Downtown Parking Reconsidered

Ron Bolin: Dec. 20, 2014
In reading a comment on facebook recently regarding “free” parking in our shopping malls and their “unfair” advantage over downtown merchants, I was reminded that this characterization is false. There is no free parking in our malls, only parking costs which are hidden by mall owners and operators in the rent which they charge to those who choose to occupy their commercial space. There is NO FREE LUNCH… and there is NO FREE PARKING. City taxes must be paid and City regulations must be met by all malls, (only in our “downtown mall” is it the general taxpayer who pays most of this bill). This can easily be verified by looking at the taxes paid by our malls which are among the City’s top taxpayers and the space rents which must be paid in the various malls by their occupants to cover, among others, the cost of parking.

So if the malls are paying the costs of their associated parking, why are the rest of us being billed to pay for downtown parking? Mall owners must take the risk associated with parking in their malls, i.e. how much parking is needed, and given the costs of land and the taxes which must be paid annually for it, how much must be included in their rents. How is it that downtown Merchants can avoid that risk and pass it on to the rest of the public?

One can observe that the biggest difference is that the malls are under one ownership umbrella which must match the needs of the mall owner, mall business renters and mall users into a dynamic interdependent relationship which forces all parties to either cooperate or risk, not only individual business failure, but failure of the entire commercial vehicle.

The question then for downtown parking is whether there is a model which could create the kind of dynamic tension between business owners and business users –otherwise known as customers- on the matter of parking in the absence of an overall owner/developer.

Just as the mall owner/developer is responsible for mall parking, perhaps the answer is to turn parking over to the owners of downtown business which require downtown parking at cost. While this may sound Quixotic in the absence of an overall downtown owner, it strikes me as possible for the city to determine the costs of downtown parking to the City and then turn over parking administration to downtown merchants who would then have the opportunity to manage the parking “rents” which they would have pay for downtown parking in order to maintain the parking franchise. Charge too much and the business owners go out of business for lack of customers. Charge too little and subsidize inefficient or ineffective business and lose customers for all due to the failure of others. Parking can give major leverage by which downtown merchants can manage their businesses collectively in the same way as mall owners who are, after all, also bound by their parking arrangements.

The current system of trying to extract parking capital and operating money from a public which is already predisposed to avoid downtown is an ever deepening pit which already includes tens of millions of dollars in public downtown expenditures, an annual grant of several hundred thousands of dollars to the DNBIA, and untold energy in trying to keep the moribund alive is patently not working. Perhaps it is time to try private enterprise rather that the public purse to revive downtown. Perhaps downtown merchants can figure out a downtown parking system which could both meet their needs and cover parking costs, just as any mall owner/operator must do.

I will be interested in all observations on this point of view.