A blog for better streets and public spaces in Portland, Maine.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Budget crisis? Let's stop wasting space.

Our city, 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 STUDENTS 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 PATHS school on Allen Avenue. All told, selling 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. Think about the Portland Housing Authority, which is hoarding acres of parking lots in the West End and East Bayside. Selling some of those lots into private ownership wouldn't just help the budget - it would also introduce a measure of stability and new housing opportunities into some of Portland's most depressed, rental-dominated neighborhoods.

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?


Anonymous said...

Forwarded this post to our neighbor who serves on the school committee. Let's see if anyone picks up on this very sensible idea, but unfortunately I don't believe that the answer to your final rhetorical question is as self-evident to everyone as it is to you and me.

Unknown said...

Thanks for pointing this out. Your argument makes sense as a standalone piece and becomes even more compelling when you consider how the clandestine "investment" in parking is at odds with the mostly transparent investment in public transit. City owned parking that provides marginal utility (on a 24hr basis) is effectively cannibalizing our investment in public transit among other things.