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Let’s Talk! Parking Pressures Highlight Need For Conversation

Let’s Talk! Parking Pressures Highlight Need For Conversation

About 121 residential units – apartments, condos, studios – are located in Salem’s downtown core, the area roughly between Union Street, Trade Street, Church Street and Front Street.

In October, the people who lived in these households became eligible for free, all day on-street parking when Salem City Council adopted an initiative signed by 9,000 citizens.

The same downtown area contains about 1,260 on-street parking spaces.  With some residential units housing people who don’t own cars – and others housing people with more than one car – downtown has potentially lost one-in-ten of the high-demand customer spaces that businesses there rely on.

Since the objective of the initiative was to provide more parking for customers, the influx of residents who now occupy spots all day is an unintended consequence that upsets many downtown businesspeople.

Angie Oven, owner of the Bridal Gallery on Liberty Street, is one.  “I don’t like residents parking on the street downtown,” she says, “and letting them do this was a huge omission in the new policy.”   Oven pays a parking tax for street spaces near her store, but says that since the new law, her customers have a “terrible” time finding a spot, especially later in the day.

“My peak hours are 3 – 6 p.m., and we make appointments on the half hour or the hour,” she says.  “But now we have people constantly late because they can’t find parking, and it creates a cascading negative effect in their overall experience.”

Selecting a wedding gown, “which should be one of the most happy and meaningful experiences of someone’s life, starts off frustrating,” Oven says.   “Or, even worse, a customers keeps going, bypassing downtown altogether and driving to Keizer.”

Eli Kem, an owner of Willamette Valley Music Company on State Street, is a Block Captain, a position assigned by the City of Salem’s Urban Development Department.  Kem says he’s worked successfully with the City’s Parking Enforcement to find solutions for employee parking issues.

He is somewhat concerned about the building at State and Liberty, currently under renovation.  “It could increase my problems,” he says.  When work is completed, six new condominiums will be on the market, less than a block from his business.

“I don’t really think residents should be able to park downtown for free,” Kem says, “since their cars can take up a spot on the street on their days off.”  He feels the solution is to charge theses residents to park in garages.  “They would just figure it as a part of the expense of living downtown.”

Rick Gassner, owner of Saffron Supply hardware, faces his own challenges.  Saffron Supply is located near the Union Gospel Mission, some of whose residents park cars in front of his store “24-hours a day, 7 days a week,” blocking spots his customers need.

Gassner is frustrated by what he sees as a lack of city support; “One of my people called the city about this three weeks ago,” he says, “and I never saw anyone come over to check it out.  There used to be people from parking enforcement who would walk around with pads.  Maybe they did come; all I know is that since our complaint those cars are still there.  And the [parking enforcement] office is right across the street from us.”

With the U.S. Census seeing a trend for Americans, especially younger ones, to move to city centers to live, it seems likely that downtown Salem’s residential density will only grow.

A livable downtown provides numerous benefits to a community and goes hand in hand with an increase in culture, tourism, business and greater building occupancy.  Finding a solution for downtown resident parkers, respecting their needs and rights, as well as those of people who do business downtown is not an issue that will go away.  It is an issue that matters to all Salem citizens who value a healthy city.

A decade ago the language in the city code (SRC 102.535 (d)) was, “A resident of the Downtown Parking District holding a valid residential parking permit may park on-street between 5 PM and 9 AM for any length of time, and may park on-street between 9 AM and 5 PM for no more than 120 consecutive minutes.”

This changed in about 2008, with the new rules that specified that no one could park more than 2 hours per day per blockface.  SRC 102.535 was eliminated because it no longer applied.

Last summer’s citizen’s petition did not mention downtown resident parking, in hindsight perhaps an omission – and when City Council adopted the petition, they too did not add back language that would protect downtown businesses from these cars.  Both actions created the pressure for on-street parking spots that frustrates the businesspeople interviewed for this story today.

However, downtown business owner Carole Smith, one of the petition’s creators, says that the purpose of the petition was simply to express the community’s desire to support downtown businesses and customers.  Noting that petition language is not usually adopted verbatim, and that she expected to negotiate portions of the document with the city, Smith says, “What needed to happen, was that a partnership needed to begin between the city and the petitioners.”  Smith is disappointed that no partnership has developed.

