It was an embarrassingly bad move.
Around 1 p.m. on a recent raw and blustery day, an early 1980s white Ford Fairmont that had seen hard times pulled into a handicapped parking space on Main Street in downtown Missoula. The car lacked any disabled tags, but its driver chose a handicapped space in front of Central Park, the parking garage that is Missoula's venture into big city life. The young woman driving the car got out, jogged across Main Street and disappeared into a storefront where she remained for well over an hour. She never seemed to notice the parking meter, the sign above the meter and the wheelchair symbol painted on the pavement which signaled that this was a specially reserved spot that she probably didn't need to take advantage of.
|Cyndie Winchell has been ticketing cars for ten years, but she doesn’t let it get her down. “I’ve got a smart mouth, and I like a smart mouth,” she says. “Normally people only give me a hard time once.”
Photo by Chad Harder
It was an embarrassingly bad move because the young woman made it right in front of the office of the Missoula Parking Commission-with its one-way windows and its mandate, in part, to enforce the city's parking ordinances-which sits unobtrusively on the ground level of Central Park. And she did it just as an employee of the parking commission was looking out the window, chatting about the weather with me as I waited to interview the commission's director.
The employee shook her head as she watched the young woman and said, "Do you know that's a $100 ticket?" She then pointed out the woman's mistake to a parking enforcement officer just walking in from lunch. The officer quickly went outside and slipped a costly ticket underneath the battered Ford's windshield wiper and then gave a neighboring car with an expired meter a ticket as well-albeit not nearly as expensive.
The young woman never had a chance.
Fifteen years ago, downtown Missoula was largely a bleak, dead spot in the city's center, and parking was a contentious issue even then. (Believe it or not, old-timers will tell you it's been worse). After a deliberate and long-term effort by city officials to draw a mix of retail, professional and residential uses, downtown has transformed into a happening place to be. But the parking pressures persist. Try to find a parking space in the middle of a weekday and it becomes all too easy to sympathize with the young woman's actions.
Now with the Reserve Street corridor gearing up to suck some of the wind out of downtown's sails-with its seemingly endless acres of open and free parking-and city officials bantering about raising parking fines, the issue of where to stash your ride while you work or take in the downtown scene has taken on a whole new urgency. As one source for this story put it: "People get freakin' wild over parking."
"Parking is critical for the vitality of a downtown," says Anne Guest, director of the Missoula Parking Commission. "You just can't just say, 'We've arrived.' You have to keep looking at what keeps a downtown vital."
It's easy to be blasé about parking, but Guest, after five and a half years overseeing downtown's parking woes, can speak eloquently and thoughtfully about the subject. She says that because of rapid growth in the '90s, Missoula is in the midst of a transition.
"When you have a very small city," she says, "almost all parking is on-street parking. As it grows, you begin to develop off-street parking. A large city is all off-street parking." Missoula, Guest says, is right in the middle with on- and off-street parking comprising a rough 50-50 mix.
As director of the commission, Guest is charged with finding ways of balancing the wide variety of parking needs that Missoulians demand, while promoting alternatives at the same time. A glance at some of the numbers shows that she, along with the five-member citizen Parking Commission Board, has her hands full. The commission managed just under 2,400 lease and meter spaces in the downtown area alone last year. And while it may not seem like it, the number of parking spaces has increased by roughly 100 spots a year for the last five years.
In the end, Guest says, the key to our parking survival is constant turnover.
"Most people can get their work done in two hours," says Guest. "Each space should turn over four times a day. A meter space represents $200 of retail business a day. Where we have a conflict is with employees. Because of the growth in the downtown, we have tremendous abuse by employees."
Geoff Badenoch, director of the Missoula Redevelopment Agency, puts the dilemma this way: "Depending on your perspective, there is or is not a parking problem. There are a lot of professionals who do most of their work over the phone. So they don't need much parking. Retailers, on the other hand, need more. There is pressure if there's only so much space. We've done a pretty good job of balancing that out. But as the population grows, then something has to go."
As a result, he says, retailers sometimes end up "consuming their own customers' parking." Like Guest, he points to employee and employer parking as a main culprit in downtown's parking woes.
"If I'm a clerk, then I'm not parking in front of my store, but in front of someone else's store," says Badenoch.
It's a practice that at least some retailers admit to. "We usually don't let our employees park within a certain area," says Toby McGuirl, manager of Shamrock Sports and Outdoors.
McGuirl is dismayed at the lack of parking around his store. He claims that's the number-one complaint he hears from his customers, especially around the holiday season. "It's just choking our business," he says.
But McGuirl is particularly ticked off about the number of public spaces that have been converted into lease spaces in recent years. "There was a large parking lot behind Army-Navy that was public parking, but now its lease parking," he says, and the parking lot next to his store has gone from three rows of public parking down to just one.
To McGuirl, the problem is eventually going to take its toll on retailers. "Shamrock is really looking at other options," he says, suggesting that his store may move to another location. "I think there is going to be a lot of open space (downtown) in the next few years."
Both Badenoch and Guest say that creating more parking will help businesses like Shamrock temporarily at best. "There are people that will tell you that there is no way you can build your way out of the problem," says Badenoch. "It's physically impossible to give everyone a space."
