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Bill Lynch: Sonoma’s 70-year-old parking problem

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The Sonoma City Council just recently examined its options regarding the short supply of parking in downtown Sonoma.

Reading that story in the I-T was, as Yogi Berra once said, “Like deja vu all over again.”

One of the first things I did in 1969 when I returned home from Vietnam and went back to work for the family newspaper was to get involved with the Sonoma Plaza Merchants Association.

Active members of that group included Sonoma’s first alcalde, August Pinelli, whose Mission Hardware store at the corner of East Napa Street and First Street East was where locals shopped for everything from washing machines, hammers and saws to dinnerware.

Many other downtown merchants were involved, including Dan Ruggles, who ran the art and music store on First Street West where Sign of the Bear is now. Dan was one of the leaders and frequently served as board president. Wayne Peterson, whose Vineyard Jewelers store was located on East Napa Street in those days, served on the association’s parking committee.

We’d meet every week. The most frequently discussed topic was parking.

August, who had been a merchant on the Plaza since his teen years, was what you might call a “parking hawk.” He frequently pointed out that every parking space on the Plaza was worth many thousands of dollars a year to local businesses, and that business owners and operators should never park their own cars in those valuable spaces, nor should they allow their employees to do so.

Committees and study groups were formed and compiled studies and reports and the discussion went on for years. Many times the subject was brought to the city council for action, which never came.

On more than one occasion, a downtown-parking district with taxing power was proposed for the purpose of buying or leasing and developing off-street parking.

Such proposals ran into opposition from commercial property owners (who were leasing their property to store operators), and non-retail business owners on the Plaza like real estate agents.

While the Plaza retail merchants were solidly behind active solutions, they could never garner enough support from others, including those who served on the city council, to form a district or acquire space behind or near the Plaza for additional parking.

Had such a plan been in place then, perhaps the problem would not exist today.

But the irony is that awareness of the downtown parking challenges precede even my experience in the 1970s. It goes back to at least 1948 when some local civic leaders suggested the city install parking meters around the Plaza. Even that long ago, it was acknowledged that parking in downtown Sonoma was a challenge that would get more severe as years went by.

That discussion became a regular topic during the city council meetings of 1949, 1950 and well into the middle of the decade. Meters were never a popular solution to the parking challenges, but their discussion led eventually to implementation of parking time limits.

Even those parking limits set off a different controversy when, in the 1970s, some non-retail Plaza business owners were reported rubbing the chalk marks placed on their Plaza-parked cars by a parking enforcement officer.

Parking solutions became a “third rail” issue that, while a frequent topic in some downtown circles, was never effectively addressed because most solutions were expensive and unpopular.

Like many intransigent problems it has only gotten worse with time.