Wednesday, February 03, 2010

Cities aren't wasting money, they're wasting space.

Portland, like most governments in America these days, is in the middle of a big budget shortfall. They're cutting school programs, raising bus fares, and laying off social workers. The city's main source of revenue is a 1.8% property tax, which is already high by Maine standards - the city can't raise it much further without sending more development and investment into the suburbs, and sending more homeowners into foreclosure.

On the face of it, it looks pretty hopeless. But in fact, City Hall has millions of dollars in costs that, out of pure neglect, it's been hiding off of its balance sheets. They're not in the schools, or in homeless shelters.

They're the opportunity costs of the city's acres of parking lots.

Here's an example - the East End School has a half-acre off-street lot on North Street. It's got gorgeous views of Back Cove and Casco Bay, it's across the street from the community gardens, it's a desirable neighborhood - and we're using this space only 15% of the time, for private vehicle storage during school days. This is self-evidently stupid, isn't it? And yet, there it is.

What if, instead, we made those few drivers park in the abundant on-street spaces on North Street and the Eastern Promenade (or walk, or take the bus), then sold this half-acre on the open market, no strings attached? Even in this economy, such a desirable location would fetch a lot of money - probably at least $400,000, which happens to be roughly 5% of the school system's budget shortfall this year.

And that's not all. If this half-acre of hilltop land goes to the private sector, it's all but certain that some developer will want to build something there. Most likely it would be homes, which is something our city needs more of. Let's assume they build 8 townhomes for $210,000 each. Then the city will collect 1.8% every year in property taxes - or about $30,000 in new revenue total. That's enough to cover the entire East End School's annual supplies budget.

And another thing: if we sell a pointless parking lot on the open market, the East End School will save a few thousand dollars every year in avoided pavement maintenance and plowing costs. It would become somebody else's problem, instead of the taxpayers'.

What do you think would make the teachers at the East End School happier? Having very convenient off-street parking, or having their jobs and a reasonable number of kids in their classes?

This is just one single parking lot. There's also Reiche School's 1/4 acre parking lot on Brackett Street in the West End, the 1/2 acre of parking at the corner of Stevens and Pleasant Ave (the very center of Deering Center), and the huge 6 acre front lawn of the PACTS school on Allen Avenue. Selling all this land could recoup 1/3rd of the school budget cuts this year, and start generating new property taxes immediately for future years, and trim the school system's property maintenance costs.

And that's just the school system. The public Housing Authority is hoarding acres of parking lots in the West End and East Bayside. Redeveloping those lots wouldn't just mend the budget, it would also start to mend those neighborhoods' ugly scars of urban renewal, by providing new homeownership opportunities and a measure of economic diversity.

But the biggest opportunity is the city's parking management itself. By charging below-market rates for parking on the city's streets and in its garages, the tiny little Parking office might rank as one of the most expensive in City Hall: it's hiding tens of millions of dollars from the city's balance sheets, from unaccounted parking subsidies to lost tax revenues. Our city's parking manager could have worked for Bernie Madoff.

So, I ask you again: what's more important? Solvent schools, a social safety net, and decent public services, funded by the development of new housing opportunities?

Or free parking?

1 comment:

Billy Hoyle said...

OK. I like this idea, and I understand that the point is to balance the budget. But instead selling the land I would prefer to see it all converted from parking to parks, or lease the land to a business that could run a carousel, bike rental shop, pedicab tours, etc. Over the long run, the investments in "quality of place" will bring more tax revenue (from high-value adjacent development) than townhouses.