Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Overbuilt Capacity: The Problem with Parking Today is Tomorrow's Problem with the Third Bridge

There's a hornets' nest for you! The paper came out Sunday with an editorial in favor of metered parking.

As far as these things go, it seemed like a reasonable and fairly nuanced piece in favor of a gradual, flexible, and incremental approach.  The SJ got it right!
The main advantages of street parking meters would be:
  • Producing adequate revenue to pay for city parking operations and upkeep of the city parkades. As a result, the parking tax paid by downtown businesses would end.
  • Enabling downtown visitors to purchase street parking for longer than the current two free hours.
  • Shifting more drivers to free parking in the city parkades, thereby opening up more street parking.
It's a complicated conversation because there are two matters, and analysis sometimes slides too easily between them.

One matter is the dynamic of supply and demand - making sure that someone can find parking when they want it.

The other is revenue for the operating and capital expenses for parking.

Metered parking addresses both supply-demand and revenue.

Some say, "oh, I won't come downtown if I have to pay" - but the current plan would retain free parking in the garages for people that find "not-free" a deal-breaker.

Downtown remains something of a fragile and not-quite healthy ecosystem.  We should all want to be careful with it.  At the same time, whatever it is we've been doing, isn't exactly working.  A strong reason to think hard about metered parking is that free parking isn't working all that well.  Downtown isn't healthy, free parking hasn't made it healthy, and while change is difficult and sometimes scary, it's hard to understand why people see free parking as an effective key for downtown health.  Maybe an excess of free parking is part of the disease.  Metered on-street parking will contribute to a more lively streetscape, a more attractive downtown, and in the end attract even more people.

What is the Problem?

An older facade on the Chemeketa Parkade  
Too much parking and too many damn parking garages!

Marion, Chemeketa, Pringle all operate ≤ 50% full
There's a huge surplus of parking in City garages.  At peak the Liberty Parkade is about 60% full, and the rest operate under 50% full at peak.

The SE Corner of Chemeketa and Commercial
Then: Eldridge Block circa 1940, Salem Library
Inset, today: Chemeketa Parkade
(Click to enlarge)
To construct the garages we've demolished historic buildings and main street storefronts. In the 70s this may have seemed like a good idea, but now we find ourselves with parking garages that aren't even half full.  And we've diminished our stock of old-time buildings that add character and ground-floor retail to the historic commercial core.  The garages are dead space and they deaden downtown.

Additionally, they exact other costs. They're expensive. The budget for City parking in Salem has been around $2.7 million annually. The parking tax paid by downtown merchants only covers $386,500, parking permits a little over $500,000. The gap has to be plugged by the City.  In previous years the gap has been   over a million.  Going forward, deferred maintenance and other needs have created an on-going annual gap of about $700,000 ($200,000 operations, $500,000 capital projects).   While the total budget in the future seems to be smaller than $2.7 million, the on-going gap remains significant. The City and Task Force agree this needs to stop.*

As others have pointed out, the ways we have overbuilt our parking garages is a lot like the ways some folks want to overbuild a giant bridge and highway.

If you want to see the future of the giant bridge and highway, in miniature this is it:  We've got a problem paying for the overbuilt capacity!  (Wonder of wonders.)

So what to do?

Meter the Garages?

More than one person has objected to metered on-street parking as a matter of equity.  They suggest it's the garages that need meters, not the on-street stalls.
The revenue problem is in the garages - but the city wants to leave the garages free, and make the customers who never use the garages pay....

The large department stores, with out of town owners, who pay between $46,000 - $18,000 a year in parking tax now, will NOT pay any parking tax at all - and they will still be connected to the parking garages so their customers can still park free for as long as they want, while customers of the small, locally owned businesses, whose never use the parking garages, will HAVE to pay all the costs of the parking garages through their parking meter fees. 
But how would charging only for the garages work? Who would use metered garage stalls if the on-street parking remained free?

The incentives don't seem right.

By charging for parking in the garages only, their peak utilization at +/- 50% will go down even more.  They'll just empty out as people will understandably prefer to park for free on-street.

Right now on-street occupancy is less than 75%.  As the useage of the still-free on-street stalls rises, this could nudge the peak utilization of on-street parking up to the threshold of 85%, which at the moment is regarded as the optimal level and usually is the trigger threshold for a metered on-street program.

