Last night I attended a meeting of a group that has been discussing parking problems in downtown Salem, Oregon. I don't know if it has an official name, so I'll call it the Parking Group.
From what I could tell it is made up of small business owners.
A few outside observers, such as me, also were in attendance. The Parking Group's goal is to come up with some recommendations to improve the downtown parking experience, then send them on to the Salem City Council.
Last year a City Parking Task Force was well on its way to inflicting parking meters on downtown. That committee was run in a closed bureaucratic fashion, allowing minimal public input and almost no involvement of downtown small businesses.
An entirely appropriate revolt ensued. Organizers of Stop Parking Meters Downtown gathered 9,000 signatures on an initiative petition to ban meters and do away with the current two-hour parking limit.
Instead of allowing Salemians to vote on the initiative in May 2014, as the organizers preferred, in October 2013 the City Council decided to implement the initiative language immediately.
So either the Mayor and councilors had a quick change of heart about the desirability of parking meters, or they were playing an unethical political game: pretending to favor the initiative so they could later undermine it.
The Stop Parking Meters Downtown folks recognized the games Salem City officials play these days.
If Salem City council adopts our petition, it will NOT go on the ballot in May for us to vote on. If council voluntarily adopts the petition, they can vote to change it whenever they want, for whatever reason they want. If this goes to a vote of the people, history shows us – no council will touch it for years. We want, and need, that long-term protection.
...Bottom line, Council – implement the initiative if you are honestly committed to making it work; reject it otherwise. Don’t play the annoying political game of pretending to follow the will of the people by adopting the measure, then seek to undermine and ultimately kill it.
Unfortunately, this has happened.
The Parking Group spent quite a bit of time talking about how the City of Salem has essentially stopped enforcing the ban against downtown employees using onstreet parking.
So if you're having trouble finding a space downtown, this is a central reason. City officials also haven't done anything to ban the increasing number of downtown residents from using onstreet spaces that should be available to visitors.
Last night there were lots of different ideas thrown out about how to improve downtown parking. One idea, though, seemed to be favored by everybody in the room.
Use a blend of "carrots" and "sticks" to keep employees (and ideally downtown residents also) out of onstreet parking, and in the parking garages.
Many downtown businesses have urged their employees not to use the now-unlimited onstreet parking, but this is still a significant problem. (How large, nobody knows for sure.)
Carole Smith, a downtown business owner and resident who was one of the leaders of the Stop Parking Meters Downtown movement, handed out a one page "Why Has Downtown Parking Failed?" document. It won't be totally understandable by anyone not into the geekiness of this issue, but most of it is appealingly clear.
Have a read.
Download Why has downtown parking failed?
A "carrot" to entice employees into the parking garages would be a one-year trial of charging everybody who uses the garages $1. So a full-time employee would pay $21 or so a month to park, $1 a day, much less than the current charge of $58 to $72 a month.
This also would bring in revenue to pay for maintenance of the parking garages, which currently is being subsidized by urban renewal funds at the rate of about $700,000 a year.
At the Parking Group meeting I heard several people say, "We don't have a parking problem; we have a revenue problem." Meaning, the City's push for parking meters wasn't because so many people are thronging to downtown Salem, meters are needed to increase turnover of onstreet spaces and lessen the number of people coming downtown.
Charge for something that used to be free, and basic economics says you'll have fewer customers. City staff estimated a 20% loss of visitors to downtown if parking meters were installed.
So it makes sense to keep the current unlimited onstreet parking policy the City Council unanimously adopted less than a year ago. Several councilors promised to do everything they could to make the new policy successful.
Well, the time has come to keep that promise. City officials need to enforce the ban on employee parking, the "stick," and offer the "carrot" of $1 a day parking in the three downtown garages -- which have plenty of unused spaces.
As does downtown as a whole, likely.
This was the conclusion of a study discussed by the Parking Group. It only went up to 2012, so nobody knows current onstreet parking occupancy rates. Anecdotally, I haven't had any more trouble parking downtown than I did when two-hour limits were the rule.
That study found that only for the noon hour on a few streets did the occupany rate exceed 85%, which is an oft-used standard for concluding "we have a parking problem." This fits with the general impression I have of downtown: most of the time, by no means is it overcrowded with customers and other visitors. Parking is available within a few blocks of where I want to go.
I made a couple of comments during the Parking Group meeting.
I suggested that the members take a look at how the No 3rd Bridge folks have been analyzing traffic patterns on Salem's current bridges, as the situation bears a lot of resemblance to what seems to be the case with downtown parking.
Namely, congestion only occurs for a brief period each day.
I noted that in the Los Angeles area, where my daughter and her family live, lack of parking and freeway tie-ups are a way of life. Yet the area is highly attractive to residents and visitors, and is economically vibrant. We'll have a lot of trouble finding a parking space, then finally enter a restaurant and find it crowded with southern Californians.
My other comment to the Parking Group was an invitation for them to take a copy of a three page "Observations on the downtown Salem parking situation" document I shared with them.
Download Parking thoughts 8-11-14
Here's an excerpt from what I wrote:
Parking experts agree on this: downtown parking policies need to be aimed at improving the ambience and attractiveness of urban cores. They aren’t a way to add money to a depleted City budget.
Unfortunately, the backwards attitude of City officials was that parking meter revenues are needed to support the downtown parking garages. I can tell you that this has just about zero appeal to the citizenry, as evidenced by the resounding success of the Ban [oops, Stop] Parking Meters Downtown initiative effort.
Parking garages don’t bring people downtown. A vibrant, attractive, energetic, diverse downtown brings people to an urban core.