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Downtown Spokane has long history of experimentation, controversy with parking

Exasperated downtown parkers can direct their anger at the Washington Supreme Court the next time they’re counting quarters to plug meters.

In 1941, as then-Spokane Mayor Frank Sutherlin called the machines “glorified alarm clocks” in the pages of the Spokane Daily Chronicle, judges rejected the legal argument from Brooks Kimmel, a hosiery salesman based in the Peyton Building, to block their arrival in Spokane’s downtown core.

“Time limitations upon parking have been necessitated by abuse of the privilege … It strikes us that the parking meter is admirably designed to accomplish that result,” wrote Justice Bruce Blake for the court, affirming the right not only of Spokane, but every city in Washington, to meter their parking. Within a year, Spokane had installed more than 1,100 meters downtown, and for the price of a nickel a motorist could park up to an hour.

These days, downtown visitors can still use those nickels, but also credit cards or a smartphone app to pay for their spot, which in most areas of downtown will cost you $1.20 an hour. This summer, new license plate-reading technology will be used by parking enforcers to make sure meter limits are strictly adhered to, as downtown businesses push for more empty spaces for shoppers and visitors staying for a short period of time, rather than workers staying all day.

“It’s a balance,” said Mayor David Condon in an interview earlier this month. “A lot of times, when you see the free parking, a lot of it is retail-only downtowns, and not the office-side of downtowns, so they’re able to manage that a little better.”

Parking meter rates have not risen in five years in Spokane, and officials say the added enforcement measures beginning July 1 are an effort to continue that trend. Spokane’s rates, which are $1.20 an hour in most locations and 40 cents an hour at all-day meters, stack up well against similar-size cities across the region and nation. In some areas of Boise, rates are as high as $2.50 an hour, and in Des Moines, Iowa – a city with a population also around 215,000 – parkers pay up to $1.75.

Tacoma, Olympia and Baton Rouge, Louisiana – a city slighter larger than Spokane – all have lower hourly rates, ranging from 50 cents to a dollar. Condon called the downtown parking system “dynamic” in Spokane, and pointed to the recent additions of card and cellphone payment systems, planned improvements to bus service downtown, Riverfront Park upgrades that will offer better walking routes to the heart of the city and greater availability of angled parking. The latter has been tried on a block of Main Street and near City Hall.

“There’s going to be a lot of market forces that will be available in the next 36 months, that I would be careful about doing more than a lot of these advances that we’ve made,” Condon said.

Spokane has a long history of experimenting with parking options downtown, said Andrew Rowles, public policy and parking manager for the Downtown Spokane Partnership. He pointed to the “pigeon hole” parking system developed by brothers Vaughn and Leo Sanders in the 1940s, a two-man elevator system that lifted cars off the street and cost much less than concrete structures at the time.

“I think that’s just a reflection of the fact that we are now grappling with some of the challenges that growth in the urban core brings,” Rowles said of the strategies the city is trying now to handle parking for downtown visitors.

One option other cities have employed is a municipal-owned garage system. Rowles said that’s not a priority of the downtown group right now, but the idea is being considered and discussed.

Spokane’s last project that would have led to the city owning a garage for public parking, however, failed as part of a controversial public-private partnership revitalizing River Park Square, the downtown mall that’s owned by the Cowles Company, which also owns The Spokesman-Review. When the garage didn’t earn the revenue that had been projected, the deal fell apart and became embroiled in a series of lawsuits. The city eventually was supposed to take ownership of the garage, but in a final settlement in 2005, the city agreed to let ownership stay with the mall.

City leaders also agreed to issue $25.6 million in bonds to complete the pay of the original debt issued to remodel the garage. The city refinanced the debt last year and will continue paying that off using parking meter revenue until in 2025. In 2017, the city is scheduled to pay $1.9 million.

Some options have been floated by the City Council and others to reduce burdens on developing land downtown occupied by surface lots. Condon pointed to several recent downtown developments, including the Davenport Grand Hotel, as evidence the market was already pushing toward providing tenants with parking and moving away from surface lots.

“I’m a free-market person, and you see it working,” the mayor said. “As people go to build these things, that’s exactly what’s happening. The reality is, the value of property goes up, then it makes sense to build buildings.”


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