4

The Parking Posse

Jeff Conn is an urban hunter.
Each weekday morning at 7:15, Conn bounces down the seven steps from his home in Alamo Placita Park and starts walking to his job in downtown Denver. The walk--the hunt--will take precisely 25 minutes.

"I bet we don't see anything today" Conn says. "Wouldn't that be funny?"
A computer contractor, Conn is dressed in a white short-sleeved shirt that tucks into his blue jeans, which are held up by a brown leather belt. The head of one silver pen pokes out of his shirt pocket, and a digital watch with a bubbly black band wraps around his wrist. Conn keeps a good pace, striding quickly in his blue Nike running shoes. He parts his sandy blond hair in the middle and keeps a nicely trimmed mustache. He wears Terminator-style wraparound sunglasses.

His weapon: a Motorola cell phone the size of a credit card.
"There's one right there," Conn says. Up ahead, three-quarters of a block away, the back wheels of a gray, four-door Chevy Lumina are sticking out obnoxiously into a "No Parking" zone.

Out comes the cell phone.
With the thumb of his right hand, Conn dials the city's parking-management office from memory, never breaking stride as he turns the corner toward downtown.

"Yeah. Got a car parked illegally on the southwest corner of Fifth and Pennsylvania. Thanks. Bye."

Jeff Conn didn't become a parking vigilante overnight. And he didn't do it solely for himself.

Five years ago, when Conn lived near Second and Grant avenues, the Denver Art Students League moved in nearby. Students looking to avoid parking fees found plenty of free spots in the neighborhood--many in front of Conn's home. Conn

rallied his fellow residents to file a petition with the city that restricted parking to residents only.

"The signs went in right away," Conn recalls, "but the enforcement took forever."

After the threat of the signs wore off, the students returned to the free, unfettered parking. Conn called the city's parking-management office each day. Two, three, four times a day.

"This whole thing started because they wouldn't enforce," Conn says. "If they would enforce, then they won't have a parking problem. If I get a ticket for parking on the wrong side of the street on a cleaning day, I remember. So do others."

Several neighborhoods now face the same plight as Conn's once did, thanks in part to Denver's population boom. Near University Hospital, where 7,000 employees search for parking spots each weekday morning, vigilante residents have forced the city to install restrictions within a one-mile radius of Ninth Avenue and Colorado Boulevard. Around the Bluebird Theater on East Colfax Avenue, residents complain to city and parking officials that rowdy clubgoers suck up curb space. All throughout Capitol Hill, constituents are impatiently waiting for the city to implement a plan to create more parking spaces within the district. And in the Old South Gaylord neighborhood, east of Washington Park, homeowners and merchants are resorting to city-sponsored mediation over what to do about the crowded streets.

On April 1, the city's parking-management office made its first change in enforcement strategy since "forever," says assistant parking director Tom Reilly.

But Conn calls parking management an "inefficient mess" and says continual nagging is the surest way a citizen can reclaim his curb.

"I don't get a kick out of doing this," Conn says as he flips his cell phone shut and continues to scan sidewalks and crosswalks. "But you gotta do what you gotta do. I like to keep them on their toes."

Last April, Highlands Ranch resident Dana Garner was cited for harassment after she spat twice on a neighbor who parked in front of her home. The 42-year-old woman told police she reacted in self-defense after her neighbor refused to move her car and began screaming wildly.

It's a good indication of the level of parking frustration in some Denver neighborhoods.

"Ten years ago we dealt mostly with complaints about tickets and the fairness of them," Reilly says. "'Why did you ticket my car? I

wasn't in the wrong; why did I get the ticket?' Now we've seen a shift from people complaining about tickets to actually requesting us to come and enforce."

Reilly now keeps a list of fourteen neighborhoods--an unprecedented number--where residents are still waiting to meet with parking officials, hoping they can find relief.

Last year the city's parking-management office took in a record $19 million from ticketing, booting, towing and private lots. But the loot didn't come from the neighborhoods where residents are damn near begging for enforcement: For every one ticket issued in residential areas, four were slapped on windshields downtown.

