In May 2009, councilmembers Kevin Faulconer and Todd Gloria sent a letter to Carol Schultz, executive director of Uptown Partnership, the agency responsible for increasing the parking supply, enhancing pedestrian use, and easing traffic flow in Uptown. In the letter, the councilmembers suggested that the parking agency improve its transparency, representation, and outreach to the Uptown community.
Formed in 1997, Uptown Partnership, a nonprofit community benefit corporation, receives 45 percent of the parking meter revenues — approximately $750,000 annually — collected in Hillcrest, Mission Hills, Banker’s Hill, and Five Points (near Washington Street and Interstate 5). The Uptown Community Parking District is one of six in the City of San Diego. The other districts are in downtown, La Jolla, Pacific Beach, Old Town, and Mid-City, which stretches from University Heights to the College Area and includes Golden Hill. In addition to a five-person staff, the partnership has a board of directors comprising local residents and business people. Each year, Uptown Partnership submits a list of projects and an operating budget to the city council, which votes on whether to renew the agency’s contract.
At the time of the letter, relations between Uptown Partnership and the communities it serves were fractured and contentious. During the May 2009 meeting of the Uptown Planners, the community-planning group for the area, a motion to abolish the parking district fell one vote shy.
A year later, many of the same complaints remain, and new protests over alleged conflict of interest, lack of oversight, and high operational costs at Uptown Partnership have circled the neighborhoods of Banker’s Hill, Five Points, and Hillcrest.
At the intersection of Sixth Avenue and Grape Street in Banker’s Hill, Leo Wilson, chair of Uptown Planners and the Bankers Hill/Park West Community Association, explains his concerns about the partnership.
Wilson objects to the fact that parking-meter revenues from Banker’s Hill, the second highest in the district behind Hillcrest, have been used for projects in other neighborhoods.
According to an Uptown Partnership handout, Wilson is correct. From 1999 to 2009, Banker’s Hill parking revenues amounted to more than $250,000, but only $75,000 was spent on projects in Banker’s Hill. Most of the funds were diverted to Mission Hills, where less than $50,000 was generated but more than $150,000 spent.
And Wilson objects to the high cost of operations at Uptown Partnership. In the current fiscal year, Uptown Partnership’s allocation of meter revenues is $850,280; when parking card and miscellaneous revenue are added, the total income is $978,760. Of that, 36 percent, or $353,760, is budgeted for operational expenditures, including $209,080 for salaries.
“It should be more like 10 percent, like any other agency,” says Wilson. “I mean, this is public money we are talking about.”
He points across Grape Street toward a row of modern townhouses where, he says, one current Uptown Partnership board member, one former board member, and a senior project planner for the partnership reside. Wilson explains his final complaint regarding the parking organization. “Here’s where some members of Uptown Partnership’s board of directors live, and here’s where they want to put in flashing crosswalks, install roundabouts, and reduce the number of lanes of traffic from four lanes to two. They live within 500 feet of the improvements. I’d say there’s some conflict of interest.
“It’s like they want their own little slice of suburban heaven,” he continues. “This is just not an organization that the community respects.”
Northwest from Banker’s Hill, in the Five Points neighborhood, business owners are looking to secede from Uptown Partnership. Now in the process of forming a community development corporation to administer parking meter revenues, they hope to persuade the city council that money collected in Five Points, which will amount to approximately $66,000 for the next fiscal year, should be administered by the community and spent on projects there.
The rebellion started when Uptown Partnership lobbied to form a maintenance assessment district in Five Points. “They were forcing this down our throat,” said attorney and Five Points property owner Jim Mellos during a March 31 phone interview. “Business people were completely ignored, and Uptown Partnership was basically trying to pit residents against the business people.”
The move to cut Five Points loose from the Uptown parking district will go to a vote at the Uptown Planners this summer; then it will go to the mayor’s office and to the city council.
Up the hill from Five Points, in Hillcrest, the situation isn’t much better. A recent study indicated that Hillcrest was 100 parking spaces short of demand, and in 13 years, since Uptown Partnership was formed, only 15 spaces have been added to Hillcrest’s parking supply.
And then there are the concerns about high overhead and proposals for what many residents consider misguided projects.
Uptown Partnership plans to tap into the $3.5 million in its reserves to fund projects that many in the community oppose. Among those projects is a proposal to spend $561,000 to replace all 1458 parking meters in the district with single-head meters that take credit cards and operate on solar power instead of nine-volt batteries. The new meters would make it easy to adjust rates and extend metered hours, a change that many residents fear is the first step in raising rates, as outlined by the mayor in his Parking Meter Utilization Plan.
In addition to replacing the meters, Uptown Partnership wants to give $1 million to the future Mission Hills–Hillcrest Branch Library at Washington and Front streets. The “investment,” as the parking organization calls it, would add an additional 25 parking spaces to the neighborhood. Residents, however, feel the expenditure is an inappropriate use of parking meter revenue. In addition, they say the location of the library is too far from Hillcrest’s congested business district to ease the parking there.
Tim Gahagan, who has lived in Hillcrest for 25 years, attends Uptown Partnership’s monthly meetings. “When I heard about the progress — or lack of progress — that our local parking-solving organization had made over the previous 12 years, I was pretty unhappy,” he says. “I became even more upset when I heard that money that had been allocated to create parking had been budgeted to buy new meters. And when I heard these new meters could be used to change meter rates with the flip of a computer switch, I was infuriated. And then this $1 million donation to the library is just ridiculous.