Feb 25, 2010

The case against Paid Parking in Saratoga

Downtown plan creates "tourist-only" zone

Paid parking? Yes; but do it at Exit 15

The city of Saratoga Springs is not alone among local governments in its current state of financial distress. What is unsettling in this particular case, however, is that the Spa City has long beaten its own chest with emphatic and constant bragging of supposedly being upstate New York's premiere (if not lone) example of a vibrant and livable community. Geez: if Numero Uno can't make its budget numbers fly, how'd you like to be number 2; or 62?

When a shit storm hits, the fingers start pointing; and it's no different here. The 'toga blame game starts by aiming squarely at the Loneliest Man in Albany: Governor Paterson. You know; the one who had the nerve to yank the city's Racino-impact fee, thereby setting off a never ending series of howling protest from city leaders and constituents. Overlooked here is the fact that the city did just fine, thank you very much, before this payment made its brief appearance in the municipal ledgers and the plus-side benefits that the VLT addicts toss into the city coffers from over there on Nelson Avenue. But having a convenient boogeyman makes things simple, and Mr Paterson offers the role of perfect foil. Meanwhile, the actual causes of Saratoga's problems --- namely its invisible leadership and the lack of a clear, forward-thinking vision --- all get a free pass.

Convenient but misguided blame usually gives way to the same type of solutions, and it's that plays out here. So far, we've been offered such gems as imposing a surcharge on SPAC rock concerts, instituting a new (and larger) cure-all form of government and, of course, keep screaming at Paterson until he says uncle. Then we have the ultimate fix: paid parking.

The rationale for deploying some to-be-determined variation of metered parking in the downtown area is obvious if unstated: hit up the tourists / out-of-town visitors. After all, basic supply & demand economics dictates that a precious but desired resource like short-term vehicular real estate will support the imposition of an economic rent, right? The city council seems to think so, and has already booked a huge $$ fig into into 2010 operating budget with an assumption that paid parking will be up and running by; um: next week! Good luck on that one, fellas. That's almost as funny as the previous council booking the Racino fee into its own budget.

Putting such stupidity aside, the question remains: is paid parking in downtown Saratoga a good idea or not? A few thoughts, based on the prevailing arguments in favor:

More, more, more!

Realize what the underlying driver to this whole initiative is: to generate more revenues to support the delivery of municipal services to the community, such as police and fire protection, safe and plowed streets, and so on. The problem here is that the city's budget expenditures – the vast majority of which are labor related – is totally out of control. Any reasonable assessment would conclude that personnel spending (whether from a head count or salary perspective) is off-the-charts.

Why, then, should we strive to keep feeding this beast a diet of lard? Comparisons to buying a Dunking Donuts gift card for a fat guy or a case of scotch for a drunk come to mind. In other words, it's not helping with the root problem.

But everyone else is doing it

We've all heard this argument from the for crowd: the City of XYZ has paid parking and their downtown is doing just fine. Maybe it is, but the logic could just as easily be turned in the other direction. For example: how's paid parking working out for downtown Albany? They have one heck of a retail scene down there, now, isn't it? The next time someone uses this logic, reply with a “don't insult my intelligence” rebuttal and await a reaction. Each city has its own unique circumstances and must be analyzed individually.

The research says...

These ideas always have a corresponding set of projections. Take it from a guy who in a former life used to do this kind of research for a living: they're seldom accurate. Hey, did any of these initial projections take into consideration that one of the prime beneficiaries of this new revenue will be the people who own that private paid lot on Broadway and Congress? Oh.

But it's only a couple of dollars!

Well, the downtown merchants seems to think this DOES make a difference, as shown by their near universal disdain for the general concept. To be fair, such a reaction is natural and expected. But is this simply a crying wolf example, when the “what's a couple dollars to someone about to blow $100 on dinner” angle if offered as a counterpoint? The correct answer is a big fat No.

I'll give, partly, on the argument of “its not going to make a difference to tourists” (whether of the Kentucky or Albany variety). It won't; until any individual's worst case scenario happens, that is. Worst case, as in getting a expired parking ticket or getting towed in the middle of the night. I can relate countless numbers of people over the years swearing off “ever going into Albany again” as the result of these types of mini nightmares ruining what should have been pleasant experiences.

The tourists/visitors should pay a fair share!

Maybe (probably) they should. But let's look into the crystal ball of the future for some examples of how paid parking will affect the lives of resident Saratogians:

Hey, ya wanna meet for a quick cup of coffee at Uncommon Grounds to talk about that idea I mentioned?” Suddenly, that $2 cup of coffee has turned into a $5 cup, courtesy of paid parking.