Some residents complain they have been waiting too long for too little.
Brad Cameron, chair of the parking committee for the Capitol Hill United Neighbors association, says residents were hopeful when the city council voted unanimously last spring to adopt the Central Denver Transportation Plan, an attempt to implement "traffic-calming" measures throughout Denver's mid-section over the course of several years. CHUN endorsed the project, which would also create more parking spaces on one-way streets during off-peak hours.

"The city has been slow in implementing them," Cameron says. "Like, as in, not implementing them at all."

Bob Dorroh, acting deputy director of city transportation planning, says the primary focus of the plan is to slow traffic to promote safety so that "driver behavior won't be a detriment to the quality of life that residents are trying to achieve."

Since the plan was accepted, crews have striped curbs for permanent parking along Washington and Emerson streets near Interstate 25, creating just 25 more spaces--but that does nothing for Capitol Hill.

Dorroh says there is no estimation of how many more spaces will be created or when the project will be finished, since the city council intentionally accepted the plan without deadlines. "We have some kind of fuzzy charts in the back with some dates, but it is all subject to things such as funding and not creating any adverse conditions by implementing everything at once," he says.

Capitol Hill should get some relief when off-peak parking spots are added to 13th and 14th avenues. But that may take until the year 2003, when the first of three phases of the plan is tentatively scheduled to be completed. The additional parked cars, Dorroh says, will also serve as blockers to slow traffic.

Still, Cameron says if the city was truly concerned about residents on the Hill, more parking spaces would be a priority. "The frustrating thing," Cameron adds, "is that the city is once again more interested in moving traffic through our neighborhood than in the quality of life in our neighborhood."

City planners may be encountering what they've termed Denver's "hitching-post mentality." When they were mapping downtown parking patterns during the city's renaissance earlier this decade, they realized people believed parking should be available directly in front of their destination. Drivers have since come to be happy with a four-block walk downtown--but it's different when it comes to people's homes.

"Everyone wants to have parking on the street in front of their house," says C.J. Musman, the city's parking-operations analyst. "And they want to have their name on it, as a matter of fact."

Musman says that when residential areas started to fill in with more people and businesses, the territorial fighting began. "Where there was once a single-family home, it has now been converted into three apartments," Musman says. City zoning laws allow one car per licensed driver in each home, plus one additional car. The city zoning department has the authority to change that policy at any time, but it hasn't been revised since 1982.

Musman works with neighborhood groups, such as the one near the new Mile High Stadium, to solve parking dilemmas. But he is critical of attempts to solve the crisis with xenophobic resident-only permits.

The permits give residents free rein and unlimited parking time at select curbs in their neighborhood, while outsiders without tags are often restricted to a two-hour time limit. Five years ago the city issued 8,000 tags to neighborhood residents; by last year, that number was up to 11,000.

Near the new Mile High Stadium, residents are already meeting in anticipation of the Sunday-afternoon nightmares, Reilly says. Like junkies in the throes of desperation, the first thing they asked for were the quick-fix permits.

But a few signs and a sticker won't fix neighborhood parking problems, Musman insists.

In the Old South Gaylord area, the fight to get "resident only" permits last spring only created more strife between residents, business owners and the neighborhood association.

"It's not that different anywhere in the city when you have these small business districts totally surrounded by residents," says Susan Casey, councilmember to the district. "[The Old South Gaylord area] just can't serve the two, three, four hundred people who want to come into our neighborhood on a Thursday, Friday or Saturday night. The conflicts are inevitable."

Part of the problem in that neighborhood was the seemingly reckless approval of three liquor licenses on one block in one year. Liquor licenses are approved by state officials who don't consider local concerns when making their decisions, especially in terms of parking, says Casey.

Resident Liz Hill moved into the neighborhood eight years ago and has seen the landscape change.

"It used to be a very quiet business block," Hill recalls. "Now it's a very busy business block."

A Denver business is required to provide parking spaces only if its building was erected after April 22, 1967. In neighborhoods such as Old South Gaylord, where the majority of commerce buildings predate 1967, business owners have no obligation to provide parking, says Raymond Huggins, zoning specialist for the city.

