Chinatown’s Paid Parking Mystery Continues to Unfold

by on February 28, 2012

"ID Lanterns" courtesy of our Flickr pool's Slightlynorth

In “Is Chinatown’s Parking Jake or a Joke?” we were scratching our heads over the competing claims that extending paid parking by two hours in the evening in Seattle’s Chinatown had resulted in restaurant business declining by as much as 50 percent.

Don Blakeney, executive director of the Chinatown-International District Business Improvement Area says that, in a survey, about 23 of 70 restaurants open for evening business reported between 30 to 50 percent off their receipts. This seemed hard to credit, in that taking an hour for dinner would cost all of $2.50 at the meter. The public policy wonks at Sightline argued that for at least some restaurants, sales were up.

And then the ball vanished into the comments-section weeds. Was the Sightline sampling representative? (It wasn’t intended to be; they were responding to this characterization in the Seattle Times: “Restaurant owners and community leaders in the Chinatown International District say business is down by as much as 50 percent because of the change.”)

Couldn’t the B&O increase Sightline saw reflect restaurants having to charge their fewer customers more? Were Chinatown diners more price sensitive than you might expect? (Writes Blakeney: “Unlike our sister [neighbor]hoods, we have very few residents–less than a couple thousand–three-fourths of whom are in subsidized housing, and most of whom are seniors.”)

Let’s not let an unhappily-framed Times story set this debate, though, or we’ll be here all week, with precedent set for succeeding weeks.

None of us has reason to suspect Chinatown restaurants of crying wolf over declining business–and the question of what’s causing the decline can be considered separately from what’s to be done about it. Blakeney himself mentions the impact from the “incredible amount of construction and loss of parking in South Downtown,” having to do with the Alaskan Way Viaduct replacement project. Routes have been disrupted, and exacerbated traffic congestion would tend to fall, of course, during the precise hours that parking meters have been extended: 6 to 8 p.m.

As I understand CIDBIA’s position, they object to the extended paid parking as a piling on of impact on a fragile small-business ecosystem. While the City may be happy with a near-80-percent street parking occupancy rate, previously Chinatown had 90 percent, and the jury is out, hard-data-wise, on whether that loss is made up by better parking availability for those willing to pay. Blakeney agrees that “I think everyone agrees that the City needs additional data to be able see what’s at play here in the C-ID.” But if the data already in hand supports evidence of stress on small businesses, it might be better to play doctor than detective, and work to support their health in the short-term.

Here, in full, is Don Blakeney’s response to Sightline’s post:

Dear Sightline Daily Editorial Staff,

I appreciate your attention to the issues that are affecting our neighborhood business district, but am quite concerned about the lack of research that went into an editorial you posted this morning.  In the piece “Is Metered Parking Killing Chinatown? No—Facts take a back seat to anecdotes when it comes to parking,” Eric DePlace calls the very real concerns of our neighborhood businesses nothing more than irrational beliefs—supporting his assertions with only limited and inconclusive B&O data that even the City said they couldn’t stand behind.  I am writing you to highlight the problems with the numbers that you are endorsing.

Last week we sat down with the Mayor’s staff to comb over possible data that could help us better understand what is at play in our neighborhood’s economy.  They looked at September occupancy data (which had dropped 10%) and pulled up the B&O data–however, they were quick to point out that the B&O data available was spotty at best and inconclusive, as 80% of the District’s restaurants reported annually (rather than quarterly) and therefore those restaurants had no data in the system that would reflect dinner sales since the parking hours went into effect.

The quarterly B&O data that Eric received from the Mayor’s office looked at only 14 of the more than 70 restaurants in Japantown and Chinatown—hardly a significant number by any standard.  Furthermore, the data didn’t differentiate between full service establishments and lunchtime-only restaurants that wouldn’t see an impact from evening parking.  Additionally, this data doesn’t distinguish between smaller restaurants and large operations like Uwajimaya or House of Hong that have their own parking lots and may have, as a result, seen an increase in business because of the extended paid parking hours on the streets.  The sheer numbers are also hard to imagine—the $2.98 million quoted in B&O taxes for 4Q11 implies gross receipts of $1.4 BILLION for the 14 restaurants.  The B&O tax rates are different depending on the type of businesses.  Given the $2.98 million in B&O tax, there must be some flaw in the data or very large businesses are included; some of which may not be restaurants at all.

Over the past few months, we have heard from over 70 of our local restaurants that dinner sales have dropped significantly since the Mayor implemented his parking policy to extend paid parking hours.  In response, earlier this year we surveyed more than a third of these restaurants and found that (on average) they reported dinner business was down 30-50%.  This is not city-wide tax data but rather data from our small businesses that warrants further study from the City.  In fact, we are pleased that the City will be surveying customers and parkers over the next month to look at occupancy, in addition to who is parking, and where are they going.  We are also looking at restaurant turnover and other data to hopefully paint a more holistic picture.

I think everyone agrees that the City needs additional data to be able see what’s at play here in the C-ID—but drawing conclusions from such shoddy data is unacceptable for an organization like the Sightline Institute.  Looking at B&O data could eventually be a step forward—until recently, the City had only looked at occupancy data to determine whether their extended hour programs had benefitted a neighborhood business district.  According to an SDOT sweep in September, we have seen a 10% decline in occupancy, but again, this is only one round of surveys last fall, so hardly a smoking gun in and of itself.  We appreciate the recent coverage of the issue, but as you know, it’s hardly a slam dunk for either the City or our neighborhood.  Honestly, if there are restaurants that are performing well as a result of the Mayor’s new parking policy, it would be helpful to know, so that perhaps we (and others) could learn from their successes.

The bottom line is that I am very concerned that your article is founded on broad interpretations of very limited data that as I have pointed out above inconclusive at best and at worst misleading.  I am also concerned that these claims have now become the basis for a multitude of other postings on this issue across the city—here, and here.  I ask that you please retract the article, or at the very least amend it to include more information about the limited data from which your assumptions and broad generalizations were drawn.  I would be happy to discuss the information above.  Thank you again for your attention to this important issue and feel free to contact me directly in the future if you need information about the District.

2 thoughts on “Chinatown’s Paid Parking Mystery Continues to Unfold

  1. Oh dear. 1) Gross receipts 2) the point is data talks, not chicken-little.

    Why take it down? What’s he afraid that these articles will do? Make people not show up to the ID?! That doesn’t make any sense…

    I’m concerned.

    • Whoops. Point 2 doesn’t make much sense. Let it re-read 2) data makes valid talking points, not hyperbolic, off-the-cuff statements with hearsay as the only backbone.

      I still do not see why he wants it taken down… it’s no more misleading than the Times’ article– it just isn’t insanely hyperbolic.