"Why the heck are you doing this?"
I asked myself this question as I drove to last night's downtown neighborhood association (CAN-DO) meeting, which featured a presentation by Jim Vu on developing long-term solutions for Salem's downtown parking problems.
Since I didn't hear an answer from myself (perhaps because "I" am the same person as "me"), I guess the reason is why anybody does anything: enjoyment, happiness.
Downtown parking is a never-ending soap opera in this town.
Following the twists and turns of this drama is entertaining in much the same way watching dysfunction unfold on stage or screen is. I can't turn away because it's deliciously enticing to see people locked in relationships that are going to turn out badly.
Great question, Rodney King. Police brutality isn’t the same as heated debates over how to handle downtown parking, but the unnecessary fighting over this issue also is bothersome.
...Battling via successive dueling petitions is no way to form a viable downtown parking policy. This bouncing back and forth is absurd: 2-hour limit…parking meters on the way… no parking meters; no limits… 3-hour limit.
All in less than a year.
...Everybody wins when people honestly and respectfully talk with each other, not past each other. Yes, we all can get along.
Unfortunately, Jim Vu didn't take my advice.
He's continued on the course of non-collaborative divisiveness which also is a hallmark of how City of Salem officials such as Mayor Anna Peterson and City Manager Linda Norris operate these days.
Vu seems like a nice guy. But he's a newcomer to downtown. I've heard that he's only been a property owner in the area for about a year. (Vu owns the building that houses the new Kitchen on Court Street restaurant.)
As noted in my column, City officials are using Vu to give them a semblance of pseudo-public involvement as they continue onward toward their dream of installing parking meters downtown.
Last night Vu said that he's been inviting business owners to come to meetings where they talk about downtown parking policies. This is such a totally screwy way of deciding how to handle that issue, let us count (some of) the ways.
(1) The Mayor, City Manager, and City Council are wrongly treating Vu's group like it broadly represents downtown. Only selected people are invited to its meetings. For example, Carole Smith, who led the successful initiative drive to ban downtown parking meters, getting 9,000 signatures, is treated like the uncool kid in the high school lunchroom: ignored.
Smith came to the CAN-DO meeting hoping to say something. But the chair of the meeting never called on her, allowing only one person other than Vu and the board members to speak. So it's pretty clear that Vu's goal isn't to bring downtown "stakeholders" together; it is to give City of Salem officials some political cover as they move toward using parking meters to pay for long-deferred maintenance of the downtown parking garages.
(2) Vu admitted that he is only talking to selected downtown business owners, not employees, residents, visitors, and other supporters of the area. As noted above, only the favored "cool kids" among the large number of downtown business owners are part of Vu's informal parking group (whose members, he said, varies with every meeting -- all the better for Vu to make the decisions, since no votes are taken or minutes written, to my knowledge).
He was asked if downtown employees, residents, and shoppers/visitors are part of the discussion about parking policies. "No, I'm just focused on business owners," Vu replied. This is crazy. Since apparently he doesn't have any previous experience with parking, I don't expect him to be an expert in this area.
But it took me about one minute of Googling to find a handy publication put out by two Oregon state agencies, "Parking Management Made Easy: A Guide to Taming the Downtown Parking Beast." Step One is:
Find out what people (you can call them stakeholders) think is the downtown parking problem. This is important because it will help you design the rest of the study. Interview:
-- Employers and employees, professional, retail and service.
-- Downtown residents and those who live next to the downtown.
-- Commercial realtors.
-- Downtown shoppers.
-- City officials and staff.
-- Chamber or downtown business association groups.
-- ODOT regional planner or district staff, especially if the downtown area includes a state highway.
Of course, what Vu is up to pretty clearly isn't a study. Again, it is an attempt to give City officials something to point to when they implement parking policies that they wanted all along to generate more revenue for the City coffers.
Vu's informal and minimally organized "parking group" strikes me as a snow job, not a sincere attempt to formulate a long-term parking policy that meets the needs of everybody who cares about downtown Salem. City officials and a few business/property owners are a far cry from the all in my "Can we all get along?"
(3) What Vu's parking group has come up with so far is underwhelming. Vu told the CAN-DO board that there seems to be a consensus among the downtown business owners he has talked with about two things: the turnover of on-street parking spaces needs to be increased, and the parking garages are under-utilized.
My blunt reaction: well, duh. Regarding the garages, they're only about half full most days. Obviously there are plenty of parking spaces available in them.
Then, turnover is basic to any parking policy. If no vehicles are parking, you've got an empty lot. If no vehicles are moving, you've got a junkyard. Naturally, finding the right balance of parked and moving cars is a central purpose of a parking policy.
But not the only one.
If I'd gotten to say something at last night's meeting, which I'd hoped to do, I wanted to remind Vu and the downtown neighborhood association folks that a parking policy is just one of the means to create and sustain an energetic, vibrant, dynamic urban core.
It isn't a goal unto itself, as Vu and City of Salem officials seem to mistakenly believe. People don't want to visit, work in, or live in a downtown because they can easily park there. I can easily park in the empty lot of one of the many abandoned buildings around Salem. But there's nothing there I care about!
What irks me the most about how Vu and his cronies at City Hall are going about their dysfunctional parking policy planning is their disregard for what matters the most: making downtown Salem a place where people want to live, work, visit, shop, and play.
As I said in this post, I could be fine with parking meters downtown if all of the revenue generated from them went to make Salem's historic district more attractive. This is what has happened in Pasadena and other places with enlightened ideas.
Make downtown more beautiful, walkable, and bikable. Then they (visitors, businesses, residents) will come.
Nobody says, "Ooh, let's go downtown to park in an onstreet space or in a garage." Yet Jim Vu seems to think this is the ultimate goal of his parking group -- to find ways to let people park more easily and pay for maintenance of the parking garages.
That's backwards thinking. Start with the proper goal: making downtown Salem a place people want to be. Again, a parking policy is a means to that end, not an end unto itself.
(4) Most worrisome worries. I'll end by sharing some uh-oh words I heard uttered by Jim Vu.
Vu said that when the current 3-hour limit parking experiment ends in February, if there hasn't been enough turnover of onstreet spaces the next evolution is to either shrink the time limit or go to parking meters.
What bothered me about that comment is that Vu alluded to a supposed shortage of spaces only for brief periods on some days around noon and early evening. Going to the effort and expense of installing parking meters for that reason is like wanting to build a billion dollar Third Bridge because the current bridges have some congestion for an hour or two a day.
But that is exactly what City of Salem officials want to do. So I can easily see the City Council continuing its stealthy undercover backroom tip-toeing toward downtown parking meters.
What downtown doesn't need, not now and not ever, is more parking policy confusion.
By taking over the duly-selected downtown organization and mismanaging it so badly property owners voted to do away with collection of the Economic Improvement District (EID) funds, the Mayor, City Manager, and city councilors already have weakened Salem's urban core.
They need to stop adding to downtown dysfunction. As does Jim Vu and his parking group.
I'm hoping that soon everybody who loves Salem's urban core and HIstoric District -- business and property owners, residents, employees, visitors, shoppers, everybody -- will have an opportunity to come together and talk about what will make downtown a more vibrant and vital place, along with how parking policies can further that goal.
Until then, the best thing is to do nothing.
Leave parking as it is, perhaps with some very minimal changes, until a collaborative, cooperative planning process emerges that includes everyone in the community who wants to be involved with it.