"Is it fair to ask those guys to come up with nineteen striped parking spaces when they were there long before it was a residential zone?" Huggins asks, not willing to answer his own question.

In February of last year, when Hemingway's Key West Grille--one of four clubs near the 1000 block of South Gaylord--started promoting 22-ounce beers for $2 on Thursday nights, neighbors say, patrons' cars quickly cluttered the streets. If Hill and other residents didn't secure parking spaces in front of their homes before the bar rush, they were left to drive in circles around their own blocks.

At the end of last February, Hemingway's agreed to stop the promotion to satisfy the neighborhood association--but some residents wanted more.

They wanted parking spots in front of their homes.
But the neighborhood association, of which Hill was a member, wasn't calling for the permits. Throughout the month of May, they were trying to work with business owners, who enjoyed having customers know they could find parking nearby. Business owners suggested running a valet service for their customers, using an empty church parking lot a few blocks away during the evening. Not surprisingly, the plan was nixed after neighbors living near the church complained, fearing noise and trash.

And when the association hesitated to demand parking permits, a splinter group began circulating a petition.

Hill calls the movement "a real grassroots initiative, for sure."
"I thought it was a slam to the businesses," she says. "We had been working with them so closely through the neighborhood association, and then this was something we did not consult with them at all."

When the petition reached Hill's doorstep (she lives on a corner closest to the action), she refused to sign. By then, most of Hill's fellow neighborhood association members had joined the others and signed the petition. Hill's one-woman protest, she says, "didn't go over well with some of the more militant neighbors."

The petition received 94 percent of the neighborhood's signatures--and only 75 percent had been necessary to win the tags.

In late June, in the heat of the parking debate, Hemingway's general manager Eddie Fleming recalls, one irate neighbor appeared inside his restaurant, complaining that a Hemingway's customer's car was parked in front of his home--not in the driveway, not blocking the sidewalk, but in front of his home. Fleming says the neighbor had returned from a vacation and wanted to unload his car--which he could do only from in front of his house, since he used his garage off the alley in back for storage. Fleming says his bouncer had to calm the man, who raised his voice and was waving his arms.

Parking officials visited at the end of June, but Hill says they were reluctant to give the residents the permits they wanted.

Musman maintains that heavy residential enforcement through permits and restrictions doesn't always solve problems--and more often creates them.

"It just causes hardship for you and your friends," he says. "People coming into the neighborhood don't see the signs and get ticketed, so they call the city to complain that they were only parked in a residential neighborhood. Then people living in the neighborhood get ticketed. Then their guests who come by just for a few minutes get a ticket, and the residents complain that their guests are getting ticketed.

"It's social engineering," he continues. "The permits are not an end-all, be-all to the larger problem at hand. People are just not considerate when they go into other people's neighborhoods."

Even Musman, the city's parking-operations analyst, doesn't have the answer. "What's the solution? I don't know. I don't have the solutions."

Despite discouragement from parking officials, residents of the area persisted, and in August, signs were planted and tags were issued. On Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays, two-hour time limits cover the west side of York, Gaylord and Vine streets.

"On the busier nights, it has hurt our business," says Hemingway's Fleming of the restricted parking. "The biggest problem is that our customers don't see the signs and get tickets. Of course we don't want our customers to come down here and have a bad experience. If they do, they don't come back."

Fleming says the parking restrictions only pushed the problem to another area. "The parking was already bad enough," he says. "And now it's worse on one side of the street."

To make matters worse, since August, more than a dozen residents have complained that they or their guests have been the victims of overzealous enforcers, Hill says. Nonetheless, Hill has flipped her position on the permits. For the most part, she says, parking enforcers are aggressively ticketing offenders, and residents find parking spaces in front of their homes.

"It's not an ideal solution," Hill says. "But I don't know what an ideal solution is. The problem we have is, we have more cars in the neighborhood than we have spaces in the street."

At the end of this month, business owners and residents will enter into mediation sponsored by the city.

Inevitably, the lack of parking doesn't just sour the quality of life in neighborhoods. It also alters the character of the people who live in the neighborhoods.