“I'm in the mood for bagels; will you swing by Breuggers and get a few?” Same thing; an added $3 tax on those bagels --- or does one take the '$50 ticket' risk?

You get the idea. Now: who made the decision –and when was it made – that downtown Saratoga was strictly a tourist trade zone? I must have missed that memo! But it must have happened, because that seems to be the present day reality. Paid parking would only cement that fact even more; and that should not be construed as a positive development.

It is my belief that downtown merchants would not see a significant a drop in visitor (out-of-town) revenues as a result of paid parking. But they will see a significant drop in revenues from local residents. That is, IF they are realizing any such revenues presently – and there lies the problem.

Downtown merchants need more local commerce. They all tell say just that, with such comments as ”just get me thru the winter months” and “I never see anybody I know in my shop.” Likewise, Saratoga residents need reasons to go downtown, to (among other reasons) experience the spiritual benefit of feeling themselves to be a part of a functioning local community. You know: exchange coins, well wishes, gossip and good cheer with friends, neighbors and relatives that they randomly encounter as part of their daily lives. Such a setting is both desired and needed, but it is missing from downtown Saratoga in its present form.

In a perfect world, paid parking SHOULD be instituted: at all the big box, fast food and mall lots on Exit 15, that is. After all, that's where the most damage is being done to both the local ecology and economic base. Legitimate regional planning would take care of that problem, but I don't believe in the tooth fairy either. But I do believe this: paid parking in downtown Saratoga will doom the city's native and resident population to a future that is even more disconnected and desolate than it is currently.

Let's stop the bleeding early on this paid parking concept. Let's bag it and get on to solving the REAL problems this community is facing.

Let's start with the “what does this city want to be when it grows up?” part.

Feb 21, 2010

Kickstart'ing the next road trip (or other causes)

Much thanks to our pal Kim for pointing this one out...

Here is an interesting look at both:

1) An interesting local (Albany) musical act(Sgt Dunbar and the Hobo Banned):


2) An interesting way to raise $$$ for worthy projects (Kickstarter):

Feb 18, 2010

e-Magazines: take the vertical view?

Is this the design model for digital magazine publishing?

Mag+ from Bonnier on Vimeo.

Much thanks to Silicon Valley Watcher for the heads up.

Feb 16, 2010

Scaling sustainability

Local green: making a difference?

Symbolic victories won't win this war

Let’s talk light bulbs. Name the individual quoted as having said the following:

“We can't solve global warming because I f***ing changed light bulbs in my house.”
a) Barack Obama
b) Glen Beck
c) Bill O’Reilly
d) Rush Limbaugh

Ok, now let’s do it again:

“The danger is you think that if you change your light bulbs to compact fluorescents you've solved a problem. You haven't.”

a) Thomas Friedman
b) Steve Forbes
c) George W Bush
d) Sarah Palin

The correct answers are: ‘a’ and ‘a.’ Candidate Obama was caught by an open microphone during an ’08 debate walk-thru; and opinion meister Friedman (Hot Flat and Crowded) made his views on household conservation upgrades known in a Time Magazine submission several months later.

So, when such remarks flow from the lips of acknowledged greeniacs as this pair --- and not from the usual suspects from the drive-by schools of logic and science --- one pauses to ask: “WTF, bro’s?”

What’s really going on here can be summed up in one word: scalability.

The gentlemen both seem to be expressing frustration with the huge amount of capital (of the mostly human capital variety) being devoted to personal responsibility, or do the right thing, type acts such as changing one’s bulbs. Instead, the need is to think --- and go --- bigger.

Friedman even went on to describe such actions as being mostly symbolic, saying that “today's leverage points are not in consciousness raising” and that “we need leaders that can give you change at a scale we need." Obama, too, made the same call with a follow-up of needing “something collective.”

Such an argument has come into sharp focus for myself personally in recent weeks as I have interacted with two New England version of the many localized green or sustainability or eco or similar groups that have sprung up across the nation in reaction to the pressing environmental concerns before us. All are filled with good and caring citizens, but they also tend to be exercises in futility.

First; sustainable (or sustainability) is one of those ambiguous words that needs to be ditched by those groups that are using such in either their title or their mission statement. Unless one is prepared to go off-grid and spend the rest of his or her natural life foresting on local fauna and feasting on the occasional rodent, local sustainability is an impossible end to fulfill. That is IF one elects to use the pure and traditional definition of the word, where one of the requirements is to achieve an existence that is free of the need for external lifelines. Do any of these folks really envision an ecosystem where the need for imported goods such as medicine, fruits, consumer goods and so forth are optional?

