WALLA WALLA -- Public input Thursday on a possible parking garage for downtown Walla Walla steered city and economic development officials toward more study on the issue.
About 50 business and property owners, as well as interested residents and government representatives, attended an informational meeting at the Marcus Whitman Hotel & Conference Center on the potential for a multilevel parking structure.
The meeting offered the public a glance at design concepts -- a step that Port of Walla Walla officials say is the first actual exploration of layout options in the decades that the parking issue has fueled frustrations for merchants and consumers alike.
The designs from USKH Inc. provided estimates of how many spaces would be added -- 89 to 272; how many stories would be constructed -- three to five; where it would be located -- the city-owned lot on Alder Street behind Macy's; and a possible price estimate -- anywhere from $3.8 million to more than $6 million.
How it would be financed, who would own it, what the cost would be, whether users would be charged for use and numerous other details remain unanswered.
What the preliminary groundwork also couldn't determine was whether the structure is actually needed.
"Do we have a parking problem, or a perception problem?" property owner Charles Potts posed to attendees. "If we have a parking problem, we're not going to solve it with 150 spaces."
He suggested valet service to the existing outlying spots might be a useful alternative to the parking structure that would be constructed next to his building.
Marcus Whitman owner Kyle Mussman said he rarely has experienced trouble finding a spot. "In 21 years, I've only had to go around the block maybe once to find a space," he said.
The Port's own lot for sale across from the hotel often has plenty of open spaces even though the Port has opened the land to the public for parking.
But other business owners disagreed that there's no parking problem. Many said the employees of downtown businesses in particular don't have enough options. Consequently, they shuffle from spot-to-spot in the two-hour parking zone, occupying spaces that could be used by consumers shopping or dining downtown. Skip Cundiff of Falkenberg's Jewelers said he hears complaints from customers daily about the difficulties finding parking.
Drs. Ken and Susan Crawford, who retired from careers in Seattle and moved to Ken's native Walla Walla a year ago, vouched for the need for more parking. For newcomers -- or even returning residents who haven't been here in a while -- it's difficult to navigate Walla Walla's public lots without clear signage pointing the way.
"As an outsider of sorts I can tell you there is a need for more parking," he said.
He said he knows of several people who avoid the downtown area because they don't know where to go.
"If you have to park three blocks away, that's one thing," he said. "But if you have to park three blocks away and don't know where you're going, that's another."
By a show of hands at the meeting, the vast majority of people in attendance said they'd like the Port to continue to pursue further study on the matter. Port Executive Director Jim Kuntz said the agency could work with the city, Walla Walla Valley Chamber of Commerce and Downtown Walla Walla Foundation to chip in on a joint effort.
The parking issue in Walla Walla is one for the ages -- debated fiercely and studied locally over the last several decades. The Downtown Walla Walla Foundation revisited it in 2010 and came away with telling results: More than 2,200 people work downtown daily, but only 1,264 parking spaces are available.
Agostini said the lot behind Macy's is ideal for a structure because it's already owned by the city and is central to downtown businesses. Consumers, he said, are less likely to walk more than three blocks from a parking structure to their destination.
The Port of Walla Walla, whose administrative office is at the Walla Walla Regional Airport, got involved in the study because there had previously never been any data showing how many spaces could be created and at what cost. The Port retained USKH last summer for a study that would cost no more than $6,000. Preliminary findings were first revealed last November at a Port meeting. Kuntz called the study "first base" in the process. "There needs to be some homework done," he said.
Attendees at the meeting also supported exploration of alternative concepts, including the conversion of diagonal parking along Alder Street and the potential effectiveness of meters to generate income to build a parking garage and also serve as a more reliable and consistent tool in parking enforcement.
Vicki Hillhouse can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 526-8321.