Ours views: Removing parking fee is a step forward

The Olympia City Council has a firm goal of purchasing property for a downtown parking garage by the close of 2007. How quickly a garage is built is anyone's guess, but it's terrific to see the City Council moving ahead on this pivotal parking priority.

Likewise, if all the cards fall into place, residents could be living in condominiums in the old Capitol Center Building by year's end - a step forward in the council's goal of bringing more housing to the downtown business district.

The council's pedestrian-friendly sidewalk interference ordinance goes into effect Feb. 1, and two months later the boot-and-tow ordinance aimed at overtime parkers will become law.

The Olympia City Council is making incremental progress and deserves credit from this community and this newspaper for moving ahead. The Olympian's editorial board is quick to criticize and hold the council members accountable for their missteps. When we see something we like, we want to laud those efforts.

Progress is being made in several key areas.

- Parking: Rather than wait for the construction of a parking garage, the council on Tuesday voted 5-2 to end the free parking zone in the downtown business district. There may still be some free parking along the Olympia waterfront, but for the most part the free parking zones are going to give way to meters.

The elimination of free parking will provide the economic incentive downtown employees and others who have abused the free parking privilege to use the 9-hour meters or parking stalls provided by their employers. One of the problems has been freeloaders who move from one free spot to another tying up those spaces all day long. Customers can't find an empty stall.

It's imperative that the council retain the 16-minute free parking button on the meters. That allows shoppers with a quick trip - a latte at Batdorf and Bronson, a new toy at Wind Up Here, the latest best seller at Fireside Bookstore - the opportunity to make a quick dash without searching for dimes and quarters. The council also should consider meters that accept credit or pre-paid parking cards.

Eliminating free parking is an interim step while the council keeps its focus on building a much-needed and long overdue parking garage.

- Housing: The plan to turn the nine-story Capitol Center Building on the isthmus between Capitol Lake and Budd Inlet into storefronts, offices and million-dollar condominiums, comes as welcome news. Seattle developer Jim Potter was shy on details when he announced plans Tuesday, but was absolutely right when he said attracting downtown housing is a high priority for the community and its city officials. "Capitol Center ... can help bring the city's vision to fruition," Potter said.

The building's views - to the south toward the lake and Capitol Campus and to the north overlooking southern Puget Sound and the Olympic Mountains - are nothing short of spectacular. While there are design and parking issues to resolve, we hope the staff in the city's Planning and Community Development office will embrace the project because it's a winner for downtown, the city and its residents.

- Sidewalks : The sidewalk interference ordinance that goes into effect in 11 days will create a barrier-free zone that extends six feet from buildings toward the street. Individuals will not be able to sit on the sidewalk or panhandle in that zone and police will be encouraged to enforce the law.

This ordinance should curb some of the anti-social behavior problems that have driven would-be customers away from the downtown business district.

- Boot and tow: On April 1, those scofflaws who routinely avoid their overtime parking citations, and those individuals who basically live out of their vehicle while parked on downtown streets, are going to have to cope with a new level of parking enforcement. Those with unpaid parking tickets or those who camp out on downtown streets will find their vehicle booted so that it is inoperable. If the problem persists, the vehicle will be towed. That will free up additional parking places and hold offenders accountable.

Downtown still faces many challenges. But coupled with beautification efforts of the merchants association, these positive steps on parking, housing and sidewalk sitting, the city deserves credit for moving in the right direction. How they voted

- Voting for elimination of free parking: Jeff Kingsbury, Laura Ware, Mark Foutch, Karen Messmer, Joe Hyer.

- Against: TJ Johnson and Doug Mah.