Parking & Prostitution: Problems of Perception

If newspaper accounts provide the rough draft of history, then letters to the editor serve as the scribbles in the margins and the penciled-in corrections. Our newspaper’s letters are better than any I’ve ever read.

On January 24, Alaine Keady from Walton wrote about how she often feels unsafe walking to her car parked on the street in Springfield. The neighborhood where Keady works has a reputation for prostitutes, so a woman walking on the street can be mistaken for, well, a streetwalker.

The 36-year-old mother of three bemoaned this blight, but took heart nonetheless. She ended her letter with this sentence: “One great thing about downtown Springfield is the parking is still free.”

All at once, I could see the difference between our twin cities joined at the freeway. Eugene has a downtown known for free love and paid parking. Springfield is seen as just the opposite.

I called Keady this week to see if things have improved. “I saw some cops on bikes in early May and that helped for a while,” she told me, “but lately it’s been just as bad.”

Parking was still on her mind. “I worked in downtown Eugene for seven years, so the parking issue is near and dear to me. I’ll bet I paid more than $250 in parking tickets over the years. I’d take the prostitutes over the parking tickets any day.”

Somebody listened.

Free parking is coming to part of downtown Eugene this summer. And Eugene’s airport had better get ready for flying pigs.

Yes, I know. There’s already free parking for the first hour in several downtown parking garages, and 75 cents per hour is hardly a hardship. That’s just it. The “problem” with Eugene’s downtown parking is that the problem doesn’t actually exist. Devising solutions to non-existent problems is difficult and dangerous work. You don’t call the Ghostbusters if you don’t believe in ghosts.

But everybody in Lane County does believe. They believe that free parking will bring retail shoppers back to Eugene. They believe that free parking will return us to happier times.

It takes courage and discipline to study the situation, determine that the problem doesn’t actually exist, and then set out to solve the problem anyway. City staff has lacked that courage for decades, but now — finally — the city will experiment with a solution.

Hats off to Eugene City Manager Jon Ruiz for championing this experiment. Ruiz explained his reasoning this way: “We are continually trying to find ways to encourage and support development and activity in downtown, and piloting free parking in a portion of downtown makes sense towards achieving this outcome.”

Beginning sometime in July, parking on West Broadway between Willamette and Lincoln Streets will be free for 60 days or two hours, whichever comes first.

“We’ll be chalking tires for two reasons,” said Jeff Petry, the city of Eugene’s Parking Services Manager. “Parking will be limited to two hours, but we’re also collecting data about turnover and usage rates. Two months will give us plenty of data for the City Council’s parking subcommittee to analyze.”

Petry previously worked in the city of Eugene’s budget office. He knows the numbers. “The city will lose a couple thousand dollars from those meters. But if we learn important stuff, it’ll be worth it.” He enjoys the challenge. “I’m real popular at parties. Everybody has an opinion about parking.”

But how do you change opinions when they aren’t necessarily related to facts? That’s what this pilot program hopes to discover.

“Fighting this problem sometimes feels like shadow boxing,” Eugene Planning and Development Director Susan Muir told me.

Exactly. It doesn’t matter whether you’ve got a black eye or bad lighting makes it look like you have a black eye. Either way, people will think you’re a loser.

“We want to test barriers, real or perceived, that might be in the way of people coming to our downtown,” Muir wrote. “We want to address issues head on and see if we can either improve reality or change perceptions.”

I’m glad the city is willing to “collect data” to address the perception of a problem. Because a perception of a problem is still a problem.

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Don Kahle (fridays@dksez.com) writes a weekly column for The Register-Guard. He blogs right here.