Downtown parking might be free for you and me, but it’s not free for downtown merchants and their employees.  Businesses pay a parking tax assessment and employees must buy monthly parking passes or risk a $93 parking ticket.

Affordable and accessible parking has always been considered necessary to ensure the continued vitality of any downtown and Salem’s downtown is no exception.  Realizing this, the City established the Downtown Parking District in 1976 with the objective of providing free on-site and off-street parking for patrons of the downtown area.  

The District’s annual budget tops $1,000,000.  In addition to the $300,000 in parking taxes and the $500,000 raised from the sale of employee parking permits, the City adds another $200,000 to the District budget and a portion of retail and office rent from businesses in the Chemeketa and Liberty parking structures add another $200,000.

The District’s budget is used to maintain the parkades and other parking facilities and to provide security in the downtown area.  Funds are also supposed to be used to provide staffing support for the Downtown Advisory Board and for downtown parking promotions, decorations, and community events.   

These funds should buy the downtown businesses adequate parking but deferred maintenance, mismanagement of funds, and the opening of the Salem Conference Center has upset the balance of the supply and demand for parking. Other major projects underway will further impact the changing landscape of downtown.  As a result, the District’s future and the future of free customer downtown parking are in question.  

In the coming months, interested and affected parties will face the challenge of determining who should pay for the cost of parking and how to preserve the vitality of downtown.

Whether by poor planning or by better than expected success, the parking needs of Salem Conference Center have encroached upon the number of parking spaces available to downtown shoppers.  The Center has 16 conference rooms; the largest can hold up to 1,600 guests, but the hotel and conference center share just 288 underground spaces.  

By paving a lot on the corner of Church and Trade Street and directing conference attendees to this and the roof of the Pringle Parkade, the City had hoped to deter conference attendees from parking on the surrounding streets.  However, the ample parking available on the streets north of the conference center is a convenient alternative for those heading to the Conference Center.

The Central Area Neighborhood Development Association (CAN-DO), the neighborhood association representing the downtown area, recommended mandatory valet parking for the Salem Conference Center.  Prior to a February 2005 public hearing on conference center parking, CAN-DO sent this recommendation to the Mayor and Council dated January 28:

All conference center cars should be valet parked.  Valet parking should be prepaid by the conference center attendees as part of their registration fee.  The underground parking area should be used as a staging area for the valet parking.  Valet parking should be provided by a private contractor.
CAN-DO letter to Mayor and Council 1/28/05

It’s not clear whether this recommendation was given serious consideration at the time.
When contacted for this article, some councilors could not recall the extent to which the proposed valet parking was given due consideration and others responded that requiring valet parking is not a viable solution.  

“Valet parking is certainly possible for a restaurant with set hours, or a large enough special event that warrants hiring a contractor to come in and do it,” City Councilor Brent DeHart said. “But I am not sure it would work with the Conference Center. You could go days or weeks without an event that requires it.”

The recommendation of CAN-DO was entered into the February 14, 2005 Council Meeting but members of CAN-DO are skeptical that it was considered and suggest that the City is already committed to a plan of first limiting free parking and eventually replacing free parking with pay parking.  In January 2005, City staff made this recommendation to the City Council:

Approve the institution of a two-hour limit for all unrestricted, on-street parking spaces in the Downtown Parking District…
Source: January 18, 2005Community DevelopmentDepartment Issue Report

Ultimately, Council approved the overflow parking plan that included paving the lot on the corner of Church and Trade Street that could hold 100 spaces and using the roof of the Pringle Parkade to park another 150 vehicles.  

Apparently, this plan did not sufficiently address parking concerns of nearby businesses.

“Downtown business employee parking on the street in unlimited spots was just as big a problem as the Salem Conference Center is having on downtown parking,” City Councilor Dan Clem said.

In November the Council approved a temporary two-hour parking restriction between State Street and the Convention Center.  The two-hour parking restriction went into effect on December 8.

Does this signal the beginning of the end of free, unlimited downtown parking?  There is reason to believe it will.

“The next step will be ‘try something else,’ and we have input for going in each direction, from meters to better enforcement to no free parking anywhere,” DeHart said.

But there is no set plan for deciding whether more stringent restrictions are needed yet.  The council plans on waiting for feedback from local merchants before deciding on what action to take.

Clem said that he will watch the affected and nearby businesses to determine the effectiveness of the temporary two hour parking limit. He will also rely on input from other councilors and various advisory boards.

“Council has not yet seen recommendations from the Downtown Advisory Board or the Economic Improvement District Task Force to address the downtown parking issues,” Clem said.

The council vote that approved the parking limitation also requires that a public hearing be held no later than March 1, 2006.