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.
“I’d like for Uptown Partnership to work, but that’s going to be hard,” says Gahagan. “Hillcrest earns the most revenues and has the most need for parking. Besides the 15 spaces on Normal Street, which took ten years to get, there have been studies — that’s all.”
Carol Schultz, Uptown Partnership’s executive director, defended her organization in a March 28 email and rebuffed the claim that Uptown residents are dissatisfied with the parking organization. “Many residents and business people in Uptown support Uptown Partnership and work with our organization to develop and carry out projects,” wrote Schultz. “In a harsh economic climate, such as the one we currently are experiencing, some find it easier to criticize an organization that is investing funds in the community than to roll up their sleeves and do the hard work of making those investments count for the benefit of the community.”
Schultz agreed that there had been an imbalance in the allocation of parking funds among the four communities but said the problem had been addressed. “When calculating the budget for the current fiscal year, Uptown Partnership looked at historic revenues and expenditures by neighborhood and rectified any imbalances. Therefore, the [fiscal year] 2009–10 budget includes $488,200 for Bankers Hill/Park West projects to compensate for the past shortfall and $0 for Mission Hills to compensate for a past windfall. Going forward, each neighborhood will be allocated a percentage of the available funds that corresponds to the percentage of meter revenues it generates.”
Schultz said that Uptown Partnership’s Planning and Projects Committee is not recommending construction of a roundabout and associated installations at either Sixth and Grape or Sixth and Juniper, and she said the proposals won’t be included in the coming fiscal-year budget, though even if they were, Schultz added, “A director who lives in proximity to an improvement funded by Uptown Partnership does not have a financial interest merely because of where he or she lives.”
Asked to respond to concerns expressed in all communities in the parking district that Uptown Partnership is spending too much on overhead, Schultz said that salaries are not a part of overhead. She emailed a definition of overhead from businessdictionary.com and followed it by listing the various items that qualify as overhead at Uptown Partnership: “Overhead, or, indirect costs, at Uptown Partnership comprise the following categories: rent, utilities, office equipment, insurance, office supplies, credit card service charges, printing, postage and shipping, and the like.”
Staff, according to Schultz, is an “integral part of a good or service, and they work on projects and community services on a daily basis. Therefore, their compensation counts as direct labor not overhead. For the current fiscal year, Uptown Partnership’s overhead is 15 percent of its total income.”
And as for the many studies that Tim Gahagan referred to: “Uptown Partnership,” Schultz said, “contracts for professional services when the work required to analyze data and develop a work plan for a project is beyond the scope of the staff’s expertise, for example, if traffic engineering expertise is required.”
The parking agency has reached out to the Uptown neighborhoods, Schultz said. She gave two examples, both of which had been recommended by councilmembers Faulconer and Gloria in their May 2009 letter.
The first example was the decision to increase the number of directors on the partnership’s board from 9 to 12; new directors included an Uptown Planner board member and appointments made by Faulconer and Gloria. The other example was the formation of the Hillcrest Parking Committee, an advisory group that oversees parking projects in Hillcrest and offers recommendations for new proposals to Uptown Partnership’s board of directors.
Added Schultz: “Staff and directors from Uptown Partnership regularly attend meetings of the Hillcrest Town Council and Hillcrest Business Association to provide updates and solicit feedback on issues.”
Some feedback was provided by the Hillcrest Town Council on May 11, when community members voted 18–0 to recommend that parking meters be removed from Hillcrest.
More feedback will come next Wednesday, when the city council’s Public Safety and Neighborhood Services Committee, chaired by Marti Emerald, will vote on whether to send Uptown Partnership’s fiscal year 2011 budget and contract on to the full city council. The city council is expected to hear the issue by the end of June.