Saturday, November 7, 2009

Downtown Parking Committee Meets, and Wager Dispute Impacts Local Bookies

The parking policy downtown has to satisfy a lot of conflicting needs. Shoppers have to do their shopping under the two-hour limit before getting ticketed. To avoid the ticket they must move their vehicle 500 feet as the crow flies. Shoppers are not provided with a handy crow. Business owners and employees need cheap all-day parking conveniently close to their shops, but at the same time, retailers want lots of spaces out front for customers. Businesses located behind the shops or in upstairs offices -- the firms who are part of what I call "deeper Bend" -- may seldom require customer parking, but their needs for employee parking must still be met.

It's surely a Gordian Knot that may never be untied to everyone's satisfaction.

Terri Cumbi, owner of Dudley's BookShop Café, threw open the door of her shop on Minnesota Avenue at 9 am last Tuesday to host a meeting of the downtown parking committee. Chuck Arnold, the executive director of the Downtown Bend Business Association chaired the meeting of about ten shop and property owners. City mayor pro tem Mark Capell attended, as did KOHD's Lauren Biskind. I introduced myself as a local blogger. Meaning I have time on my hands.

The main issue revolved around the two-hour limit on free parking, its impact on the downtown shopping experience, and how it conflicts with the needs of downtowners who need to park their cars someplace.

Two of the members, both women, said that women shoppers find the the two-hour limit frustrating. Some of the men scratched their heads over this, surely feeling that two hour should be plenty to buy anything. But given that women do most of the shopping, their needs should be addressed.

Footzone's Teague Hatfield also pointed out that trying to have a leisurely lunch with friends from out of town while keeping your car ahead of Diamond Parking's troops is not easy.

From the employee/business owner's viewpoint, several members stated that the modest $45 per month fee for a permit which grants all-day parking on the top of the downtown parking structure is uncomfortably high.

I know of one downtown firm which is laying out nearly $1,000 a month for employee parking permits. Part-time employees who work just a few hours downtown often don't find the permit affordable.

Free parking in the structure is highly unlikely, Capell said. The city spent quite a bundle building that facility and has to pay for it.

So some downtowners simply find it more cost-effective to just keep an eye out for Diamond Parking and move their cars before they get ticketed. "Taking my chances on the occasional $65 ticket makes more sense than spending $45 a month," one downtown business owner told me.

Cumbi recently discovered how prevalent this practice is when she accompanied a member of Diamond enforcement staff for some downtown walkarounds and witnessed folk dash out of their shops to move their cars before Diamond got to them. She showed maps of the downtown with the locations of employee cars marked in red. Looked like the maps had the measles.

Some downtowners are using texting to warn friends in nearby stores about Diamond's progress. These are retailers who don't want all the parking spaces in front of their shop taken up with employee's cars but are not bothered by packing up the spaces in front of somebody else's shop, it seems.

For the meeting, the city provided a list naming names of repeat offenders who have been ticketed for violating the two-hour limit. There are around 70 people who have received ten or more citations in the past year, and the roster of those who have received five to nine tickets was said to fill four pages.

The crux of the matter is this: The two-hour limit exists because of those relatively few people who don't find the parking structure to be convenient or cost-effective, or who enjoy gaming the system. One member, the owner of a downtown restaurant, stated emphatically that he'll park wherever he wants to.

Steeply escalating the fines for repeat offenders was proposed, making it economically senseless to risk getting more tickets. Then, perhaps, the time limit could be extended by another hour, or even more.

(This reporter knows a good idea when he hears one. Boot the cars of the repeat offenders. Dynamite them off the streets, I say!)

The downtowners are taking this idea to the city council. However, this doesn't appear to be a new idea. According to the minutes of the September 23, 2008 meeting of the Bend Urban Renewal Agency:
Another issue discussed was the chronic employee abuse of the system. Mr. Russell added that parking revenues are up. Member Dempster suggested tripling or quadrupling the fines. Mr. Datwyler explained that Councilor Capell is very interested in this issue and met with the Downtowners’ Board and a tentative escalating fine structure was set up. Mr. Datwyler announced a Council work session on October 15 to discuss this issue.

[...] Member Kesgard was supportive of new fine structure and asked if the other Councilors were in agreement and Mr. Datwyler replied they agreed, but are not as adamant. Further discussion followed on the escalating citations, booting and signage.