Chuck Bennett is councilor for Ward 1, which includes downtown.   Bennett says that finding a solution that works, and is “acceptable to the majority of residents, employees, property and business owners is a challenge for all involved.”

Salem City Council is the only entity that has the power to change the code regarding downtown residents parking on the street.  The city’s website says that council, “may want to revisit this issue in the future.”

It would seem to be an effort worth making.  Although Bennett says, “so far these different [downtown] constituents have been unable to agree on” a solution, he vows that city council “will continue to work with them on finding one.”

The attitude of downtown business seems to be one of impatience to do just that, and sooner than later.  Gassner says, “I think there needs to be dialogue between the city and the committee, people like Carole Smith, who did the petitions in the first place.”

Smith concurs that this would be a productive step.  “Any kind of communication with the city council would have been welcomed, and still would be.”

The will to change the rules already exists.  A “Survey Monkey” poll taken of about 100 downtown businesses in November showed that more than 64% of respondents believed downtown residents should be prohibited from parking downtown during daytime business hours.

Although Bennett feels the downtown community can’t agree on a plan, Dave Moss, who served as treasurer for the petition effort and is himself a former City Councilor, believes it is the city council that has resisted dialogue.  Moss says he hasn’t “seen this city council listen to dissent well, and, as a result, they don’t seek to bring different sides together well.  But to solve downtown parking, people have to come together with their different points of view.”

In the end it may not matter who is at “fault” as how the community joins together to respond to the problem.  Mayor Anna Peterson was in Japan during the writing of this story, but in her 2014 State of the City remarks, she suggested the value she put on teamwork and respectful exchange when she described the current Salem City Council, “the Collaboration Council.”

Moss believes the Mayor’s statement is a positive one for all who want to solve downtown parking issues such as residents who park on the street.

“For people to really come together, they have to bring their own points of view and articulate them, and they have to listen to other people’s points of view,” he says.

“It’s when you do this that you can look for common ground.  And that’s how you find solutions.”

5 Comments

  1. This article calls the consequences of this decision “unintended.” Even if so, they were still quite predictable. When Go Downtown Salem, a downtowners’ organization whose directors were regularly elected by all downtowners, was the EID administrator (and thus the downtown representative to the City), it pushed for and had a series of meetings with senior City Staff about downtown parking options. I know this because I was at all of those meetings. Folks who didn’t want to even discuss those possibilities (because the forbidden option of paid parking would be discussed and examined) were largely the same people who were the primary forces behind this recent petition, which ultimately resulted in this City council decision, and then these so-called “unintended consequences.”

    After the City decided to terminate parking discussions with Go Downtown Salem, it then decided to not renew Go Downtown Salem as EID adminstrator after the first 3-year EID period. Instead, the City appointed Salem Downtown Partnership as the new EID administrator (and new downtown representative to the City). Judge like these petitioners, Salem Downtown Partnership was largely run by and under the influence of Carole Smith and her husband Eric Kittleson. That appointment (as EID adminstrator) was a predictable disaster and consistent with predictions made, the City found it necessary to revoke the Partnership’s EID administrator contract less than half-way into the new EID contract term.

    If the City really wants to have meaningful discussions with downtowners, it needs to allow downtowners to act through an organization run by directors that downtowners elect. Go Downtown Salem was just that kind of an organization, and while it generally had a cooperative relationship with the City, it represented downtowners when downtown interests did not align with that of the City. Maybe that didn’t sit well with the City. Hard to say, but it certainly is the case that the City terminated the most representative organization downtowners had ever created and replaced it with an organization that couldn’t even get through a half of the EID contract period. If some downtowners think this was a divide and conquer strategy by the City, they’d have good cause for thinking that way, because that certainly was the effect.

    Councilor Bennett may say the problem is that downtowners can’t agree on a plan. I say the problem is that Councilor Bennett and other City Councilors didn’t and won’t allow downtowners to decide on their own representatives to the City. Downtowners decided on their representative. It was solely the action of the City that terminated that representation after three years.

    Again, maybe these pretty parking consequences were unintended but they certain weren’t unpredictable.

    Final note: After all of this wrangling, guess who now has control of the EID funds (which are dollars downtown property owners put up by taxing themselves with a special EID assessment)? Yes, that would be the City. Property owners money but City control. Hmmmm. Just how did that happen again?

