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October 4th, 2006 Josh Silverman | News Stories
 

Street Of Schemes

Portland City Commissioner Sam Adams proposes parking meters for Hawthorne, saying they worked in Pasadena. So we went to Pasadena to check them out.

     
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CALIFORNIA DREAMING: Would parking meters along Hawthorne Boulevard lead it to looking one day like Disney-fied Old Pasadena?
IMAGE: MATT WONG
Portland City Commissioner Sam Adams wants businesses on Southeast Hawthorne Boulevard to consider the prospect of parking meters along their trendy strip.

When Hawthorne businesses fire back with concerns that meters would drive shoppers to areas such as Lloyd Center with free parking, Adams says the meter revenue could help them fight off bigger competitors. His premise: Meters would help to manage increasingly tight parking and generate cash for programs that could benefit the neighborhood.

"I'm worried about competition with the Internet, the march of big-box retailers, and the skyrocketing cost of living," Adams says, "which is why innovative, weird-ass ideas like these make it to the table."

And for proof of how the idea could help Hawthorne, Adams points to a Southern California shopping district that credits its recent economic boom in part to a similar meter strategy.

But a closer look at the parking meters installed 15 years ago in the "Old Pasadena" district instead reveals a cautionary tale for Adams and others open to putting meters on Hawthorne.

In the early '90s, the city of Pasadena's historic shopping district was rebounding from a huge economic slump that had left buildings vacant and streets filthy. And that, in turn, led to an urban revitalization plan in Old Pasadena that included the restoration of historic buildings and the construction of parking garages, aimed at making the area more attractive to shoppers.

Like Hawthorne businesses now, the longtime Old Pasadena business owners balked at another key component of the plan: installing parking meters.

Marsha Rood, former manager of the Old Pasadena project, says business owners eventually provided wary support when it became clear the net meter revenue would remain in the area. Adams has similarly promised that meter revenue would remain in the Hawthorne neighborhood and be distributed by local groups.

On-street meters charging $1 per hour with a two-hour time limit began in Pasadena in 1993. The revenues have been used to fund a $5 million Streetscapes and Alley Walkway Plan and continue to underwrite cleaning, maintenance and security. Old Pasadena's annual sales volume has increased from $102 million in 1993 to $220 million in 2005, according to Rood.

And UCLA professor Donald Shoup, author of the 2005 book The High Cost of Free Parking, which uses Old Pasadena's as a case study for a successful parking strategy, says residents have come to support meters since every parked car from outside the neighborhood is paying for area improvements.

Yet a recent visit to Old Pasadena also reveals those old-time businesses may have been right to be scared that meters would lead to their demise.

Old Pasadena's longtime business owners agree that meters have significantly boosted business by funding revitalization programs and better managing parking. But they also say the area's commercial success forced out nearly every independent store in the area, making it into an eight-square-block commercial wonderland.

The buildings have been restored to their original 1920s architecture, the streets are spotless, and yellow-shirted "guides" walk the streets, providing a security presence while pointing shoppers to the nearest Gap or Forever 21.

In fact, it feels a lot like Disneyland, with a historical hyper-authenticity, in which most independent coffeehouses and stores say they've been priced out. They say that happened when other businesses wanting in the "new and improved" Old Pasadena shelled out thousands more than current tenants, allowing property owners to double their rents.

Fritzie Culick, owner of the popular Pasadena music supply store Old Town Music, says secondhand shops, used bookstores and cozy cafes left because these independent businesses couldn't increase sales as quickly as property owners increased rents.

Today, this high-rent environment makes it nearly impossible for independents to break in, says Lynn Ballestero, executive assistant at the area's only independent coffee shop, the Equator. "Chains can have a few bad months and make it up at Christmas or whatever. Independents can't afford that."

Has Old Pasadena become a victim of its own success? Culick—whose music supply store survived the area's rapid commercial growth by moving into the basement of an upscale restaurant—pauses before responding: "Using the word 'victim' is not fair. I'm not complaining. I've benefited from the changes."

Still, it's clear Culick feels something has been lost. "Old Town used to be funky, fun, different," Culick says. "This could be anywhere in the U.S., except for the architecture and the alleyways and backstreets."

Despite what's happened in Old Pasadena, Adams still believes parking meters are worth considering in Portland along Hawthorne, especially if neighborhood groups use the meter revenue to fund programs that directly combat gentrification. For example, he says, Hawthorne groups could start a land trust, in which land owned by the city or business association could be leased at below-market rates to businesses the community considers appropriate and constructive for the area. Additionally, they could advertise the area and feature independent businesses.

Adams also remains skeptical that a causal link can be drawn between installation of meters and gentrification in Old Pasadena. He says how a meter plan is implemented has a lot to do with its outcome and suggests that meters installed under his watch would have a very different effect than in Old Pasadena.

But John Chassaing, president of Showcase Music & Sound at 3401 SE Hawthorne Blvd., says Portland should simply provide greater enforcement of current time limits on free parking along Hawthorne if it wants more revenue and higher vehicle turnover.

"As a native Oregonian, I find it amusing," Chassaing says. "Why would we want to copy California?"

 
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