But the minutes for the August 20, 2008 meeting state that,
Member Abernethy understood Member Capell’s concept about significantly increasing the citation amounts, but did not agree because it is not in alignment with the infraction occurring. He would increase the fine some, but $500 would be too much and limiting to three hours would be an administrative nightmare.
Looks like some smoke-filled back room negotiations and arm-twisting are needed.

The parking lot at Mirror Pond has machines that afford a method to purchase another hour beyond the first two, but there's something goofy with the way the machines are set up which some have taken advantage of to obtain a five hour pass. Ice's Marty Brazil recommended that the city take a look at re-program the things to disappear the loophole.

Wine shop owner Melanie Betti made the suggestion that another way to ease up on the congested parking is to put up signage directing out-of-towners to the parking structure. According to many, folks unfamiliar with downtown are surprised to learn of the existence of the facility. The committee agreed to take this idea to the city as well.

The downtown recently started a program where customers who got cited for overstaying the time limit could get the ticket canceled if they made a $10 purchase in any of the downtown shops and mailed a copy of the receipt along with the ticket to the city. It's a program that has been well-received. I think the number mentioned was that there have been over six hundred customers who have been granted a Get Out Of Jail card. Some shop owners are even handling the paperwork for their customers.

But, according to a few people I've talked to, Diamond can't be counted on to always put the explanatory slips into the ticket envelopes. However, this might be because the folk I talked to were referring to their own citations, and as Cumbi learned, Diamond knows the cars of downtown employees by sight.

With an eye toward finding more affordable places for employees to park, it was asked whether some of the streets on the periphery of the downtown, but still within the enforcement area, could be set up with a permit system that allows for unlimited free parking. Another idea for the city.

And what happened to the 15-minute loading spaces that used to exist on every block, someone wanted to know. How did those get changed to police parking only spaces?

This was not a dispassionate meeting. The level of frustration felt by some of the members led, at times, to raised voices. One member practically pulled a Joe Wilson ("You lie!") when Capell said that downtown parking ticket revenue was a trivial amount of income to the city and they would not notice it if it went away.

It was asked why the press was even there -- such things should not be shown on TV, it was argued, and that while the meetings should be transparent to members of the Association, showing the inner workings of a sometimes emotional meeting wasn't necessarily a good thing for the image of the downtowners. (KOHD did cover the story that evening, but avoided footage of the more interesting bits.)

Brazil, who had been largely quiet for most of the meeting, wrapped things up by acknowledging the viewpoints of the members and summarizing the action items to be taken to the city. Brazil seems to know her onions. Like Capell, she has been doing business in downtown Bend for, like, ever and is very familiar with what has been tried in the past and what works and what doesn't.

At the conclusion of the meeting, it was agreed that Arnold would step aside as chair so that Betti and Cumbi could take over as committee co-chairs, allowing for more frequent meetings than Arnold's busy calender can permit.

As we walked out, Hatfield observed that some people didn't seem to be very happy that I was there.

I later learned that the member who objected to the presence of the press was only referring to the KOHD camera, and not me. She knew that I, as a blogger with a readership that can be counted on one hand, cannot in any way be considered a member of the esteemed Fourth Estate.

Though after this in-depth story is published it remains to be seen whether I'll be invited again. Stay tuned on that.

Everyone, it seems, has a reasonable gripe, but with the exception of last night's Gallery Art Walk when we could only find parking in the the parking structure,* I've never had trouble finding spots on the streets.

I am sympathetic to the shops that feel their business might be better if the downtown's parking felt less unfriendly. Even though it's impossible to prove that business would be better if customers found more spots to park in and had more shopping time, hearing customers complain about the time limit as they leave, purchases unpurchased, buying impulses thwarted, can be discouraging.

And to some businesses, having to fork over $45/month per permit can make the difference between being in the black or going into the red.

After all, coming up even a dollar short when it's time to pay the electric bill or a supplier is a serious bummer.

* The parking garage is not my favorite place to park, being another of those grim, utilitarian echo-y spaces which are a testament to all the former Soviet-era Russian architects who have found nice jobs in the U.S. designing these Stalinesque buildings. But it is in a good location and a coat of bright paint on the gray interior concrete walls and ducting would go a fair way toward lightening the overall mood. It couldn't hurt.

IN OTHER NEWS, the bet between Bend blogger Blackdog and me has been called off. A contentious detail had surfaced about how frequently Blackdog had to post his Daily Suck Index in order to claim the purse. We met on Wednesday night at Pine Tavern to try to reach an agreement on this delicate matter. But negotiations collapsed following a dispute about the shape of the table. Bend's bookmakers are returning customer wagers even as I write this.

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