"The Old South Gaylord situation has gotten much worse over the course of the past four years," Susan Casey says. "The folks who live there are desperate for a solution. And the business owners are, too. They want their customers to have a place to park--they want them to come back. And the residents want to be happy with them."

After a brief moment of silence to reflect on the tumult among her constituents, Casey concludes, "Nobody's happy!"

Last May, Jennifer Vars was hired by parking management to do one thing: make people happy.

"They needed someone who could come in, define the inefficiencies and move from there," she says.

Even before Vars arrived, inefficiencies were easy to spot.
In 1995, Denver's 20,000 illegal parkers had received good news: The city's parking-management office had overcharged them, and they were in for a rebate of $20 each--a correction that cost the city $420,000. Parking-management director Roberta Gilles blamed the snafu on a "computer batch processing" program that was commonly used in large cities.

And a 1989 city audit found that cash-handling within the parking-management office went largely undocumented. According to the audit, "Parking management failed to maintain an incoming check log or consistently issue receipts to contractors for monthly payments. Therefore, we were unable to determine if Parking Management was submitting deposits to the city Treasury within the prescribed period of time." However, the audit states that the office has since changed its ways.

And along with changes in its accounting procedures, the office has revamped its enforcement policy.

Until April 1 of this year, Denver's parking enforcers used the hardly creative strategy of divvying the city into 38 zones. Regardless of need or demand, ticket agents circled their zone for eight hours, looking for violators. If no violators were found, agents simply passed the time by driving around. "Once an agent ticketed an area thoroughly, the problem went away," Reilly says, "but you still had an agent working that zone." And it wasn't until 1995--the same year Coors Field opened and downtown flooded with cars--that the 42 city parking agents worked beyond banker's hours.

But even though more residential permit zones have been sprouting up in Denver, parking management issued fewer tickets in neighborhoods last year than in 1991, the first year it existed as one office and began keeping figures. Residents like Jeff Conn complain that the enforcers are focusing on downtown and ignoring the neighborhoods. "That's where the money is," he says. "That's where they'll go."

Reilly says the decrease in neighborhood tagging is mainly due to more expensive tickets. Eight years ago, when neighborhood violators received 42,880 tickets, the average price was $15 a pop. Last year, when the cost of a ticket reached $20, Reilly speculates that people began to learn their lessons.

Last year 38,494 tickets were issued in neighborhoods, compared to the 162,247 given downtown. Downtown, Conn adds, is not where most residents live and spend most of their time--it's not what establishes the day-to-day quality of life for most Denverites.

"It's true there are more violations in downtown," Reilly says. "Those tickets can be written quickly, and violators are easily spotted. In neighborhoods, it takes much longer to ticket. You have to mark the car, come back afterward and make sure it's still in violation. It is a lot more labor-intensive than ticketing downtown."

In 1996, Reilly says, the office embraced a new attitude and decided to heed the calls of residents and treat them as if they were, in fact, customers.

"We perceived, internally, that we were getting more calls to come, enforce and write tickets," Reilly says in an understatement the size of a ten-story garage. Last year the department received 25,000 calls from the neighborhoods alone--an average of 68 calls per day.

From 1996, when Reilly says the "customer service" policy took effect, to the spring of 1999, parking-management officials brainstormed different solutions to fix the growing neighborhood parking problem. He says he cannot recall specific ideas that were tossed around but notes, "It takes time from the conception of an idea to actual implementation of policy."

Even though the office had no specific plan, parking management hired Vars last spring and asked her to redraw enforcement boundaries based on demand for service, not simple geography.

Now, Vars says, the enforcement team will work in designated areas such as Cherry Creek, the neighborhoods surrounding DU and University/Veterans Hospital and, of course, downtown. Evening enforcement will focus on Old South Gaylord, along Colfax near the Bluebird Theater, throughout Cherry Creek, inside lower downtown, and around the Botanic Gardens and Mile High Stadium. Ticket writers will cross old boundaries and focus on the most heavily affected areas, and they'll work until 2 a.m. and on weekends.

"The goal," Vars says, "is to meet the balance of supply and demand for parking in the city to create balance."

