City News, Uncategorized

Decades of free street parking downtown may be ending

For nearly 50 years, shoppers and diners could park free on downtown Salem streets.

Now, the city wants to bring that to an end.

City officials are working on a plan to charge motorists for that street parking. They suggest scrapping the taxes paid by downtown businesses that fund the street and parkade options. Customer parking in the city-owned garages would remain free.

In February, Salem City Council directed the city staff to put together such a plan. There is no schedule for when the plan would be completed.

Mayor Chris Hoy proposed the change, saying charging for street parking downtown is “inevitable” as demand grows and city expenses increase. He talked about the idea during his State of the City speech on March 22. 

Kristin Retherford, the city’s director of urban development, is part of the team building the plan. She said that for the past decade, parking studies have recommended the city move to a paid system to address demand, similar to systems used by comparable cities.

The city would install pay stations similar to those found outside downtown, she said. She said the team is also interested in apps and pay-by-plate options, which will be explored in the months to come.

Around 2013, she said the city put together a task force which recommended charging for downtown street parking. The council opted not to move forward after a downtown property owner created a petition to put the issue on the ballot, Retherford said.

“So the challenge with utilization has remained. And then secondly, the other challenge is the resources to pay for and support our parking system,” she said. 

The Downtown Parking District, established in 1976, spans from Northeast Front Street east to Northeast Church Street, and between Northeast Union Street south to Southeast Trade Street.

As of 2022, the district has 1,106 on-street parking spaces, and an additional 369 in the Liberty parking garage, 1,059 in the Marion garage and 617 in the Chemeketa garage.

The district taxes downtown businesses to support street parking and the parkades. Each business pays based on square footage, type of business and parking demand created by the business.

In the 2021 budget year, the city collected $365,840 in parking taxes from businesses. The top payers were Kohl’s, which paid $39,485, followed by Ross Dress for Less with $12,461 and U.S. Bank’s Ladd & Bush Branch with $12,066, according to data from the city.

The businesses who paid the highest amounts to the downtown parking tax in FY 2021-2022 (Courtesy/ City of Salem)

Expenses outpace revenue, according to the city.

In the 2022 budget  year, revenue, including taxes and rented spaces in the parking garages, totaled $945,830, about $29,210 short of city operating costs, according to data from the city.

The bulk of costs in 2022, about half a million dollars, went to routine maintenance, insurance, electricity, painting, landscaping and signage. Trash disposal cost around $37,000, and city staffing attributed to the parking system cost over $445,000.

Revenue from parking tickets doesn’t go to the downtown parking fund, and is instead put in the city’s general fund.

“Our parking tax was capped, and it has not kept up with inflation,” Retherford said. “So we’ve had to cut programs that have been supported by the parking tax, and we have not had the resources to continue things downtown.”

She said the city can no longer fund the downtown clean team or flower baskets to hang from the light posts. The city also had to stop paying for promotional support of the independent Salem Main Street Association. Security patrols in the parking garages are paid for directly by the city.

She said the loss of parking taxes from shuttered department stores also contributed to the issue, including Nordstrom in 2018, JCPenney in 2019 and TJ Maxx, which relocated in 2020 according to reporting from the Statesman Journal at the time.

Tom Hoffert, chief executive officer at the Salem Area Chamber of Commerce, said in an email to Salem Reporter that if paid parking were imposed, the chamber would be adamant that the business tax be lifted. He said he wanted to hear more details from the city before addressing the topic in more detail.

The city is looking to phase out the business tax, rather than overhaul it, because the tax otherwise would have to go up significantly, Retherford said.

She noted that businesses are subsidizing downtown residents who use the street parking. 

“It’s the business community that bears the cost of this. We have had a number of residents move into downtown that use on-street spaces that are essentially supported by the businesses that take up free parking spaces for businesses,” she said. “Residents should be getting permits in the parkades,” but work around it by moving their cars.

“By having a paid system, then it’s placing the cost for parking on the actual users of the parking system – which could be residents, could be employees, could be customers,” she said. 

Paid street parking also would fund the maintenance of downtown parking garages. 

Jim Vu, president of the Salem Main Street Association, said that the current downtown system is unsustainable and unpleasant. He said he doesn’t know if paid parking is the only solution, but that something has to change.

The current system created an “adversarial” dynamic between businesses and parking enforcement with the enforcement targeting employees, he said, and downtown entities need something simpler for everyone.

In the ongoing debate over downtown parking, Vu said that there’s a common misconception placing the blame on employees who move their cars a few times a day to take advantage of the free three-hour window, and avoid paying for a $75 monthly pass at the parkade. He believes this blame on employees is misguided, and there’s no ready way to monitor when a parker is an employee and or a customer.

“If you’re a business, let’s say you have somebody that works at a retail shop, that same person is a customer of a restaurant because they’re eating lunch somewhere. They’re getting coffee in other places,” he said.

Paid parking could be one way to address the contention over on-street parking, he said, and could encourage people to use the parkades which he said are underutilized.

“My mentality behind it all is that a parkade is three blocks or less from every business downtown,” he said, and that people will walk further on the average trip to Costco. “There’s an expectation that people can park right outside of where they want to go, but they do those behaviors outside of downtown and have no problem.”

A map of Salem’s Downtown Parking District, as shown in the city’s 2022 Parking Booklet (Courtesy/ City of Salem)

Contact reporter Abbey McDonald: [email protected] or 503-704-0355.

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Abbey McDonald joined the Salem Reporter in 2022. She previously worked as the business reporter at The Astorian, where she covered labor issues, health care and social services. A University of Oregon grad, she has also reported for the Malheur Enterprise, The News-Review and Willamette Week.