Raising the bar 

Why is the city giving up public parking spaces to a private biz?

In September, the Thomas Meagher Bar announced plans to build an outdoor dining area in front of its storefront on West Pine Street—a plan that involves paving over six on-street parking spaces so the new patio can occupy what is now the sidewalk. It's a bold proposal.

As I understand it, the city would give a substantial swath of public property to a privately owned bar, which seems like questionable stewardship of the public interest. But it sounds a lot better if you put the word "vibrant" in there. I quote the Missoulian:

"The Thomas Meagher Bar unveiled plans last month to build an outdoor dining patio on West Pine Street, a move the city supports in concept as it works to build a vibrant downtown atmosphere. But the promise of outdoor dining and a hip evening atmosphere would eliminate six on-street parking spaces, and that has members of the City Council and the Missoula Parking Commission concerned."

What we have here is a conflict between abstract and concrete. On the abstract side, there's the atmosphere, which could be at once vibrant and hip if the sidewalk and street were not bogged down with pedestrians and cars. On the concrete side, there are those six parking spots, which happen to be next door to council chambers.

In addition to making it easier for people to participate in city government, those spots generate revenue, both from parking meters and from fines. According to Anne Guest, director of the Missoula Parking Commission, the city will lose revenue if it loses those spots.

But the city will gain vibrancy—the kind of vibrancy only outdoor seating can provide. Exactly how much that vibrancy is worth seems like a matter of opinion. It might reasonably be called a matter of public opinion, since the income and property at stake belong to the city, and the vibrancy dividend will be collectively enjoyed as well.

But the system Thomas Meagher Bar has pursued thus far does not require public comment. The bar's owners have moved their project forward through administrative approval rather than through city council, under an ordinance designed to make it easier for downtown businesses to make minor changes to right-of-way via awnings and signs.

That ordinance does not allow businesses to annex portions of the street. In its proposal, Thomas Meagher Bar has also cited the city's partnership in creating a plaza outside the Missoula Art Museum, a plan that would also take up existing parking spots. But that plan involves adding parking spaces, too, resulting in a net gain.

click to enlarge PHOTO BY CATHRINE L. WALTERS
  • photo by Cathrine L. Walters

More importantly, the museum plan clearly serves the public interest. MAM was founded as a county agency and now operates as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit in close cooperation with the city. The city owns the building, so the plaza would transfer real estate from one city property to another.

Thomas Meagher Bar's plan would essentially transfer city property to private control. The public benefit of patio dining downtown is far less tangible than that of a plaza outside the museum. You can call it vibrancy, but it looks more like a sweetheart deal: free land from the city, paid for by taxpayers, given to a bar.

The city has an obligation to encourage the local economy. But municipal government is more than an instrument for advancing the needs of business owners. As with the Southgate Mall redevelopment project—a scheme that diverts millions of taxpayer dollars toward an already successful private venture—Thomas Meagher Bar's plan seems less like government looking out for public interest and more like the business community leveraging its influence.

Maybe Missoula wants a patio outside the Irish pub more than it wants those six parking spaces. If that's the case, Thomas Meagher Bar should take its plan before city council, where it will meet with overwhelming approval.

Just maybe, though, the owners of Thomas Meagher Bar are pursuing administrative approval through Mayor John Engen's office rather than public approval through city council because they know they're getting away with something. They know the connection between the public interest and increased bar seating is tenuous at best, whereas the connection between private ventures and Engen's business-friendly administration is stronger.

That's not how our city government is supposed to work. We don't need a mayor and a council and various downtown ordinances to ensure that bars make money. We don't need collective ownership of public property to guarantee that downtown remains a good place to get loaded.

We need a city government to make sure that a handful of people with money don't overwhelm the interests of 85,000 people who want to park—or just not see the street they paid to build handed over to a bar. The bars will do fine on their own. The rest of us need a government.

Dan Brooks writes about people, politics, culture and patio seating at combatblog.net.

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