Reilly says the new strategy is an experiment, since Denver is the first major U.S. city to try it. The office hopes to break even in terms of revenue generated, he adds. But after only one month, Reilly says it is still too early to see if it works.

"We'll probably find out real soon if we're missing anything," he says. "If we need to change our priorities, we can change to meet the demand."

Obviously, Reilly has learned one principle of customer service: Tell the people what they want to hear.

On the sixth floor of a building on the 16th Street Mall, posters from the Broncos' Super Bowl victories and small maps colored in with highlighters hang on the walls. Empty Mountain Dew cans, just-read newspapers and a cheery stuffed animal fill the drab spaces between computer monitors, radio scanners and telephones.

Each day, dispatchers answer between 180 and 230 calls from residents complaining about tickets, asking for enforcement or requesting some form of parking assistance.

Cristy Garcia has been with parking management only since February 1998, but she learned about the plight of neighborhood parking in her first week. One night, while she was working as a parking-control agent on call--roaming the city freely, scouting for violators--she cruised through a residential neighborhood near the Auraria campus. There she found a mother lode of students taking advantage of the free parking. She also found a warm reception from desperate residents.

"The people who lived there were so happy to see me," says Garcia. "There hadn't been anyone there in weeks." She says one resident even thanked her personally. "Each time I came by, he would wave and say, 'Thank you.'"

Now Garcia splits her time between taking phone calls and giving tickets. She has received several calls from Jeff Conn.

She has never met the man, but much like an FBI profiler working with a few scraps of information, she has put together an impressively accurate composite. Garcia has figured out where Conn lives, knows that he once worked for a radio station and can even mimic his gesticulations.

"I can see him walking," Garcia says, pumping her arms. "He's always out of breath when he calls, using his little cell phone."

She raises an imaginary phone to her ear while she keeps one arm moving. "He has a very distinctive voice," she adds.

Conn may be a pest to dispatchers, but he is quick to point out that his perennial phone calls created perennial enforcement in his old neighborhood.

C.J. Musman agrees that his agency responds to complainers but emphasizes that it conducts surveys and makes analyses before targeting an area.

"It's always the squeaky wheel, isn't it?" Musman asks of the well-known Conn.

Musman claims dispatchers have caught Conn disguising his voice.
Conn denies the accusation, saying "I've got nothing to hide." He calls Musman a "big liar."

"We should give him a ticket book and deputize him," Musman quips. But Musman also says Conn often calls in cars that aren't illegally parked.

Grumbles Musman, "As a matter of fact, I think his middle name is 'Wolf.'"
After Jeff Conn hangs up with dispatchers at parking management, he continues his early-morning hunt. Just past Governor's Park, the nose of a Jeep Wrangler sticks out over the sidewalk. Conn can walk around it easily, so he doesn't call it in. "A lot of times, cars restrict traffic flow and create a safety hazard," he says. "These rules were made for a reason, and safety is a pretty good reason."

At Pennsylvania near Ninth Avenue, Conn strains his neck around the corner and sets his eyes on a white Saturn with its back end hanging into the red.

"Think we got another one here," he says--then sees a yellow ticket flapping beneath the windshield wiper. "Oops, maybe not."

As Conn continues on, he says he is not against drivers who park illegally. "None of my business," he says. Instead, it's the inefficiency at parking management that really upsets him. Conn views the city's new enforcement strategy as "probably bureaucratic bullshit, but if they actually do something, that'd be great."

People in several of Denver's neighborhoods now hope the same.
But if someone were to suggest that Conn is overshooting his target--causing relatively innocent people to get ticketed in the crossfire of his one-man war--Conn acknowledges, "They're right." As he strides up to the Norwest building, 25 minutes after leaving his home, Conn says he feels bad about calling in the Chevy Lumina. Says he was hamming it up a bit, playing a joke.

"I don't want to be seen as a snitch," Conn says. "This is not what this is about. This is about getting good enforcement so we don't have to keep calling."

Before Conn puts his cell phone away, he says he's going to call parking management about the Chevy.

"I'll tell them it moved," he says.

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