These initiatives typically become biology experiments, with targeted outcomes like “reducing green house gases” or “encouraging energy efficiencies” within the local footprint becoming the norm. This translates into specific initiatives such as “acting as a clearing house for green products and processes” or “setting the standards for smart local building design.” Good stuff; but does it make a difference?

What if, for example, a local group achieved grand success and reduced its community’s energy consumption/CO2 emissions by, let’s say, 10%. An economist would toss some cold water on their celebration party, predicting that this lowered demand would lower energy prices, which would soon thereafter be met with new rise in consumption -- especially in neighboring communities not necessarily influenced by the same school of green thought. Operating in a local vacuum, then, can be counterproductive.

Which brings us back to the scalability thing; when the president calls for that collective action, he is not talking about making a transition from one light bulb changer to a town of several dozen light bulb changers. He’s thinking bigger and wider. To really make a difference, we need top-driven policies, incentives, legislation, programs and funding that gets the ball rolling—faster and better. There lies Freidman’s call for that leadership to make it happen.

Is there any place, then, for localized action in this good fight? I’d argue in the affirmative, but only if these groups can get out of that aforementioned biology experiment mode and instead simply concentrate on making their communities a better place to live, work and play. Because as strange as that seems, such a goal seems to be missing from the agendas of those very organizations I have been observing.

Here are two specific examples of actions within two groups in Massachusetts that occurred last week:

Group A announced a Green Star program, where retailers would be recognized for their individual conservation programs. Among the first three designees were two large, national big box outlets on the edge of town.

Group B went about highlighting on its website and newsletter the good deeds of a local developer that was now building into its residential designs a requirement that a home’s largest windows face the proper direction for maximizing sunlight exposure.

Certainly, both initiatives would meet a goal of encouraging green practices, energy efficiencies and reduced Co2 levels. But doesn’t anyone care about those big box retailers having each sucked up several acres of former farmland with their store/bunkers and parking lots and that their product-packaging practices contribute untold tons of plastic into local landfills annually? Or that the honored developer is the region’s dominant supplier of suburban tract housing, with all of its associated waste?

These events simply point out the traps associated with the simple reduction or best practices approaches to this issue. The focus needs to be directed towards developing strategies wrapped around “better quality of life and living” ambitions. Specifically, to those initiatives that can actually make a demonstrable, actual difference.

For example: lobbying for a comprehensive change in a city’s planning, zoning and design review standards so as to encourage inner-core living (vs outskirts) would deliver much greater results (if successfully adopted) than the full menu of “moss on the roof of city hall” style projects typically undertaken. The same goes for transportation infrastructure, local trade and proper economic development approaches. Better yet would be to put in motion these types of goals under the framework of regional (vs local) planning.

But such missions seem to be foreign territory to most local sustainability initiatives. A group in eastern New York can be heard on a podcast transcript of a recent planning session addressing the suggestion of a stronger and more vibrant local-economy, but with one speaker basically poo-poo’ing the concept as being outside the organization’s core mission; alluding to it as being a distraction. Nothing could be more wrong than this philosophy.

The problem, of course, is that such a suggested course of action is both complicated and messy. In particular, one is more likely to encounter political opposition from friends and neighbors in this new battleground: no longer is one playing footsie with local developers, but possibly suggesting local ordinances that will be perceived by many as mindless government interference.

Boiling Point author Ross Gelbspan put it best when saying: “soft approaches do not normally prevail in hardball competition.” Getting tough is truly the order of the day; IF one is interested in making a difference.

Lose the symbolism, pick up that hardball and get ready to throw it --- high and tight.

Feb 12, 2010

Taliban forces shows local strength

The Taliban insurgency showed new signs of life today with a suprising initiative in the city of Albany, NY (of all places). Apparently, the forces of moral supremacy have taken over that city's police force and launched an all-out attack against the most notorious example of moral corruption: college students. Here is the summary from the war front:

"Three University at Albany students and another man were arrested Thursday for operating an illegal bar after an investigation of a party at a college apartment at 495 Hamilton St, police said."

The story went on to state that "police had been investigating the apartment for several weeks." No there's a great use of law enforcement manpower. The prisoners will be hauled into city court, possibly in bamboo cages. A respected mullah will fly in from the mountains of Pakistan to preside.

So now college keggers are classified as "illegal bars." Does anyone know what the statute of limitations might be on these matters?

Feb 4, 2010

New networking group forms in Saratoga

A new business networking group for Saratoga Springs. Next meeting is Thursday 2/11.

Visit their virtual club house