While Guest and Badenoch are quick to acknowledge that many people must drive to work, they also point to the expense of building and maintaining new places to park. According to Guest, to build another parking garage like Central Park would cost between $10,000 to $15,000 a space.
"One million dollars for 100 spaces. Is that the best use of your money? Maybe it is. But you can build a hell of a lot of park-and-rides for that," she says.
The Fine Point
As a way of encouraging turnover-and getting both employees and their bosses to find alternatives-the Parking Commission set forth last fall a proposal to raise fines. Guest likes to point out that Missoula's parking fines haven't increased in 16 years and, compared to the national average, they're very low. Downtown businesses, however, whaled on the idea as being all-around bad.
The parking commission's proposal would have raised meter violation fines-parking for longer than was paid for at the meter-from $2 to $5. Overtime violation fines-which penalize people who park for longer than the two hour limit by continually plugging the meters-would have gone up from $2 to $10. The overtime fine would have been aimed squarely at the employee who parks all day in a meter spot.
Many retailers lambasted the idea-especially the meter violation fine-because they felt it would discourage customers who want to go downtown but lack meter change or don't get back to their cars in time. The result, these businesses felt, would be a drop-off in business, with customers flocking to Southgate Mall and the Reserve Street mega-stores instead.
For their part, retailers held a workshop led by the Missoula Downtown Association to look at other options. The ideas that came out of the workshop were to allow two hours of free parking and to increase the overtime violation to $5 instead of $10. The retailers pointed to the downtowns of other Montana cities, like Kalispell and Helena, that have successful two-hour free parking programs as an example.
The political diciness and controversy that swirls around the issue was evident on many of the faces of the Parking Commission Board. "Oh boy," one of the members sighed wearily, when the matter showed up on the agenda at the board's monthly meeting last week.
After much discussion, the board eventually decided to go with the so-called Option Number Two. It's an option that would keep both the meter and overtime rates where they currently stand at $2 and $5 respectively, but would increase to $5 and $10 on the second violation.
|Anne Guest, director of Missoula’s Parking Commission, has seen the number of parking spaces in downtown Missoula increase by about 100 a year over the last half decade. She says a big problem with parking is abuse by downtown workers, who use spots coveted by downtown shoppers.
Photo by Chad Harder
Scott Sproull, owner of Hide and Sole Inc., has been at the forefront of the downtown parking issue for much of the last 20 years. He believes that the new proposal is a good compromise, but he acknowledges that it's not what a lot of businesses asked for.
"The important thing to remember is that we have 6,000 employees in the downtown and 3,000 parking spaces," he says.
The solution to the dilemma, Sproull believes, is a three-pronged approach. First, employers and employees have to be educated on just how important each space is, he says, quoting the same $200-a-day figure as Guest.
Second, he believes more park-and-rides should be built. "I think this downtown would support park-and-rides like you wouldn't believe," he says.
And third, although he acknowledges that there is no way to "build out of the problem," he does think there is room to "build vertically," which will help alleviate the pressure.
Guest stresses that the proposed fine increases must go through substantial public scrutiny before they are enacted, having to be approved by both the Missoula Downtown Association and the Downtown Neighborhood Association before reaching the City Council for a final call.
"We're trying to respond to the concerns we're hearing," says Guest. "No one person, or what they represent, is any more important than any other." Then she laughs. "Of course, everyone wants free parking right in front of where they have to go."
A Mixed Curse
According to Julie Schwartz, executive director of the Missoula Downtown Association, a parking crunch is a good problem to have. "All successful downtowns have parking problems," she says. "It's a fine line. If you have people working, living, playing, then there are going to be problems. I hope you aren't going to see long stretches of open parking. That would mean we're doing something wrong."
Schwartz (who also let out an apprehensive, "Oh boy," when asked to be interviewed for this article) backs up many of the above sentiments. She believes, for instance, that many customers think that if they can't see the store they want to shop in from where they're parked, then there is no good parking. "You can go anywhere in the core downtown within six blocks," she says. "That's the same as the mall."
But Schwartz believes it's the responsibility of the retailers to help find a solution, rather than place the problem on the shoulders of the parking commission. Businesses like the Bon Marché and St. Patrick Hospital have instituted programs that give their employees incentives for finding alternative ways to get to work, such as riding the bus, carpooling or riding their bikes. Both companies, along with The University of Montana, were recently awarded the city's first-ever Transportation Best Practices Awards.
The need for alternatives is echoed by Phil Smith, the city's Bike/Pedestrian Coordinator, who weighs in on the parking issue with a more philosophical bent. "What is parking?" he says. "Parking is absolutely nothing more than storage of your vehicle. How much value should we place on storage? We have the perception that wherever we go there is going to be a place to store our car. I'm trying to propose that there are other ways to get from place to place."
In the end, no one believes that there are any silver-bullet solutions to the situation-just shades of gray to make things better. Parking hassles, it seems, are the price to be paid for having a hip and thriving downtown. But some may pay the price more than others.
"Downtown is a key part of the community," says the MRA's Badenoch. "It's the center of city government and county government. It's always going to play an important role in the community. It's the retailers that are going to struggle. They're the ones that are going to have the most problems."