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December 8, 2023

Paid Parking Comes to Healdsburg

Downtown 43-car lot becomes battleground in race for parking

The blue “P” sign on Healdsburg Avenue, just north of the roundabout, is positioned on the east side of the street between two driveways. Turning into the first takes cars into Lot E, a city-owned lot of 48 parking spaces, most free for up to three hours, some with no time limit at all. 

Turning into the second driveway brings drivers into the private paid lot behind The Matheson, the three-story building at 104-108 Matheson St. that was redeveloped in 2019 following a lengthy process of public engagement and appeal. The lot is privately-owned, and signs on the parking stalls clearly state it’s a pay-to-park lot, though with validation possible at The Matheson restaurant. 

In recent weeks, the operator of that lot, AirGarage, has come under study by the City of Healdsburg for several potential issues, including the lack of a city business license, inadequate posting about towing and their right to issue tickets for unpaid parking. 

AirGarage describes itself as “a full-service smart parking management solution that turns your lot into a revenue generating asset.” Now based in San Francisco, it was founded in 2017 in Tempe, AZ with the idea of having people rent out their driveways to college students for parking. The company is hard to contact directly and did not respond to press questions for this story.

“We started AirGarage after researching a bunch of different options,” said Dustin Valette, co-owner with Craig Ramsey of the building and its restaurants. “The concern we’re having is a lot of people who were not patrons of the restaurant were parking in the parking stalls. And we were getting complaints from our patrons…” 

Valette said they chose AirGarage because “it seemed to us like the cleanest, simplest version” of a system to manage parking. Scanning the QR code or texting the message number, customers log in with their credit information and license plate number, and are charged $3.50 an hour—until they log out to stop the clock.

Customers of The Matheson and Roof 106 receive a validation code on their meal receipts, which is good for up to two hours of parking in the lot. Valette said they do get a percentage of the parking charges collected, but declined to say what it was.

General Plan Questions

Jon Eisenberg, the retired local lawyer who has raised a number of questions about AirGarage, the parking lot and its ownership, in recent weeks has focused attention on the lot’s compatibility with the city’s General Plan. 

A general plan is widely perceived as the blueprint for how a local government meets its long-term goals, the city’s aspirations for the future. The Healdsburg 2030 General Plan was produced in 2015. It includes the policy, “The City will continue to provide off-street public parking to support businesses in the Downtown Parking Exception area in order to make the most attractive use of the downtown core while directing parking to its periphery.” 

Eisenberg holds that “the operation of pay-to-park private parking lots in the City of Healdsburg’s downtown core is inconsistent with the off-street parking element of the Healdsburg General Plan.” 

His worries are echoed by Brigette Mansell, the former Healdsburg City Council member and mayor, who said, “This current direction is in conflict with, inconsistent with, the notion of payment for parking in the City of Healdsburg. The city council voted against paid parking in our Downtown District.”

The city commissioned parking studies from Walter Parking Consultants in 2013 and 2017, with the latter specifically stating, “Based on instructions from city staff, for the purpose of this analysis, from both revenue and parking management standpoint, we assume that neither on- nor off-street public parking will be priced.”

CITY PARKING The City of Healdsburg’s downtown parking map, showing where the city offers free public parking in the downtown area. (City of Healdsburg)

Pay to Park

However, the clear distinction is that the parking lot at 230 Healdsburg Ave. is a private lot, not public. “How they manage the lot with respect to their tenants is up to them,” said Scott Duiven, the city’s community development director, while reviewing the terms of the project’s approval in 2019.

“I don’t believe that our general plan or land use code prohibit a property owner from charging for parking. What is at issue is AirGarage’s conformance to the California Vehicle Code with respect to signage and their ability to issue fines for those that don’t pay,” said Duiven. “Those are the issues that staff are looking into.”

Eisenberg counters, “Vehicle Code section 21107.8 says a private property owner may issue parking tickets if—and only if—it’s authorized by a city ordinance. Healdsburg has no such ordinance. Absent such an ordinance, it’s flat-out illegal in Healdsburg.”

Over the past few weeks, AirGarage has suspended their ticketing and fining of vehicles, replacing them with a kinder, gentler method. As Valette described it, an AirGarage employee, who regularly surveys the lot, leaves a written warning on cars that haven’t registered, saying essentially, “Hey, this is paid parking! Please pay here.”

Neither have they towed any vehicles, at the Healdsburg Avenue lot or the one at North and Center, which AirGarage also services. “That’s not the goal,” said Eric Drew, owner and manager of that lot. “The goal is to preserve parking for the benefit of the small businesses that are there, when the city has eliminated about 18 spaces within half a block. So we need to manage the site a little bit better than we have in the past.”

Both Drew and Valette say they have implemented the paid parking program because of stress on downtown parking availability, which requires that they manage their available spaces.  

Friends and Neighbors

That 2019 agreement specified that the lot would be for the use of two other businesses on Matheson Street, Copperfield’s Books and Plaza Gourmet. The owner of Plaza Gourmet, Michelle McConnell, said they had received a parking code to allow up to two employees to park in the lot, and seemed satisfied with the program. Employees at the bookstore were less enchanted, but the manager was unavailable for her input.

However, several slots are reserved for companies that do not technically qualify under the 2019 agreement, including the Ivy House BnB and Bacchi Branches.They are both associated with the Bacchi Building at the corner of Matheson and Center, and Brenda Bacchi characterized it as a trade between businesses to allow Dustin Vallete to have outdoor dining during the pandemic period. 

A number of tables and planters were set up in the adjacent Bacchi-owned lot on a platform, cozily invisible to public view. “The city was not involved in that arrangement,” Duiven noted, saying that no permit was necessary for the dining area upgrade.


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