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Originally published Thursday, July 4, 2013 at 8:00 PM

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McGinn plays politics with street parking rates, critics say

City Council members are accusing Mayor Mike McGinn of playing politics with parking rates. He lowered them in the Chinatown/International District, but not in 13 other neighborhoods where the city’s data suggest he should.

Seattle Times staff reporter

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Several years after street parking rates were raised and hours extended in neighborhoods throughout Seattle, the issue still riles people.

It’s becoming a talking point in the mayor’s race, with several of the eight candidates who are challenging Mayor Mike McGinn promising to lower rates or eliminate them after 6 p.m.

And some City Council members, who joined McGinn in establishing the city’s new data-driven parking policy in 2010, are now accusing him of playing politics by lowering the rates in the Chinatown/International District, but not in 13 other neighborhoods where the 2012 data collected by the city show the rates also should have gone down.

“Dropping the rates in Chinatown and not the other 13 neighborhoods is unfair and is not consistent with city policy. It’s exactly the sort of manipulation that makes people cynical about government,” said Councilmember Tim Burgess, who made a late decision not to join the mayor’s race.

McGinn said the city relied on 2012 data for the change earlier this year and will continue to make adjustments as new information becomes available. And he noted the city had lowered rates in 11 neighborhoods in 2011 (and five more in 2012) where the data showed low use of paid on-street parking.

“We’ll follow the data. Nothing we’re doing in any neighborhood is permanent,” McGinn said.

At recent candidate forums, several of challengers said the high rates and extended hours downtown are hurting businesses.

“While the city may view parking as an easy source of revenue, it’s killing those small restaurants and entertainment venues that get by on thin margins. It’s not an effective way to get people to come through the door,” said Charlie Staadecker, a downtown real-estate broker.

Councilmember Bruce Harrell recently suggested that some of the current paid parking should be free. And former Councilmember Peter Steinbrueck has called for rolling back the evening hours downtown to 6 p.m. and charging the same rates for all neighborhood business districts.

“Many of us still have to drive,” Steinbrueck said at a recent forum, an apparent jab at the bike-riding McGinn.

When the market-driven parking policy was adopted, the goal was to price on-street parking relative to demand so that one or two spaces per block would be available and cars wouldn’t burn fossil fuels circling the blocks for parking.

“It affects everyone in every neighborhood,” said Councilmember Tom Rasmussen, who chairs the Transportation Committee, which oversees implementation of the city parking policy. “Every time we make a change, it sets off alarm bells.”

In 2011, the city raised parking rates downtown to $4 an hour and added evening hours in eight neighborhoods with heavy evening demand, including the Chinatown/International District.

Last year, restaurant owners and community leaders there petitioned the city to re-examine the rates and said the evening hours had caused a sharp drop in business. The neighborhood also was hard hit by construction of the Highway 99 tunnel and a streetcar line being built along its main arterial, South Jackson Street.

The outcry — and accompanying media coverage — prompted McGinn to meet with community leaders. After hearing their concerns, he agreed to conduct a number of studies, including parking demand, business receipts and interviews with visitors to determine what factors affected their decisions to come to the neighborhood.

The results showed that business had dropped 20 to 30 percent since the evening hours went into effect. McGinn responded in February by announcing that evening rates there would be lowered from $2.50 to $1.50 an hour in the district’s core and eliminated in the outlying blocks.

But Burgess and Rasmussen say the parking data, which under city rules is supposed to drive the rate changes, didn’t support the lower rates. Rasmussen held a committee hearing to grill Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) officials about the data.

Their explanations prompted committee member Jean Godden to say, “We seem to be making it up as we go.”

According to figures compiled by the SDOT, evening occupancy in the Chinatown/International District in 2012 was 85 percent, close to the city target of 83 percent to ensure turnover and one to two open parking spaces per block. Under the city policy, the rates should have stayed the same.

The city’s 2012 parking data showed that three other neighborhoods with evening rates, Belltown South, Capitol Hill South and Pike-Pine, were above their target occupancy rates. Pike-Pine, for example, had no available spaces between 6 p.m. and 8 p.m. Under city policy, those rates should have gone up to generate more turnover, but no changes were made.

And 13 neighborhoods had daytime rates below the target occupancy, meaning the rates should go down to generate more parking. No changes were made to those areas either.

SDOT officials said they had agreed not to make any adjustments in 2013, so the public could get familiar with all the changes made to hours and rates in the previous two years. The Chinatown adjustments were part of the 2012 work plan, said Mike Estey, city traffic-control programs manager.

Community leaders in the Chinatown/International District praised McGinn and the city for being responsive to its concerns, especially with streetcar construction going on.

“To say the mayor is playing political favorites when our streets are totally torn up seems like a stretch. It’s pretty clear we’re having problems with access,” said Don Blakeney, executive director of the Chinatown/International District Business Improvement Area.

But Rasmussen said lowering the rates in Chinatown/International District, “doesn’t square with policy and is inconsistent with what we promised.”

He said the goal of the paid parking policy is to be “fair, equitable and predictable” and not to respond only to complaints.

Asked why he thought the rates in Chinatown were lowered, Rasmussen said, “I think the mayor’s office was getting a tremendous amount of pressure from the community. It can’t be justified by the data that’s supposed to determine whether we raise or lower the rates.”

Lynn Thompson: lthompson@seattletimes.com or 206-464-8305. On Twitter @lthompsontimes

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