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Town Center parking confusion on Mercer Island remains unsolved

The City Council brainstormed ideas on what to do about crowded parking downtown, where there is little space for people making a variety of stops in the downtown core. - File photo/Mercer Island Reporter
The City Council brainstormed ideas on what to do about crowded parking downtown, where there is little space for people making a variety of stops in the downtown core.
— image credit: File photo/Mercer Island Reporter

Nearly half a dozen cars lined up outside the 77 Central building on 77th Avenue S.E. last Saturday. Unfortunately for the owners of these cars, they were illegally parked in a driving lane. All it took was one confused driver to pull over and set the e-brake, and soon others followed suit. One after the other, until the whole lane was filled.

The confusion is understandable. Late last year, the city redefined the Town Center’s streetside parking rules. Unregulated zones became two-hour zones and permit-only spots opened up to the general public. The plan was designed to “better meet the needs of Island residents who want to park and shop at Town Center businesses.” It is there to promote downtown shopping and meet the needs of Island residents.

Indeed, many are dissatisfied with the downtown parking situation. There is plenty of open space — the vast parking lots of QFC, Walgreens, Rite Aid or Albertsons, for example — yet these spots are restricted for retail shoppers only. If you want to run various errands downtown, you may be pressed to find a free spot on the street. But the city aims to change all of this.

During last week’s City Council Planning Session, the topic of improving the Town Center’s parking immediately fell into discussion.

Former Development Services Director Steve Lancaster, who recently began working for the city of Tukwila, returned to the Island to speak at the planning session about Town Center development.

Lancaster admitted that “parking is an issue.”

“We don’t really have a parking supply problem. Aerial photos show that there’s a lot of empty parking spaces; but they’re not accessible to people who want to use them for certain types of trips,” he said. “It’s hard to manage when 90 percent is private property.”

But there are some things the city can do. Re-striping for streetside parking (as was done outside Noah’s Bagels along 28th Avenue S.E. in September) and adding more two-hour and four-hour zones is one answer. The other is developing large-scale parking lots for retail shopping. Underground parking in The Mercer building and Island Square are two such examples.

City Manager Rich Conrad suggested that there were plans “to turn the Walgreens and empty gas station lot [at the base of S.E. 24th Street] into parking lots for access to the light rail station [when it arrives in 2020].”

The demand for parking will double once light rail’s Mercer Island “East Link” station, to be located near the current Park and Ride, arrives. Islanders who want to ride the East Link train will have to compete with other Eastsiders for parking.

Another option for the Town Center is a concept called “shared parking.” Essentially, this means that retailers with more parking spaces than city rules provide for can offer to share these spaces with a neighboring merchant. That way, shoppers can park in certain stalls and visit more than one store without being penalized.

This system, however, is something of a last resort.

“Some communities have had success in forming parking associations, but there needs to be a real problem first,” Lancaster said. “I haven’t seen Mercer Island reach that threshold yet.”

As for now, Islanders will have to settle for the streetside spaces available.

City officials remind drivers to watch carefully for new changes in parking time limits. The grace period that police allowed at the end of last year is over. At this point, any car that chooses to pull over and stay in front of 77 Central could end up with paperwork flapping from its front windshield.

For more information on Town Center parking rules, call Joyce Trantina at 275-7720 or visit www.mercergov.org/TownCenterParking.

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