By Sarah Yee
Northwest Asian Weekly
It started in 1917. Henry Louie and his family have been in business in the International District (ID) for four generations. They have gone through two world wars and the Great Depression. Even after a few relocations, nothing has separated them from King Street in Seattle. Nonetheless, something is making them consider again.
“My customers pick up noodles that cost $50 and pay a [parking] fine for $38. That’s ridiculous,” said Henry Louie, owner of the Tsue Chong Company.
Parking is no longer free in front of Louie’s noodle factory as in many parts of Chinatown. Recently, the City of Seattle converted many loading zones into paid parking spots. Expensive parking is adding difficulty to business owners and visitors because of the already limited parking space in the International District.
“Now, non-customers utilize these loading zones. Our customers have no place to park, so sometimes they double-park, which is also illegal. This makes it very hard for us to conduct business,” said Louie.
The company is open from 9:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. for customer pick-up. Those are also the hours that the parking violation crew actively patrols the city to issue tickets.
Ming Li, the logistics and production coordinator at Tsue Chong Company, prepares $20 worth of quarters in her drawer. When the parking violation crew comes by, Li is ready to feed the parking meter to avoid tickets for their customers.
“Customers get angry when they come out and see a ticket. It only started half a year ago. Meter men especially pick on us because they know our customers just come and go, and they forget to pay for parking,” Louie commented. “We are not asking for too much. We just want them to get rid of the parking meter so we can have a free yellow loading zone as before. Even 15 minutes is enough.”
The noodle factory owner attempted to discuss the parking issue with the CIDBIA, a nonprofit organization that supports improvement of the International District, and the City of Seattle. So far, they have had little luck in locating the right person to talk to.
When evaluating the need for paid parking, the transportation department utilizes a certain criteria — whether the parking spaces along the block are full more than 75 percent of the time, how well existing rules are enforced, and whether the community has valuable feedback.
According to Louie, the transportation department did not include the last factor in making the decision for their block. The department showed up and posted new signs demanding paid parking with no prior discussion with businesses or neighbors.
Bob Alescio, the sales and accounting representative at the Merchants Parking Association (MPA), sympathizes with the parking situation in the International District. The MPA oversees 15 parking lots in the International District. They issue tickets to violators who abuse parking privileges in the lots paid by businesses for their customers.
However, he says they are usually successful in collecting only 25 percent of the tickets.
Unlike Diamond Parking Services and U-Park Systems, which have more advanced tracking systems to collect fines, MPA is a nonprofit organization that aims to provide affordable parking services and employment opportunities in the ID.
Alescio has been with MPA for 10 years. Besides the City of Seattle’s efforts to drive up revenues, he noticed a major change four years ago that contributed to a significant increase in parking costs in the International District.
“It used to be a big parking lot behind Union Station. Then the Paul Allen buildings, the Vulcan group, and Amazon came in. That drove prices up,” explained Alescio. “Amazon subsidizes parking for their employees. This group can afford to pay more for parking. Even if the parking costs $85 per month, they don’t care. Sometimes they are totally reimbursed,” Alescio said.
Unlike years ago, many people other than those of Asian descent call this area their workplace. Limited and pricy parking presents challenges to smaller businesses, such as the Tsue Chong Company. They don’t have the capacity of expanding parking space with their building.
“We have 40 employees. Most live in Beacon Hill, so they can walk and take the bus to work. I want to promote healthy business in Seattle, yet [with the new parking systems], they discourage me to do it,” Louie remarked. “Parking is an important part of our daily business operation.”
Richard Sheridan, communications manager for Seattle’s Department of Transportation said that in 2006, the City of Seattle began installing pay stations in the ID. “Pay stations are utilized as a parking measurement tool,” said Sheridan. “[They] make sure people don’t overstay.” In 2007, the city decided that if there was paid parking, then loading zones should also be paid.
“The rationale behind that is to prevent abuse,” Sheridan said. “If there were [free] loading zones — people would use those as long-term parking spaces … so the city changed load zones that were unpaid to paid, to make sure they were available to businesses.”
“We want to have conversations with local businesses,” Sheridan continued. “So they understand why we are doing this. We find businesses are understanding and supportive of this.”
Sheridan said the City of Seattle does have records of talking to businesses along South Weller Street in the ID, though he admitted it doesn’t have records of talking to Tsue Chong. He also said the Department of Transportation is very open to talking with businesses about this issue. ♦
Stacy Nguyen contributed to this report. For businesses that wish to speak with the Department of Transportation, call Nora Chin at 206-684-5381 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
Sarah Yee can be reached at email@example.com.