So metering the garages just intensifies the problems with on-street parking and still leads to meters, doesn't it?

There's also a surplus of on-street parking
Maybe we can some of it for parklets, sidewalks, and bike lanes?
It seems like a proposal to charge for parking in the garages only, in not so very long turns into a situation where you need to charge for on-street parking anyway.  That's one reason why selling off the garages may not work.

Charging for on-street parking is not some scheme to screw small, locally-owned businesses.  Charging for on-street parking will instead achieve market efficiencies in a failed parking market that has asked drivers to pay in time instead of coin - the bread-line approach of asking drivers to waste time and to drive potentially erratically searching for a free spot.  Metered parking is also a street safety program!

(At the same time, maybe there is an equity issue here, and maybe a move for metered on-street parking needs to accommodate the fact that there are these city-built and city-operated parking garages that could disproportionately benefit big-ish box chain retail.

The City should probably spend more time in crafting and then sharing the argument against charging for the garage stalls only.

If at the end of debate and discussion there's a consensus that there is in fact an issue of equity, it seems like some kind of compensatory mechanism could be built into a fair scheme for metered on-street parking.  That's a detail matter of adjustment and negotiation, not a total argument against metered parking.)

Free Parking didn't Work - Why dig in on a Failed Policy?

Downtown Surface Parking Lots in Red
Parking Garages in Solid Brick Red
On-street parking stalls not included
click to enlarge (1 mb total, 1874 x 1114 px)
The objections to metered parking miss the larger ways that the monoculture of cars in our downtown streets and surface lots degrades the total downtown.

Again, just look at the satellite maps and see how much surface area we devote to car storage!  An animation from say 1930 to 2010 would be shocking as the appetite for car storage devoured lots and buildings disappeared.

We've had the free parking program for 35 years.  The district was established in 1978.

We should ask, was there ever a time during this period that downtown was really healthy?  Is there an interval we can point to as the "golden age of free parking" in Salem, whose conditions we should look at - maybe even copy - as closely as is possible?

Or is it the case that despite the free parking program, downtown has generally struggled since the 70s?

In any case, for whatever reasons, here we are after 35 years, and downtown is still not fully healthy.

One conclusion might be that maybe after 35 years of a program that was only partially successful at best, maybe it's time to change gears and try something new.

We've lost sight of the fact that it is people doing business, not the cars.

Right now it happens that most people arrive for business in cars, but this is only a very recent phenomenon in the history of cities.  (And, again, accommodating this trend hasn't seemed to work.)  Car travel and its dominance not likely to continue in the same ways.  Between the resurgence of street cars, increasing numbers of people on bike and on foot, the hopeful prospect of a fully functioning Cherriots, and wacky stuff like the google car, the total transportation mix is on the cusp of real, structural change, and we should not assume that parking needs will remain constant over the next couple of decades.  We should be thinking about change.

Less is More:  Achieving a Better Proportion and Mix

Parklet for Parking:  172% increase in retail sales!
Measuring the Street: New Metrics for 21st Century Streets
New York City Department of Transportation
So maybe less is more. Preliminary evidence suggests there's addition by subtraction, and that with somewhat fewer cars on downtown streets there will actually be more people downtown lingering, spending, and circulating money.  Especially as people respond to the lure of continued free parking in the garages, it may be easier to replace some on-street stalls with bike lanes or parklets, and to make a more human streetscape.  We might be able to reallocate some space in small ways.  Replacing car parking with parklets and bike lanes in NYC has boosted sales at nearby merchants.  Early studies in Portland and other studies elsewhere show biking customers visit businesses more often and have a lifetime value that is greater than car customers in many retail sectors.  There are people who currently avoid downtown because it is too full of cars!

The downtown linear park streetscape concept was heading in this direction, but it also placed a lot of weight on retaining and even expanding the total number of car parking stalls.

By metering on-street parking, we will be able to make sure that there is a conveniently located stall open where and when you want it.  By metering, we use market efficiencies to do a better job of matching supply and demand - and how can a businessperson object to that?  Keeping the garages free means there will always be parking for people who prefer to pay in time - in a walk - rather than pay a buck or two for a spot right in front of their destination.  As the airlines know, variable pricing works!

Metering may also mean we can reallocate space in big ways. It will also tighten up the ways the parking surplus is used, and in more efficient use of parking, it may be that one or more of the garages can be redeveloped as something more valuable - like right-priced housing.

