Spend any amount of time following Chris Kersbergen around, and it quickly becomes apparent the days of Anchorage's so-called "parking wars" are a distant memory. Kersenberg strides down the sidewalk daily, a persistent and gregarious presence on the streets of downtown Anchorage. Some might say that his personality belies his position.
A big guy at 6-foot-5, Kersenberg has a soft demeanor as the lead Parking Enforcement Officer for the municipality. Dressed in a blue uniform and carrying an array of electronic ticketing devices, Kersenberg looks the part, but he's not your father's meter maid. Most days, he writes between 100 and 120 tickets as one of the faces of Anchorage's new parking enforcement system, put in place two years ago. It was created by city ordinance, after years of police-only parking ticketing, which itself was instituted in 1997, mostly because of a crusade waged by two well-liked Anchorage sisters.
Today, Kersenberg and five other officers work for Easy Park – the city's new parking authority. They patrol a well-defined downtown core area, between Gambell and N Streets, Ship Creek to 10th Avenue, and are allowed to ticket only for parking violations. Their very presence is due, in part, to a series of events that began more than a decade ago.
That's when Anchorage residents led by the Parking Fairies –- two sisters who roamed the streets wearing tutus -- revolted against the old parking-enforcement scheme. Before 1997, the old Anchorage Parking Authority handled enforcement on city streets, and its officers were prolific ticket-writers. They issued an avalanche of tickets for expired meters and much more -- cracked windshields, expired tags, broken taillights and studded-tire violations.
"It was fair to say that they were overstepping what was intended for them to do," said Ron Pollock, director of the Anchorage Community Development Authority, which oversees Easy Park.
Two sisters, Linny and Susan Pacillo, led a citizen's revolt against the parking authority. Dressed like fairies, they plugged meters for people who had run out of time, trying to stay one step ahead of meter maids, as they were then-called. The public attention they drew to perceived over-enforcement led to a city ordinance that allowed only Anchorage Police officers to issue tickets. But APD didn't have the staff to consistently patrol for parking violators, especially in the downtown core district. That led to a lack of parking spaces in front of the hundreds of businesses, as drivers took their chances, realizing a ticket was unlikely. From 1997 to 2011, Anchorage Police wrote only about 50 tickets per day.
"It was tough to find a spot to park. The city buses couldn't find a place to load passengers. It was kind of like the Wild West, in terms of parking," Pollock said.
Tickets for parking violations only
In August 2011, the city rebranded the old Anchorage Parking Authority and created Easy Park. But more than the name changed. The new agency has a clearly defined area to patrol – a roughly 200-block area in downtown Anchorage – and its officers write tickets for parking violations only, not the cornucopia of equipment and licensing violations that made the APA so disliked in the 1990s.
Easy Park also oversees parking at four garages, and several municipal-owned surface lots. But they are not alone in the Anchorage parking game. A private company, Diamond Parking, manages most of the independent lots and charges more for them ($5 per hour) than the municipality (generally $1 per hour) does for its parking spots. The state also has its own parking garage -- a 10-story structure with about 1,000 spots, -- named after Linny Pacillo, who died in 2006. That garage serves the nearby Atwood Center, which has about 1,200 employees. According to the state, the garage is usually one-half to two-thirds full.
"We built the parking garage with an eye for future Atwood expansion, which is happening," said Curtis Thayer, Deputy Commissioner of the state's Department of Administration.
The Atwood is being re-stacked, meaning its floors are being reorganized so it can add another 200 employees, to save money. Currently, the State of Alaska pays as much as $3.22 per square-foot annually for office space it leases downtown. Space at the Atwood – which is state-owned – costs just $1.56 per square foot per year.
But the Linny Pacillo garage isn't the only one seldom full. All the parking garages managed by the city – which include a renovated JC Penny Garage – are also rarely full, save for big downtown events like Fur Rondy and the Iditarod Sled Dog Race. Anchorage, it seems, has a lot of parking.
Between surface lots, parking garages and street meters, Easy Park manages more than 7,000 spaces. Add in privately managed spaces and garages, and more than 12,000 vehicles can be parked in downtown Anchorage simultaneously.
On the streets with Kersenberg, the result of consistent enforcement of parking rules is evident: open spaces. These days, residents regularly encounter Easy Park officers on patrol. And so far, the number of tickets being issued is dropping, while the number of people parking legally is on the rise. During the last six months of 2011 – the first period Easy Park was working downtown – its officers issued more than 19,000 tickets for on-street violations. That number dropped to fewer than 16,000 for the same time period last year.
Close calls usually not ticketed
"People are taking notice. I know it's working because bus drivers tell me their loading zones are clear, unlike in the old days," said Kersenberg, who added he thinks the number of tickets being issued will continue to fall as people learn to park within the rules.
He and other Easy Park enforcement officers have discretion as to whether to issue a ticket or a warning. Close calls are usually not ticketed.
If you come running while a ticket is being issued, it will usually be voided. If a person is sitting in their car, the officer keeps walking.
The rules are designed to avoid a repeat of the public displeasure of the 1990s -- but also to keep officers safe. Not a single Easy Park officer has been physically assaulted since the company began patrols in 2011. The same can't be said, though, for language thrown their way by angry ticket recipients.
"Most people are very nice," Kersenberg said as he paused to give directions to a group of tourists from Minnesota. "Usually, when they start yelling, it's because they are upset in general. They may be having a bad day or things may not be going well at work. We have to understand that."
Kersenberg explained his department's goal is to work itself out of a job.
"The day my officers come back from patrol and have not issued a single ticket – that's what we are striving for around here," said Scott Willis, Easy Park manager.
Contact Sean Doogan at sean(at)alaskadispatch.com