Salem downtown businesses want to change two parking regulations they say damages them. They have been frustrated by the city’s pace in responding to their plight so far, but actions may be set in motion to finally create change.
It is rare to find a Salem area resident that has not gotten – or who does not know someone who has gotten – a parking ticket in downtown because of the 2-hour parking limit and the once-per-day-per block rule. Frustrated business owners say that not allowing customers to park more than two hours, or more than once in the same block in the same day, impacts their business negatively. And confusing signs make things worse.
“I have talked to a very large number of downtown business owners who are strongly against this confusing [once-per-day] rule,” says Mike Rice, a Salem CPA and owner of Straight From New York Pizza. “I talk to people all the time who are wary about going downtown due to parking issues. If we are to develop a vibrant downtown we have to make it as easy to shop at all the great locally-owned businesses in our core as it is at the mall.”
Chuck Bennett, City Councilor for Ward 1, a territory centered on downtown, agrees there is a problem. “I know the frustration this causes many businesses and downtown visitors. I hear about it regularly… What is clear to me is that this current system is unnecessarily confusing, especially to folks who don’t regularly use the downtown area.”
“I want the parking to change because two hours is not enough for our clients to shop and have a nice lunch,” says Mary Lou Zeek, owner of the popular downtown gallery. “Also, the problem with getting a ticket if one comes back to shop… [It’s] way too complicated.”
Jim Vigeland runs Art Department, Inc., an art supply store that has received complaints from customers who visited his shop a few minutes in the morning to pick something up – then returned later in the day for something else and returned to their car to find a ticket. In each case the customer was parked on the block for less than 15-minutes total for the day and Vigeland remarks how getting a ticket causes bitter feelings.
“Business people try hard to create a downtown that is friendly,” he says. “These parking policies completely undermine that.”
Signs were installed downtown with a two-hour limit in 2007. Because parking services received complaints the city reworded the signs for greater clarity in 2008.
In November 2011, more than 70 downtown business people sent a petition to the Downtown Advisory Board (DAB), a citizen group who advises City of Salem Urban Renewal Agency and the city council. The petition reads,
“We, the undersigned, support elimination of the downtown parking ordinance that prohibits parking more than once per day per block face. This unnecessary rule reflects negatively on downtown shopping, and is unfriendly, and confusing for our customers and visitors.”
“I think something has to happen NOW… “ says Mary Lou Zeek. “Ask the people to whom it matters, the downtown businesses. They will all say that the current parking situation needs to change and soon. Customers are angry, businesses are unhappy.”
City figures show that 8,500 area residents were affected by the two rules last year. But when city staff considered only the once-per-block-per-day rule it found it represented just 6% of citations and that changing it would cost about $128,000 in new equipment and signs. When DAB discussed the matter in January, it found the once-per-block-per-day rule was the source of so few citations that, “perhaps DAB should be more focused on looking broader,” according to a city memorandum.
In April, when parking issues arose again at a DAB meeting, the group asked its parking subcommittee for a review. But despite its earlier conclusion that a broader scope was needed, DAB gave its subcommittee permission to investigate only the once-per-block-per-day rule.
The subcommittee reviewed the regulation in May. The three members have different understandings of their outcome. According to two, the three voted unanimously to recommend to DAB that the rule be suspended. The third says that the group’s mission was broader and that no vote was taken at all.
Sheri Wahrgren, Downtown Revitalization Manager for the City’s Urban Development Department, works as a liaison with DAB. She says that her office has received no indication that the 2-hour limit and the once-per-block-per-day rules generate more frustration or complaint than other parking laws. She says the rules were designed to help with on-street parking occupancy levels and to encourage longer-term parkers to utilize off-street capacity.
“The results of the recent customer satisfaction parking survey, that had more than 1,000 responses, suggests that the ordinances are working,” she comments.
“In addition, the parking utilization data collected over the last six years supports the ordinances.”
Although in the survey only 6.8% of the responders were business owners, and customers who have stopped coming downtown were missing – the highest number of responders did report themselves satisfied with the accessibility of parking spaces and somewhat satisfied with availability.
In the course of months of conversation, businesses generated the idea to simply putting bags over parking signs for three months this summer as a test. Ward 8 City Councilor, Dan Clem, feels the idea has some merit.
“I’m in favor of a trial suspension of the two-hour-per-block-face rule to see if it helps businesses and circulation during the summer,” Clem says. The non-binding experiment might test if downtown revenues would benefit from a more welcoming atmosphere and see how parkers would react.
“Why not?” asks Jim Vigeland. “Three months would be pretty harmless, and I think it would be helpful. A lot of people want to go to two or three stores and have lunch now, but the sizable ticket discourages them.”
Other councilors and constituents disagree, saying not enough information has been gathered and the problem is too complicated for this trial.
Some business owners such as Alan Schechtman (Sid’s Home Furnishings) and officials like Ward 2 City Councilor Laura Tesler don’t believe that the two ordinances are actually the main problem at all, but instead it’s the way business owners and employees park in the street and cause a shortage of spots. Back when the city initiated the 2-hour rules they actually lifted a program that enforced employee parking with a hefty fines for employees and employers.
Wahrgren reminds us that, whatever the solution found, changes will have to come from Salem’s City Council.
To that end, downtown’s Councilor Bennett wants to tackle the problem afresh. He believes that since years of studies have not found a solution, Salem needs a more comprehensive, timeline-critical approach. He proposed a new Parking Taskforce at the June 11 City Council meeting, a group to assess “all the parking issues and solutions that have been put forward over the years…” Involving members of the City Council and DAB, businesspeople and others, Bennett believes, “this work should be completed by the end of summer or early fall. A set of recommendations can be acted upon by DAB and the council fairly quickly.”
“It’s time to make a long term, committed decision on how to deal with these… parking issues and conflicts,” says Bennett, “and, that’s what I think we’re going to do.”
Time will tell if Bennett’s new task force will really help downtown businesses.
Perhaps it will find that the city is correct, and that the perception of a problem is just that – only a perception.
Given all the frustration of last November’s petitioners and the importance of a thriving, friendly city center, some clear answers might do Salem a great deal of good.