Eugene’s Parking Guru Gets to Yes

One of the groups I’m involved with hosts a summer picnic every year. For years we met at Armitage Park on the north edge of town. Then we took in an Ems game together a couple summers in a row. We invited everybody one year to a rustic-yet-pristine ranch south of town. Last year, we met in an open field between River Road and the Willamette River itself. So this is a group that enjoys variety.

This year, they devised a clever alternative that seemed crazy at first. But I can tell you it worked. Then I’ll tell you why it worked.

Wednesday evening, we gathered almost 100 colleagues for a completely urban picnic, on the top floor of the Parcade parking garage.

A downtown food cart catered the event. A local garden center lent us potted plants. Lane County provided washable dinnerware. A restaurant in the neighborhood offered use of its dishwashing equipment to clean the dishes. The Sugar Beets played two sets. Chalk art happened because there was chalk. The hosting organizations had their traditional tug-of-war, but with a simultaneous view of downtown. As they say after events like this, a good time was had by all.

Behind the scenes is where this gets complicated and interesting. The city of Eugene had no rules about a hosted party on a parking garage rooftop. They knew they would need insurance, and that the public space couldn’t be offered with no cost, since the parking spaces generate revenue for the city. But other than those limitations, they had plenty of leeway.

City administrators often are uncomfortable with leeway. If something goes wrong, they know they’ll get the blame, and they won’t be able to hide behind the rules they were following. Getting government to “yes” first must overcome this aversion to risk.

But calling it “government” is contributing to the problem. Meet Jeff Petry, Parking Services Manager for the city of Eugene.

Petry has a Masters degree in environmental economics. He worked in Ohio as an economist, focused on the legislative property tax for the entire state. He moved to Eugene ten years ago and the city hired him. He worked for five years in the city’s budget office, but he came to Eugene for its outdoor-friendly culture. When the parking manager position came open four years ago, he saw it as an opportunity to get out of the office. There’s a reason why all his colleagues know his cell phone number.

Petry didn’t know he would love parking as much as he does. But now he can talk about it for hours. Unlike the budget documents, parking is — his word — “tactile.” It touches people directly. It’s where the rubber meets the road. Or, in some cases, where the ticket meets the windshield. It’s also infused into almost every other issue across the city.

Capstone wants to build? Their fences will commandeer some parking places. A resident near an elementary school gets blocked in her driveway when parents dash inside “just for a second”? After a few parents get warned (or towed), word gets around. Downtown Neighborhood Association wants better signage, directing people to public bathrooms? They’re connected to our parking garages.

“It’s really all about getting to yes,” Petry told me over a Cookie Crumb midmorning snack. “I set up my lemonade stand and people have their stories they want heard. I listen and sometimes that’s all it takes.” When more is required, he moves into problem-solving mode.

Tapping the resources of a college town is a particular pleasure for Petry. Lane Community College students have sculpted bike corrals. Students at the University of Oregon Honors College learn economics by analyzing parking patterns. As Petry said, “Economists love data sets. And we’ve got lots of data we can give them.”

Our downtown parking fee holiday is set to expire on October 1, 2013. Whether the free parking is ended, continued, or adjusted, the community will have a wide range of reactions that they will gleefully share.

Having a trained economist evaluating those assertions against those data sets should offer some comfort and confidence. It’s all about getting to yes.

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Don Kahle (fridays@dksez.com) is executive director for the local chapter of the American Institute of Architects. He writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and blogs.