There are things I wish downtown Salem (Oregon) had more of: night life, throngs of people, cool shops and art galleries, vegetarian-friendly restaurants, street musicians.
Parking meters... that's something I've never wished for.
Yet the City of Salem is determined to force paid parking down downtown's throat. Why? The reason remains a mystery, like other recent ill-advised City decisions.
US Bank got an approval to cut down five large beautiful trees in downtown Salem. For no good reason. Three years ago the City's Public Works director, Peter Fernandez, made a promise to the US Bank president that the trees could be removed.
Then flimsy reasons were conjured up in an attempt to justify the tree-killing decision. Same thing is happening with Third Bridge planning: a decision to build another bridge, which would channel people away from downtown, has been made without considering better and cheaper transportation alternatives.
Now we've got a rush by the City to install parking meters downtown. Again, with little or no consideration of whether this will solve the purported problems meters are supposed to solve; and with little or no listening to the downtown businesses that will be affected by a shift from free to paid parking.
The Downtown Parking Task Force project began hopefully enough last year. The original intent was to listen to the public first, to both the business owners and the customers. Hear them share their needs and dreams, perhaps in our Library’s auditorium, and from those conversations, develop potential strategies at open meetings.
Instead, Task Force and city staff members met at 7:30 a.m. in the library’s lower-level Anderson Room; seated in a “U” with their backs to the public they were meant to serve. As the months passed there was never an opportunity for the public to speak.
Recently the Mayor, City Manager, members of the Parking Task Force, and other proponents of parking meters met with the Statesman Journal editorial board. I watched the entire hour-plus video of the session. I came away unconvinced that meters are needed.
Unfortunately, the Statesman Journal followed its usual policy of being on the side of whatever the City of Salem leadership and Chamber of Commerce are for, whether or not the public interest is being served. The resulting editorial, though annoyingly wishy-washy, supported moving ahead with parking meters -- even though it acknowledged that this could turn out to be a bad idea.
The Parking Task Force didn't survey downtown business owners to ask how they thought parking meters would affect them. Shameful.
Such is par for the course these days with the City of Salem. Expert advice and citizen input are ignored; the US Bank tree-killing debacle and looming Third Bridge disaster are further examples.
Read what downtown business owners and other citizens think about downtown parking meters here and here. These informed comments provide a lot of ammunition to shoot down the parking meter proposal. I have some additional skeptical bullets:
(1) Currently four large downtown businesses, such as Penney's, pay most of the parking tax that supports downtown parking garages and other parking expenses. If meters are installed, that tax goes away. This amounts to a wealth transfer to large corporations at the expense of downtown visitors. Penney's will save over $40,000 a year.
(2) Reportedly the Convention Center pays nothing for parking, yet benefits from the City parking structure right across the street. Other governmental entities apparently pay nothing for parking either. Why should big business and big government get a free parking ride?
(3) The main reason parking meters are being recommended by the Task Force is to pay for the capital and operating costs of downtown parking structures, which currently provide free parking to visitors. So why aren't parking meters planned for the structures? Why should onstreet parkers feed their meters in order to provide free parking to people who use the structures?
Now there is free onstreet parking, and free offstreet parking in the structures. If parking meters make downtown onstreet parking costly, then offstreet parkers should incur the same cost. After all, the purported purpose of the meters is to meet the cost of maintaining and operating the parking structures.
Those who use the structures should pay much or most of the costs associated with them. Logically, this seems obvious. Yet the Parking Task Force didn't recommend this. Here's my conspiracy theory about why:
In my experience as a frequent downtown visitor, the structures are more likely to be used by people heading to large businesses such as Penney's, and to the Salem Center mall. After all, skybridges connect the structures to these places.
There is no skybridge from a parking structure to the small businesses I have frequented for many years: RJ Dance Studio, Venti's, Beanery, Pacific Martial Arts, Great Harvest, etc. I use onstreet parking when I go to these small businesses, because it is much more convenient. And very rarely, if ever, have I had to park in a structure because I couldn't find an onstreet parking space.
Thus my suspicion is that the City of Salem is tilting toward large businesses, and away from small businesses, in this parking meter proposal. By using onstreet meter revenue to subsidize free parking in the structures, Penney's, Salem Center, and the Convention Center will continue to have free parking easily available to their customers -- while not having to pay any parking tax.
Yet it is small businesses that make downtown Salem as attractive as it is. And it is small businesses which should be supported by City of Salem policies. Downtown Salem is on the edge of being vibrantly ascendent. It also is on the edge of sliding downhill.
Which side downtown moves toward will be affected by how attractive the area is to visitors, and thus to businesses.
Already the City has authorized the killing of five beautiful trees that used to grace downtown's State Street. And the City is determined to build a Third Bridge that would funnel people away from downtown toward Keizer Station and points north.
Now the City wants to install parking meters, which means large businesses wouldn't have to pay their fair share, or indeed any share, of downtown parking costs. I'm not saying the City of Salem hates downtown small businesses. But I can understand why someone would come to that conclusion.