It's possible, too, that the turn-over ensured by a metered parking program will actually net more cars downtown, but with variable pricing could distribute them in a better and more healthy pattern.

In the end, it's not anti-car - it's about proportion. Overall, we need a much more diverse ecosystem in the downtown economy - diversity of people, diversity of businesses, diversity of uses and times of use, diversity of transportation choices, not a just a monoculture of cars and free parking.  Metering on-street parking is a step in the right direction.

Parking Task Force materials, memos, and reports can be seen here.  They are labeled "Reference-mm-dd-yy" with multiple documents bundled for each meeting.  Unfortunately, this is not a helpful way of listing them so interested citizens can research and read.  

There's a good exchange in the comments over at Hinessight that anticipates many of the ideas here.  Salem Cherry Pits (and here) also has a lively debate.  

* A Footnote on the Financials

I can't quite get my mind around this, but in a couple of places folks have suggested that there's some creative bookkeeping going on in order to create a false sense of deficits.  Without digging too much into detail, here are two of the City's budget reports to Council on the parking district budget.  I've simplified some, and left out a few odds-n-ends.  The column headers link to the original reports if you need more detail.  In both 2009 and 2012  there's a deficit in the ballpark of that $700,000 figure.  Even if you quibble with some of the numbers, there's still a clear sense in which the income isn't enough to cover both operating and capital costs.  It's just not possible to conclude the City is trying to extract general fund money from parking.  The City is just trying to get parking to pay for itself.

Income (in thousands) 2009 2012
Parking Tax $374 $386
Permits and Parking Rent $557 $507
Ground Floor Leases $160 $150
Total Income $1,091 $1,043
Expenses (in thousands)
Maintenance/operations $323 $331
Security $409 $264
Marketing $100 $100
Capital Projects $918 $1,414
Total Expenses $1,750 $2,109
Deficit -$659 -$1,066


Chris Rall said...

I'm still trying to understand why unloading one of the parking structures isn't on the table. Metering on-street parking may be inevitable in the long run, but at 75% on-street peak occupancy, I'm having trouble seeing it work well at the moment. It seems like the problem is over-supply of parking coupled with lack of funds to repair the parking structures. I don't see a demand problem, which is what metering helps solve. Is land worth so little in downtown Salem that you can't make money knocking down a parking structure and selling the lot to a developer?

Curt said...

The parking study found that the "core retail area" of about 789 spaces does have occupancy over 90%. That study recommended metering only those spaces which would net over $600,000 in net revenue. That suggests that in that area there is room for better management of those spaces. Those businesses could benefit from meters, even though they are vocally opposed to them.

These are also high end "boutique" type shops. I think a high end customer would rather pay to have a spot that is readily available than cruise for free parking.

A former councilor recently pointed out to me that the city tried to sell the garages years ago but no one was interested. IIRC redevelopment of the Marion Parkade is stalled but still on the table.

The parking district has about 2373 off street spaces and 1161 on street. Even at 50% capacity higher total numbers are using the garages. Redeveloping a garage is the right solution but reducing the off street supply will quickly push the on street supply to capacity and then meters will be needed for parking anyway.

Its a tough pill to swallow but a successful downtown Salem will have parking meters.

Curt said...

This is a cool project:

Salem Breakfast on Bikes said...

Thanks for clarifying about the "core retail area"! And that inforgraphic site on parking ratios is interesting.

Here's more on the Marion Parkade redevelopment (down at the bottom of the post). It's stalled, as Curt says.

With a Union St Bikeway, the intersection of High and Union could be really cool, and it would be great to see a restart there with a focus on low-car development.

It's really hard to get a read on downtown redevelopment, though. The Meridian and Rivers condos were totally priced wrong and aimed at the wrong market segment. 295 Church, on the other hand, has seemed alright. The Roth/McGilchrist rehab looks promising, and it looks like it will also be priced right. Part of the problems with redeveloping may be errant market analysis and development teams with the wrong skillsets. Is redevelopment stalled because downtown can't support it yet? Or is redevelopment stalled because we have bad or inappropriate or incorrectly priced redevelopment? I'm inclined to see it as the latter. Hopefully the survey and research for the North Downtown area will yield a better sense of direction for future redevelopment so that it is successful.