Parking garage planning, funds get go-ahead

Amid bickering, City Council makes downtown parking garage a priority.

Tom Haggar knew his campaign for a downtown parking garage was nearing its end – one way or another – when he received junk mail advertising his options for the hereafter.

“Two days ago I got this letter that said, ‘Tom, more and more people are choosing cremation,’” said Haggar, the owner of the Virginia Mason Winslow clinic property. “I started getting a little nervous.

“I hope we can have some real progress on the parking garage soon.”

The City Council on Wednesday assured Haggar he can rest in peace, including planning for a publicly managed downtown parking garage as part of a Winslow Tomorrow priority work plan.

The council, after hearing numerous residents and downtown business owners express support for the measure, linked the proposal to a list of Winslow Tomorrow projects slated to begin this year.

The list, as drafted by the council’s Finance and Personnel Committee, includes substantial upgrades for Winslow Way and other transportation network improvements.

With just under $3 million slated for the projects in 2006, city staff aim to begin work on project designs, site analyses and other preliminary planning this year. Further action on the parking garage would require additional approval in the city budget and possibly tax-supported bonds to pay for construction.

The council also named the probable site of the proposed parking structure, giving the nod to a city-owned parking lot and hillside between Madrone Lane and the Town Square.

The council also agreed that the garage should consider the cultural needs of the community, including a possible arts-related structure capping the garage.

Haggar has long looked for a way to expand the cramped Virginia Mason clinic while keeping it downtown, where it serves as an anchor holding the island’s community center firmly in Winslow.

He and Town & Country Market owner Larry Nakata say the garage would help ease the increasing need for parking and allow both businesses more room to grow. These needs have long been discussed, even prior to the Winslow Tomorrow project.

“I recently found an old invitation cordially inviting me to be part of creating a stronger, more vital downtown,” he said. “It was dated 1996. It was (before) Winslow Tomorrow. There’s been a general attempt (to improve downtown) for over 10 years.”

The decision Wednesday to include the parking structure in initial Winslow Tomorrow work plans didn’t come easy for the council.

Some councilors had hoped to study a broader range of parking options before committing to a parking structure that could cost up to $15 million.

“Someone somewhere cherry-picked this one and now we’re hearing, ‘Let’s not assess this option, let’s just do it,’” said Councilwoman Debbie Vancil. “When we talk about spending $10 million, $12 million of your money, don’t you want to know the economic feasibility (of the project)? All that has got to be known before we start writing checks.”

Councilman Bob Scales said he had hoped to craft an overall master plan for implementing Winslow Tomorrow before moving forward with specific projects.

“I think we’re going in the opposite direction of the Winslow Tomorrow process - which is to look holistically, to look at everything,” he said. “I have a difficult time picking one project without a holistic process.

We need to take additional steps (because) I think we’re getting away from the strengths of Winslow Tomorrow.”

Sandy Fischer, manager of the Winslow Tomorrow project, countered that the parking garage should move forward along with other numerous other recommended parking strategies.

“I think what’s beginning to frustrate me is that (the council) keeps using the word ‘or,’” she said. “It think you should use ‘and.’

“There’s a whole list of recommendations that was part of the whole strategy.”

Initial work on the parking garage would include assessments of the building site and traffic impact studies, according to Fischer. Putting off these first steps could delay the garage’s recommended completion date of 2010.

Fischer used a car analogy to drive home her point.

“Rather than sitting around running the gas until it runs out, we need to move and start correcting course direction as we go.”

Councilman Bill Knobloch said the council should put more faith in city staff as it implements Winslow Tomorrow’.

“Can’t the council stop nitpicking and let staff do its job?” asked Councilman Bill Knobloch, expressing his fear that the council was getting “bogged down in bureaucratic rhetoric.”

Knobloch’s comments elicited applause from the large crowd gathered at City Hall and echoed much of the public’s testimony earlier in the evening.

“At mid-day, you can’t find a parking spot anywhere,” said John Ellis, who owns commercial property downtown. “You’re just driving around, burning your precious $3 a gallon gas. The parking garage is a key component to the success of the Winslow of the future. Let’s take action today. We needed it a long time ago.”

According to Seabold resident Steward Walton, the parking garage received strong support from the citizen-driven Winslow Tomorrow process.

“The public of this island have spoken very loudly for the construction of a parking garage,” he said to the council. “It’s time for you to move forward with your support.”

Cris Beatty of the Bainbridge Island Downtown Association said “property owners need a solid commitment to encourage further development in downtown. Developing a parking site is the first priority.”

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