Carole Smith is a downtown property owner and resident who sent me the following argument against restaurants being allowed to use downtown parking spaces for outdoor seating during the Covid pandemic.
A May 27 Salem Reporter story says this program is going to be permanent, with design standards for structures in parking spaces that could cost tens of thousands of dollars.
Smith makes some good points about whether this is fair to the downtown businesses who pay a parking tax, since restaurants are being allowed to use parking spaces that are supposed to benefit all businesses in the area, not just one industry.
Here's what Smith has to say. I made some edits to her piece to improve its readability. I'm pretty sure I preserved her meaning.
As I was watching the news last night I watched a segment on “Salem Removes Homeless from City Parks." The reporter stated the "City Council decided the pandemic was over and the homeless no longer needed to social distance so they were being removed from city parks.”
Well, if that is true, the pandemic is over, then why do we still have 20% of our parking spaces downtown full of empty tents? I have been watching the tents empty out for two months now. No one is using them. They sit empty. Why are they still allowed to block parking spaces?
Many folks do not realize the downtown businesses (except non-profits) pay a parking tax each year to the city to effectively “rent” the parking spaces downtown for their customers' free use. This tax normally totals around $500,000 annually. There are typically 500 businesses downtown with the vast majority located on the upper floors downtown.
Last year the City gave grants to restaurants throughout Salem for free tents, tables, chairs, and heaters, and provided the use of the downtown parking spaces free of charge to the restaurants. Yes, the same parking spaces the city demands we pay $500,000 a year to save for our customers' use.
Recently I did a Public Records Request for all business addresses in the parking district. Last year there were only 450 businesses. Nordstroms and Penneys are gone because City Council is clueless, so parking tax revenues will be considerably down this year.
If you take the annual sales volume of the two large department stores in the downtown area (estimated at $20 million a year each) and add in all the small businesses averaged at $400,000 annual sales each, you have an annual gross sales in downtown of about $220 million.
Divide $220 million by 1,100 parking spaces and you get $160,000 value per parking space. Assume 20% of downtown visitors use parking garages, and the value still is a hefty $128,000 per parking space. This shows the value of each parking space to the businesses who pay the tax.
Now, realize that the City of Salem has given restaurants the right to block parking spaces for their free tents. That is equivalent to taking away thousands of dollars of sales for all neighboring businesses who are going through the exact same pandemic pain.
Even if you don’t care about the fairness of this land grab to benefit just one industry at the expense of damaging all its neighbors, I have seen literally no evidence that restaurants spread Covid, none. Why did our city council jump on an unproven rumor instead of thinking this through?
Well, it feeds into their desire for parking meters. For decades (I found staff reports on how much more income the city would collect as far back as 1980) the City staff and City Council have wanted to end the free parking in downtown to increase city income.
It is still their desire for downtown. They don’t see struggling stores or opportunity for our community. They just see money that isn’t yet corralled in their coffers. Anything they can do to weaken businesses downtown they can hardly wait to implement.
Despite the Downtown Parking Tax being voted in by the full voting population of Salem for two purposes only -- a program of public parking and a program of downtown promotions (funding for a downtown organization to protect us from City staff and Council) -- the City has been systematically withdrawing any funds for downtown promotion, Christmas decorations, summer flower baskets, events, sidewalk sales, etc.
They have been taking funds for years to fund the Police Department budget shortfalls as downtown continues to pay the tax and gets nothing for their contribution.
If the pandemic is over for the homeless population, City Council should do the right thing and ask all restaurants to remove their tents (and other obstructions) from parking spaces and allow their neighbors to survive.
I have asked City Council several times to have the tents removed, but not one city councilor responded to any of my emails. Crickets, nothing. They don’t care about downtown or the citizens.
Let's be clear.
We want all downtown businesses to survive and thrive, not one industry surviving at the expense of their neighbors' failure. If the pandemic is over for the homeless, it should be over for the free tents downtown also. You cannot have it both ways, City Council.