70 restaurateurs calls on the city to stop charging $2.50 an hour for on-street parking between 6 p.m. and 8 p.m. because, they say, it has caused a "disturbing decline" at what is typically restaurants' busiest time.

The concern is echoed by other restaurant owners in the downtown area and by the state restaurant association, which says the new rates discourage customers who have a wide choice about where to dine.

Chinatown ID leaders further argue that the city parking plan, instituted in part to boost revenue, might be costing the city and state in lost sales taxes because of the drop in business.

"I think the city made the wrong choice," said Sam Ung, owner of the Phnom Penh Noodle House on South King Street. "We're hearing from our customers that if they have to pay for parking, they'll go to a strip mall someplace where it's free."

The Seattle Department of Transportation, which manages parking, said it plans to review pay-station data and city revenue data for the Chinatown ID and try to speed up a review of the community's parking program scheduled for 2012.

But a Transportation Department sampling of on-street parking in the Chinatown ID in September and October found the new rates are working as the city intended, said Mike Estey, manager of parking operations.

"Parking is well utilized, but you can find a space," he said. "That was the goal of the plan."

The mayor's office said it will meet with Chinatown ID community leaders in the next few weeks to discuss their concerns.

Parking solutions

McGinn and the City Council agreed in 2010 to move the city to a market-rate parking system that charged more — and for longer hours — in neighborhoods with the heaviest demand for on-street parking. The goal was to free up parking spaces on every block so more people could access local businesses.

The mayor also argued that charging more for parking better reflected the cost to the environment from congestion and emissions as drivers circled city blocks looking for an open space.

The change also was a moneymaker for the city, with parking revenues projected to increase from $26.5 million in 2010 to $30 million last year.

The variable rates were adopted over the objections of many restaurant owners, including Seattle's most recognizable chef, Tom Douglas, who noted that dining out is a discretionary expense and that the city was about to tack on an additional $5 to $8 to the cost of a meal.

"I thought it was going to be a big problem for customers and staff, and I think we've seen that," said Douglas, who runs 10 restaurants downtown and in South Lake Union. Douglas said he couldn't cite a specific dollar amount or percent of decline, but he said the city's stated goal and the goal of restaurants are at odds.

"More empty spaces means fewer customers," Douglas said. "It makes me crazy."

Rates last year climbed to as much as $4 an hour downtown and were extended to 8 p.m. in eight neighborhoods, including Belltown, Capitol Hill and the University District.

Josh McDonald, of the Washington Restaurant Association, said restaurants are an important part of keeping a city vibrant in the evening. He said his Seattle members share the Chinatown ID's concern that eating downtown is less attractive now than it was before the longer meter hours were imposed.

"Customers are paying more, they're having to worry about the meter," McDonald said. "We're concerned that if it's a negative experience, they won't come back."

Parking-meter rates stayed the same in the Chinatown ID at $2.50 an hour but were extended to 8 p.m. Community leaders say area restaurants do about 70 percent of their business during dinnertime. And the high concentration of relatively inexpensive restaurants (Yelp lists 112) makes it particularly vulnerable to added costs.

"Everyone's asking each other, 'How's business this week?' This isn't something we heard even two years ago," said Hyeok Kim, executive director for Interim CDA, a community-development association in the Chinatown ID.

Losses for the city

Financial projections included in the letter to McGinn suggest the drop in business is actually costing the city and state in lost sales-tax revenue. The analysis says that, at the current 72 percent parking-occupancy rate, the city should receive about $470,000 in annual revenue from the additional two hours of evening parking.

But it estimates the city and state will lose about $963,000 in sales-tax revenue annually because of the decline in restaurant business during those hours.

From the city's point of view, though, it may not be a loss. The city keeps all parking revenues but collects 0.85 percent in sales tax charged in Seattle. The remainder of the 9.5 percent rate goes to the state, the county and Sound Transit.

Other Chinatown ID business leaders say the parking-meter rates run counter to the city's ongoing investments in neighborhood preservation and revitalization. The Office of Economic Development has awarded the Chinatown ID grants of about $1.1 million since 2007 for marketing, promotion, safety and sanitation.

"The city has given us significant funding for economic development, but now they have these parking policies undercutting that work," said Joyce Pisnanont, program manager for the Chinatown/International District Preservation and Development Authority.

At the Sea Garden Seafood Restaurant on Seventh Avenue, which specializes in fresh fish and crab, owner Alice Chan said the dinner rush used to begin when the parking meters stopped at 6 p.m.

"Now people don't come until 8, and there aren't as many," she said. "Business has dropped a lot."

Lynn Thompson: 206-464-8305

or lthompson@seattletimes.com

On Twitter @lthompsontimes

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