BEND, Ore. -

On Wednesday night, Bend city councilors directed staff to move forward with crafting plans for a new study of parking downtown, as requested by a merchants group, and possibly examine the situation in other commercial areas of the city.

Downtown Bend Business Association Executive Director Chuck Arnold asked the city to do a study. He says the last time one was done was in 2001, and downtown Bend has changed a great deal since then.

"We know that downtown Bend has changed a lot since that time," Arnold said. "We've added 50-percent more residential and retail since that time."

He says the study would help shape policy, with a goal of enhancing the experiences those who shop or eat downtown have.

"We're taking a really close look at what the issues are and looking at where the policy needs to go from here," Arnold said.

Business owners and managers agree. They said they would like to see some sort of change made with the amount of time allowed under free parking. Currently most on-street parking is free for two hours, while the parking garage, completed in 2006, is three hours.

"They shop, and they would love to have lunch downtown, and they just don't have enough time without getting a ticket," shop employee Leah Cassidy said.

Lotus Moon owner Alicia Provost said, "Today a woman came in, and she said, 'I don't have that much time to look because my parking is about to run out.'"

They say many people don't know the garage even exists, or that you can park there longer for free.

"A lot of people don't even know about the garage, so we are constantly telling people about the garage," Cassidy said. "To me, four hours is enough time to shop and have lunch."

Provost said, "Let people know where they can go for more than just two hours. They think they can just come for two hours, and then they have to leave."

During the council meeting, Arnold told councilors parking in the garage downtown is free on the weekends, and has been for over a year, but signage still says drivers have to pay.

Looking at a list of issues, Barram agreed: "Signage is poor, unclear and inconsistent, I think particularly for our parking garage."

She also said during discussion that the study needs to more than just a look at one day because of the diverse activities that happen and fluctuations between busier and quieter times of the day and week.

The council directed city staff to look into how the study could be done, and not just focusing on downtown. They talked about other increasingly busy commercial areas that could benefit from a parking study.

Arnold suggested that a good goal downtown would be the "85th percentile," in terms of full vs. open spaces -- if even fewer are empty, people will stop circling the blocks to find a space and go elsewhere. "We have no clue where we are on that spectrum," he said. "My guess is it's higher"

City Manager Eric King said the issue is not unique to downtown, as there are other successful commercial districts with parking concerns. And if a consultant is hired, he said, "there are some economies of scale" if a broader study of the issue is conducted. A work session will be held soon to review the options for moving forward with a parking study.

On another issue, Barram suggested the city consider using the Deschutes County commissioners' larger meeting room, at 1300 Wall Street, for council meetings, as a more cost-effective alternative to renovating City Hall for more audience space.

Most councilors agreed the idea was worth considering, if the room is available on all council meeting nights. King said he'd been in discussions with county Administrator Tom Anderson and the options will be brought back to the council in coming weeks.