Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal
Last December, Keri Piehl said she and many fellow Nob Hill merchants were surprised and confused by what they saw happening outside their doors: city parking enforcement employees issuing citations.
“People were like, ‘Why am I getting a ticket?'” Piehl, owner of Color Wheel Toys said.
That’s because the city traditionally offers free parking in Nob Hill, Old Town and Downtown for about a month between Thanksgiving and Christmas. But in 2019 the city limited the free holiday parking benefit to seven days. Piehl said customers were so conditioned to ignoring meters in December that she felt compelled to warn them. She personally placed small notes on several parking meters to grab their attention and let them know 2019 was different.
“We just didn’t want people to have a takeaway of visiting Nob Hill and finishing their enjoyable holiday trip with a ticket,” said Piehl, who is on the board of Nob Hill Main Street.
What Nob Hill merchants saw then was part of a larger trend of increased parking citations in Albuquerque.
The city issued 33,321 parking citations in fiscal year 2020, up 35% from the previous year and 74% from two years ago.
And the 2020 increase would likely have been even bigger if not for COVID-19.
The city did not have parking enforcement staff in April or May due to the pandemic, but the crew had been busy just before the coronavirus arrived in New Mexico. In February, for example, the city issued 4,212 citations, nearly double the number in February 2019.
The Parking Division finished the 2020 fiscal year with $300,000 more in revenue than expenses, according to a spokesman, though it had at one point in the year been on pace to finish with $1.1 million – or about 25% – more revenue than budgeted.
Jacob Fox, who co-owns multiple Nob Hill businesses, said the district’s paid parking and the city’s aggressive enforcement runs counter to broader Central Avenue revitalization goals. He said he does not see the necessity of parking enforcement and would prefer it if the public could park for free in the area to give them an incentive to visit the city’s “urban center.”
“At least until the demand requires some sort of control, so maybe not (free) forever,” said Fox, whose businesses include Little Bear Coffee, And Stuff and a rum bar. “But it doesn’t make any sense to me to make parking not free both Downtown and Nob Hill.”
City Council President Pat Davis, who represents the Nob Hill area, said he and Downtown representative Isaac Benton last year requested the usual monthlong free parking period during the holidays, but the decision to shorten the period was ultimately up to Mayor Tim Keller’s administration.
Davis said he understands why some business owners may view parking enforcement as a potential deterrent for customers, especially when there is a push to bring people back to a corridor that has struggled in recent years. If there is community will to do away with it, he said, the city has a process for reviewing it.
But he said businesses have in the past actually tended to ask for the opposite – more regular patrols to prevent people from hogging the best parking spaces for hours on end.
“I think we have to just be careful that taking those meters away or not enforcing them at all has generally been problematic for businesses who want to have the most prime spaces right in front of their businesses available for customers and not for some other businesses’s employees,” Davis said.
The city’s Parking Division monitors 1,680 parking meters and about 4,100 total parking spaces. It is financially self-supporting. It gets no money from the city’s general fund and keeps any surplus for its own initiatives.
The citation surge is the result of updated technology and adding three enforcement employees after what a spokesman said was years of understaffing. It previously lacked the staff to patrol full days during the week or Saturday shifts, said Johnny Chandler, a spokesman for the Department of Municipal Development, which includes parking.
Nine of the division’s 39 current employees are authorized to issue citations, which range from $20 to $350. Enforcement, Chandler said, ensures businesses with on-street parking have spots for their customers and also contributes to community safety, such as helping keep fire lanes clear.
The division listens to community feedback, he said.
“We regularly meet with business owners or neighborhood associations,” Chandler wrote in emailed answers to Journal questions. “Meter placement and enforcement are in places that are necessary. We are committed to providing a safe and fair parking experience.”
But Fermin Aguilar, who lives in the Albuquerque High Lofts at Central and Broadway, said enforcement is overzealous, officers are nitpicky and the policies are not user-friendly. He said he recently received a citation for parking on the street outside his building because the strip of pavement he chose was not painted as an official stall. The space was not otherwise problematic, he said, as it was not a fire zone or encroaching on a stop sign.
Aguilar said he wanted to contest it, but that requires going to Metropolitan Court – which he worried would be a long process that could add late fees to his citation if he was unsuccessful.
“They make it hard,” said Aguilar, who said the system seems designed so that residents find it easier to just pay the citations than fight them.
Aguilar said he ultimately paid the citation.