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Originally published April 17, 2007 at 12:00 AM | Page modified April 17, 2007 at 2:00 AM

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Guest columnists

Massive zoo garage unnecessary

Facing looming budget shortfalls in 2008, why is the Seattle City Council still considering spending scarce resources on a controversial...

Special to The Times

Facing looming budget shortfalls in 2008, why is the Seattle City Council still considering spending scarce resources on a controversial $30 million, 700-car parking garage at Woodland Park Zoo?

In 2004, the City Council was told this massive garage would solve the zoo traffic and parking problems, but we now know the council never received crucial details to make an informed decision.

This isn't a NIMBY issue, it's a "need" issue.

At a recent public hearing on zoo garage financing, zoo board members and staff insisted that this 700-car garage was "essential " to serve a "growing" zoo. The Woodland Park Zoological Society, which manages the city-owned zoo, claims that its visitors "overflow" the existing parking lots on 100 days each year.

But its own environmental-impact statement confirms the little-known fact that "on days when parking demand exceeds supply, it typically does so for only a few hours." At most, it's 14 percent of the zoo's annual operating hours, according to the EIS. For over half the year, the zoo closes its north entrance, and the adjacent parking lot sits empty.

This isn't a parking-capacity problem, it's a parking management problem. Plenty of other zoos have midday parking problems. But they publish that fact on their Web sites and encourage their visitors to come at other times to avoid the crowds.

Educating visitors about the midday parking situation is a basic first step the Zoological Society has never taken.

We also now know that the Zoological Society justified a 700-car garage by assuming its visitors would not be allowed to park on the public streets surrounding the zoo. While neighbor after neighbor emphasized they welcomed zoo visitors parking in front of their houses, no garage fan explained why the ample free street parking shouldn't count in addressing the zoo's parking "needs." After all, Qwest Field doesn't provide on-site parking for a capacity crowd, nor does any other regional entertainment facility.

How many visitors does the Zoological Society think it can fit inside at the same time? The zoo property isn't getting any bigger. In an August 2006 news release, the zoo boasted of daily record-breaking crowds. We're told 11,000 showed up for the 2007 Bunny Bounce. If parking was such a problem, how did they all get there? They parked on the neighborhood streets.

Indeed, free street parking is just too tempting, and that makes the garage, proposed for the zoo's west side, a$30 million gamble against human nature. The zoo's own data reveal that more than 40 percent of zoo visitors prefer free street parking to paid on-site parking.

A new city analysis predicts a $16 million loss on this garage over 20 years, even with massive neighborhood parking restrictions, and even greater losses without restrictions. That means the city would need to rewrite its laws to force unwanted parking restrictions on the 1,000-plus families who live within a few blocks of the zoo, just so it could force zoo visitors to park on site and spend even more on an increasingly expensive zoo visit.

Paradoxically, it would also need to rewrite its laws to sell "passes" for zoo visitors to park on the otherwise restricted streets on those busy days when midday zoo visitors wouldn't find on-site parking even with the garage. It's a preposterous strategy. And, what about the Zoological Society's promise to keep the zoo affordable? On May 1, the unprecedented 50-percent admissions-fee increase takes effect and a family of four will have to pay $50. That doesn't include the extra parking fee.

Sadly, in a city with a comprehensive-plan policy to "[use] low-cost parking management strategies ... to encourage more efficient use of existing parking supply before pursuing more expensive off-street parking facility options," we are about to subsidize one of the largest garages in the city, in a historic city park — wiping out the sunset views from the popular Zoo Tunes meadow with a four-level, acre-sized garage that would be larger than the new garages at Northgate and Southcenter malls and occupy more parkland than the zoo allows for its elephants.

The Phinney Ridge Community Council and others have proposed alternatives for adding smaller amounts of additional zoo parking, and other ways to manage zoo parking demand, but the Zoological Society isn't interested. It doesn't mind using its donors' money or taxpayers' money to pay for an oversized garage that can't pay for itself. But the City Council should mind. It now knows it made a bad deal because of bad information. It's time to renegotiate that deal before it's too late.

Irene Wall is president of the Phinney Ridge Community Council. Esther Bartfeld is a community council board member.

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