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.


dirtyharry said...

Very thoughtful and intelligent post. BRAVO

Howie said...

We could follow your logic and institute a plan that is FREE for residents (a sticker) yet PAID for non-residents?

Your thoughts?

Anonymous said...

Paid parking would just create another bureaucracy. But that's really the goal of some of these people, right?

Anonymous said...

While we are not on the same page on charter reform, we are on it with the rest of what you have to say.

Please keep these going. Your contributions to the local dialog are very useful and valued by a number of us here in town.

Bernie the Jew said...

Tonight's city council meeting on this matter should be interesting. Plus we get to watch Skip get pummeled over the state audit. Without his soul mate Ron to protect him, he might start weeping.