In a shocking turnabout, the Olympia City Council on Tuesday abandoned its plan to eliminate free parking in the core area of the downtown business district.
“We’re stunned,” said Connie Lorenz, executive director of the Olympia Downtown Association. Downtown business owners have spent the past year educating their employees and customers about the city’s plan to start charging $1 an hour at 49 newly installed pay stations downtown. Paid parking was set to take effect on Tuesday this week.
“I don’t get it. We’ve been gearing up for this for 10 years,” Lorenz said. “To get this far down the road and they pull the plug is so reactionary. It’s so bad.”
She’s right. This was a horrible decision on the part of Council members Craig Ottavelli, Rhenda Strub, Jeannine Roe and Karen Rogers. It shows a lack of leadership and commitment to council policy. What the council majority has shown is that as political winds shift, city policies aren’t really policies after all. They’re just momentary decisions.
It’s imperative that the council members reconsider their vote and reinstitute the paid parking plan.
The city of Olympia has struggled to develop a comprehensive parking strategy for the better part of the past decade. Lack of available parking and chain parking by downtown employees have been a huge problem. The city’s plan to build a municipal parking garage have been on-again, off-again.
Downtown workers are a big part of the problem. They move their vehicles from one free parking place to another every 90 minutes, making it nearly impossible for customers to find an open parking stall near their destination. Survey after survey has shown the need for additional parking — despite the fact that nearly every block in the downtown business district has at least one paved parking lot.
Previous councils instructed city staff to do the research and develop a parking plan. It’s impossible to clock all of the hours and count all of the money that was spent putting a proposal together. A previous council — with Strub and Ottavelli as members — adopted a realistic, attainable, comprehensive parking strategy that had the city moving away from up to 90-minutes of free parking to stations that charge $1 an hour.
The city spent $650,000 to purchase the 49 new solar-powered meter stations — which are ripe for vandalism, but that’s another issue. If this parking decision stands, that’s a waste of more than $650,000 and the lost revenue could mean further cuts to the city budget. What a terrible path the council majority has chosen.
City staff members have done a remarkable job of preparing business owners, employees and the public for the kickoff of the new paid parking plan on Tuesday. The parking plan was so ingrained, it was on the consent agenda at last Tuesday’s council meeting.
That’s when the four council members reversed course and decided instead to send the issue back to the council’s general government committee for additional study. It was a slap in the face to the public and to the city staff who have worked so hard to get the parking strategy put in place.
Mayor Doug Mah and council members Stephen Buxbaum and Steve Langer made the case for staying the course and shifting to paid parking. They lost on a 4-3 vote.
Mah said, “We have made a very significant investment in a plan that has been vetted and re-vetted.”
Buxbaum made the most sense when he said the business community supports paid parking and to change course at this point would be “continuing to jerk the businesspeople back and forth.”
The truth is, there is no such thing as free parking. It costs the city to maintain the parking and to enforce proper use. It makes sense that the people who use parking pay for parking. Underpricing parking encourages chain parking and that problem is going to magnify when the Olympia City Council opens its new City Hall with 250 employees and virtually no place for them to park.
Do visitors to Seattle or Portland or most any other city expect to park for free downtown? Of course not. Olympia is the gathering place for a county with more than a quarter million people. It’s not a sleepy little town where free parking might make sense. Cities across this country have learned the politics of parking — if they earmark parking revenue for public improvements in the metered areas, the business community and the public will embrace paid parking.
At long last, the Olympia City Council was moving in the right direction — a direction in compliance with a comprehensive parking strategy that took years to develop. The plan would lead to a sustainable and accessible downtown business district. But at the last second the majority reversed course in favor of yet more study, more delay.
The vote of Ottavelli, Strub, Roe and Rogers is deplorable and shows that with them on the council, policy decisions last only as long as the next shift in the political winds. They must reconsider their decimation of the paid parking program.