According to Salem city councilor Chuck Bennett, who represents the downtown area, City officials are looking at replacing the current free unlimited parking policy with "time-limited" parking.
This could mean several things. Going back to a two-hour limit. Or installing parking meters, the City's goal before 9,000 signatures on a citizen initiative petition to ban meters and time limits dashed that dream.
Bennett emailed me a response after he'd gotten my message asking if a report was true that he'd talked at a neighborhood association meeting about the council moving forward with parking meters again.
No, I said the city is in the process of replacing parking meters in the Capitol Mall area with an updated system and will be looking at changing the current 24/7 free parking system downtown back to one that is time limited.
The word "back" implies a return to two-hour limits downtown with no parking meters. However, other people have told me that plans are being laid to resurrect the parking meter proposal that met a well-deserved demise last fall.
It wasn't voters who said "no way" to downtown parking meters. The Salem City Council decided to adopt the language of the citizen initiative, which otherwise would have been voted on in last May's primary election.
Sponsors of the initiative wanted to have a city-wide debate prior to the election about the pros and cons of parking meters. The fear was that Mayor Peterson and the eight city councilors weren't really in favor of banning meters and time limits; they just were playing a political game in approving the initiative so it could be undermined sooner rather than later.
Which, sadly, does seem to have happened.
Regardless, City officials now own the parking policy that they voted in on their own. If they didn't want meters and time-limits banned, they shouldn't have put that language into Salem's parking ordinance.
So it was crazy for Councilor Bennett to refer at the neighborhood association meeting to "the Carole Smith Project" being over.
Yes, Carole Smith was a prime mover behind the initiative drive. And if the initiative had been passed by voters, then arguably it would be accurate to say that she (along with others) brought the parking meter ban and unlimited onstreet parking into being.
But since the Mayor and city councilors decided to bypass voters and implement these parking policies on their own, they now are the ones who own those policies.
I haven't had any trouble parking downtown since unlimited parking went into effect. I'm not aware of any statistical evidence showing that it is more difficult for people to park downtown now. All we have, so far as I know, is anecdotes about increased parking problems -- which aren't reliable.
So what City officials need to do is what they didn't do before: involve a broad cross-section of the public in a open-minded discussion of downtown parking policies. Downtown business owners. Frequent visitors to downtown. Downtown residents. Everybody.
Unfortunately, the current crop of folks at City Hall are terrible at this -- collaborating in an honest, open, transparent, trusting manner with a diverse group of "stakeholders." They much prefer top-down decision-making, where the Power Structure tries to sell a pre-determined course of action to the public.
This didn't work very well before.
As evidenced by citizen uprisings to (1) a proposed takeover of part of Riverfront Park for a developer's private access road; (2) a notion to convert the Salem Public Library to a police facility; (3) charging a regressive streetlight tax; (4) building an unneeded, unwanted, and unpaid for $425 million third bridge. And, of course, (5) putting in downtown parking meters.
In another blog post I'll discuss how wiser and more functional city governments elsewhere have worked closely and collaboratively with downtown business owners to make parking meters a success.
The key, as laid out by noted parking expert Donald Shoup, is to make sure that every penny of parking meter revenue is used to make a downtown area more attractive to visitors. Not, repeat not, to pad City coffers or pay for parking garages.
Rather, Shoup says:
Consider an older business district where most stores have no off-street parking, and vacant curb spaces are hard to find. Cruising for free curb parking congests the streets, and everyone complains about a parking shortage.
Charging market-rate prices for curb parking would increase turnover, and reduce traffic congestion. The convenience of a few vacancies would attract customers who are willing to pay for parking if they don't have to spend time hunting for it. Nevertheless, merchants fear that charging for parking would keep customers away.
Suppose in this case the city creates a "parking benefit district" in which all the meter revenue is spent to pay for public amenities that can attract customers, such as cleaning the sidewalks, planting street trees, improving store facades, putting the overhead utility wires underground, and ensuring public safety.
The meter revenue will help make the business district a place where people want to be, rather than merely a place where they can park free. Spending the meter revenue to improve the area where it is collected can convince merchants and property owners to buy into the idea of market-priced curb parking.
This could work in Salem. But probably not until we have new leadership in City Hall. (See my blog post, "Don't trust City of Salem to manage downtown parking.")
There isn't much chance that the current Mayor, City Manager, and city councilors understand what it takes to form a collaborative working relationship with all of the stakeholders who would have to buy in to a downtown parking meter policy as described by Shoup.
Given the "my way or the highway" top-down bureaucratic attitude in evidence at City Hall, downtown business owners and others are justified in saying No! to parking meters, and possibly even parking time limits -- since the City sees a two-hour limit more as a way to generate revenue through parking tickets, than as a way to vitalize downtown.
Sadly, Salem is a city of contention, not collaboration. The fault lies with City officials. Until they see the collaborative light, downtown parking policies likely are doomed to remain a source of conflct.