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August 12, 2014


Your last line is: "A vibrant, attractive, energetic, diverse downtown brings people to an urban core." How does encouraging more people to drive to and park in the downtown make it more vibrant, attractive, energetic, and diverse? The best downtown areas I've been in - whether it is the Pearl District in Portland or someplace like London - are generally hostile to cars. I don't agree that free parking makes our downtown better; in fact, I think fewer cars and fewer lanes of travel would make for a better pedestrian experience and a better downtown experience.

Jeff, if you read my entire letter to the Parking Group (click on the PDF link) you'll see that what I was referring to was the use of parking meter revenue to make a downtown more attractive to visitors through such things as...

Making the area more walkable and bikeable.
Adding trees, landscaping, water features -- Streetscaping.
Reducing the number of lanes on streets (something the Salem Streetscape plan called for).

In a town like Salem with poor public transportation and poor bicycle lanes, it isn't feasible at the moment for lots of people to give up driving to downtown. I wish it were, but it isn't. So the question is how to make downtown more attractive to people walking and biking, while also accommodating those who drive.

Brian, thank you for the response. I'm not advocating that people stop driving downtown; rather, I would suggest that free on street parking does not make a downtown vibrant. People should be able to drive downtown, but the easiest parking should be in the garages or just outside the heart of downtown. Again, I look to other cities with vibrant downtowns and think of parking as a difficult endeavor that is still worth the hassle because pedestrians have been given the priority. I certainly agree with the ideas you list for making downtown better - I just don't see how free parking on the streets fits into that equation.

Jeff, we just have different variables in the equation, so to speak. I think some advocates of making parking more costly/difficult in Salem's downtown are correct in theory, but aren't taking into account the bigger socio-political-cultural actuality of Salem.

I'm really just re-stating themes here that I talked about in my 3-page communication to the Parking Group.

Downtown needs more people on the streets, and in the businesses. People will only visit downtown if it is an attractive, vibrant, pleasant place. Ditto for residents, and potential new business owners.

So job one is doing no harm to downtown. It is unclear whether downtown has a parking problem. Knowledgeable observers say "this is a revenue problem, not a parking problem." The City wants more revenue for the parking garages. It isn't much, if at all, concerned with making downtown a more viable place to visit, live, and work in.

Thus there is a tension between City Hall and downtown interests. This likely exists in most downtowns, but is especially acute here because of past outrageous behavior by City officials such as the Mayor, City Manager, and Public Works Director.

So given the current City leadership, trust is lacking that they are open to a collaborative, open, far-reaching look at a downtown vision that makes the area more appealing through Streetscaping and making it less auto-centered.

When a downtown is overly packed with people wanting to visit and park, that is one thing. When a downtown is teetering on the edge between vibrancy and non-vibrancy, that is another thing. Given the evident lack of interest in downtown by our City leaders, I fear that their premature push for parking meters would harm the vitality of downtown, since it isn't nearly as much of a destination draw as it could and should be.

Thus it is important to strike the right balance here. The situation is sort of akin to the "austerity" vs. "stimulate" debate between economists in a recession. Meaning, there is a time for considering cutting government spending, but not when economic activity is lagging.

Likewise, there is a time for considering cutting the easy availability of parking, but not when a downtown area lacks visitors. I'm pretty sure that restricting parking through meters and other means has worked best when a downtown has enough vitality and attractiveness to draw people in, even if it costs more (in parking fees or walking distance after parking).

Yes, I'd like to see pedestrians given the priority in downtown. But this requires a City leadership that isn't mired in the car-centric days of the 1950's and recognizes we're in the 21st century.

It appears that you and I agree on many points, but I guess I still don't understand how unlimited free parking improves downtown for visitors. I certainly didn't see anything wrong with two hour parking, and I also would not have a problem with metered parking. I assume the new policy reduces ticket revenue, and it makes enforcement exceedingly difficult (i.e., ticketing employees of downtown businesses). And it decreases turnover, which seemingly would be contrary to any business owner's interests. This unlimited free parking, which you and many others pushed prior to the City Council taking action, has seemingly exacerbated whatever parking problems existed previously. I don't see City Council doing anything to improve the bike/walk aspects of Salem, and I don't see them doing anything to improve the vibrancy of downtown. And I don't see unlimited free parking doing anything positive either. It feels like a subsidy for something that is, on balance, a negative.

Jeff, let's be clear about a couple of things:

The Salem City Council and Mayor unanimously approved the move to unlimited free parking. They now own this policy. If they thought it was a bad idea, they should have let the initiative go to a vote of the people, which would have been preceded by a debate regarding the pros and cons of banning parking meters and two hour limits from downtown.

Instead, the City Council and Mayor embraced the policy whole-heartedly. So now they have a responsibility to make it work. If they don't, one of two things is true, neither good.

(1) The Council unethically voted for a policy they wanted to then make fail, by undermining its enforcement. (2) The City of Salem is incompetent in handling downtown parking policy, being clueless about what it is doing.

It turns out that enforcement is indeed lacking. So this explains why confidence in City officials is almost non-existent at this point. As I've said before, theoretical statements about what parking policy would be best for downtown Salem need to be embedded in the reality of this town's dysfunctional political system, which includes the disbanding of the downtown association by the City Manager, Linda Norris.

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