  2. This is a good explanation of the problems with downtown parking after voters petitioned to have unlimited, free downtown parking. What now is missing is a common agreement on how the issues caused by the petitioners and the underlying unsustainable funding model being used (a tax on businesses downtown) can be resolved to everyone’s satisfaction. I think it can be and will continue to work on it.

  3. Why on earth do downtown businesses object to downtown residents parking where they live? Don’t they realize who some of their best customers are? That’s right, their own neighbors. They pay taxes and rent too. I shop there a lot and enjoy supporting local businesses, but if this is the kind of welcome the residents are getting, I’ll just shop online. Amazon doesn’t care where I park, and they deliver anything I want right to my door.

    As for the “unintended consequences” of the petition, looks like someone learned the hard way to be careful what you ask for. Really, the businesses need to wake up and realize that they set the tone for their experience. Fighting their own city, their neighbors and their customers does not sound like a sustainable business plan.

  4. Chuck Bennett says “voters petitioned to have unlimited, free downtown parking.” So what? Sure, some people signed paper petitions solicited by a very people who just love to do politics by meaningless petitions. How many people, when presented with a 20 second, badly oversimplied pitch that promised them something and unlimited (free and unlimited parking), would be shy about signing that petition? And then Chuck Bennett, a City Council member, wants to blame City decisions on the “voters” who presented these “petitions.”

    For the life of me, I don’t know why City Council is willing to jump whenever someone sticks a short stack of petition papers under their nose and says “jump.” Again, some years ago, the City designated a downtowner approved organization (Go Downtown Salem), whose governing documents provided that the organization’s directors were voted in by ALL DOWNTOWNERS, to represent the downtowners’ perspective on whatever issue arose. The reason for having Go Downtown Salem was so that the City no longer had to do the impossible job of discerning what petitions from a few downtowners meant and whether those petitions really were cause for the City to “jump.” BUT THE CITY DECIDED, UNILATERALLY, to discontinue Go Downtown Salem as the EID administrator (and downtown representative) after the first three year EID term, appointing instead a different a group that couldn’t make it through half of the second EID term. END RESULT: the City’s decisions eliminated a meaningful and rational way to for downtowners to speak as a single community and discuss issues with the City, and allowed the City to control all EID funds and complete power to decide which downtowners, if any of them, they will listen to.

    So now, if anyone wants to have influence with the City, they can do that only by gathering petitions that promise free things to those who sign, and then stick those petitions under the nose of City Councilors and say “jump.”

    All of which means we are back to square one — the City makes all the decisions for downtowners, and will only listen to the few most shrill voices that gather petition signatures and loudly complain at City Council meetings, especially when that allows the City to blame downtowners for being the source of any particular problem.

    The City ends up with all the power (control of EID dollars and no downtown organization to oppose it) while downtowners are assigned all of the responsibility (that is, blame — just as happened here). That’s a pretty good racket for the City.

  5. A comment above asks: “Why on earth do downtown businesses object to downtown residents parking where they live?”

    Who says they do? No downtown business that I know thinks like that. Most or all downtown businesses simply want a rational downtown parking strategy that fully takes into account the realities of downtown’s parking resources. Exactly what is that strategy? Frankly, no one really knows at this point, but the process for getting there (which had been started several years ago) was terminated when the City eliminated the downtowner-approved downtowners’ organization (Go Downtown Salem) that was rationally discussing with City officials what that parking strategy might be, and explore with parking vendors the particulars of the options they could offer.

    The “unintended consequences” described in this article result from a mindless petition that promised unlimited and free parking to those who would sign, and a City Council that used the mindless petition as an excuse to do a 18- degree reversal of its own policy (from a number of years ago) and do something that was as mindless as the petition, but then blame it all on downtowners.

    ‘Divide and conquer’ is political tactic that works, even if Machiavellian. And that tactic is used by a few (but only a few) downtowners. But it is being used here by the City (a majority of City Councilors actually), as evidenced by the above comment of the downtown resident who has been persuaded that downtown businesses don’t want him and other downtown residents to park where they live.

    Three things are clear: (1) This is no way to make decisions about downtown; (2) Ultimately, choosing this way to make decisions about downtown was a choice made by the City, because only the City has (and had) the power to dictate how these decisions are made; (3) The City wants to blame (and is blaming) downtowners for the series of decisions the City itself has made.

    Power and Responsibility must always be equally distributed. Here the City insists on having the first but refuses to own the second. That is always a formula for dysfunction.

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