Join My Parking Crusade!

The city has hired a consulting group to study Center City's parking issues, and I admit I've got a very bad feeling about the whole thing.

As I wrote back in March 2003, price-gouging at downtown lots and garages is one of Center City's worst failings in the eyes of visitors and shop-owners alike. A new study might help figure out how to make changes, but the study just as likely might conclude that nothing can be changed. Unless these consultants take a hard, fresh look at the abusive way the parking racket runs — the sleazy, deceptive pricing, the extortionate short-term rates, the “early bird specials” that breed rush-hour gridlock — the study could cement the whole sick system in place for a decade or more.

The trouble is that the planning commission and other agencies that supervise the parking consultants may not have the spine required to stand up to local parking company executives on key issues like regulated rates and uniform signage. The parking industry is better wired into City Hall than most business interests. Lot owners make copious campaign contributions because, like so many of the other pimps and leeches atop those political-donor lists, they need protection from a public that despises them.

None of the existing downtown civic groups are capable of reining in the parking industry, either. Most are fatally conflicted: They either have parking representatives on their boards, or they need the parking companies to help sponsor their events. It would take a single-interest group, a Center City Parking Coalition, to first ride herd on these parking study consultants and then to use the study results to lobby City Council for new parking regulations. But that's getting ahead of ourselves. Let's look at what such a coalition would be up against.

Almost three years ago in these pages, I wrote how everyone hates neighborhood blight so much that it should be easy enough to slap a heavy tax on blighted properties. The catch, of course, was that the wealthy land barons who run the local parking companies would never let such a tax become law.

I hate to say I told you so. But I told you so.

Earlier this year, Mayor Street's five-year budget plan called for gradually changing the real estate tax to a “land tax” (including surface parking lots) that would double the taxes on empty land while granting tax cuts to about 385,000 of the city's rowhouse owners. The plan had been studied and vetted by the city's Tax Reform Commission for more than a year. It took just a few weeks of bullying from the parking companies to squash it dead on the floor of City Council.

The Mayor also proposed a jump in the parking tax to help plug a hole in his budget. The tax would go from 15 to 20 percent. It would raise the average price of parking by just 75 cents, but it would add $10 million in city revenues to help prevent cutbacks in police, fire and other essential services. That didn't make it through, either.

How did they pull this off? How did the parking magnates get someone like Council President Anna Verna to vote against the land tax when thousands of her rowhouse constituents would have gotten their real estate tax bills cut in half? How did they avert a tiny hike in parking taxes?

First, they hired a professional consultant — ubiquitous brand-name media hog Larry Ceisler — to guide their anti-tax campaign. They produced a turgid academic briefing paper that attacked the land tax with scary words like “risky” and “radical.” The Parkway Corporation's Rob Zuritsky went before City Council and shed crocodile tears for employees he might have to lay off. (Council members were too polite to point out that Parkway was bragging in the press a month earlier about replacing cashiers with automated pay systems.) A representative from Rittenhouse Row's retailers sat next to Zuritsky. She read a brief statement opposing the parking tax hike with the kind of conviction and enthusiasm you commonly see in Iraqi hostage videos.

In a similar hostage vein, Alan Blake of Central Parking System threatened to kill off his company's support for the Center City District's Restaurant Week. Some lots and garages offer discounts to restaurant patrons during the event, and since they seldom fill up on weeknights, the parking companies probably make out pretty well on the deal. Yet Blake told the Philadelphia Business Journal, “It's hard to fathom we will be able to continue [the discounts].” Message delivered. He's ready to shoot the baby to make everyone back off the parking tax.

Thuggish threats and utter nonsense — that's about all the rhetorical firepower you need to get your way in City Hall if, like Parkway padrone Joe Zuritsky, you happen to be one of the Mayor's top campaign contributors. That's why this Center City parking study is likely to end up recommending lots of things the parking industry has wanted for years (like fewer on-street parking spaces and more subsidies for garage construction) and say nothing about the parking price controls that downtown desperately needs.

In San Francisco's retailing core, there's a win-win system of regulating parking rates that benefits the parking companies and downtown businesses, but the parking bosses here get livid at the very thought. I've written about it four or five times, but there's no point in going over the details yet again. Journalism can't shame the shameless. Only direct political organizing would give Center City's business community a shot at taking control of its parking predicament.

So here's what I'm going to do. On November 10th, at 6 p.m. at the Korman Rittenhouse building, 222 West Rittenhouse Square, I'm convening a meeting of as many other similarly frustrated people as I can find. If enough of us agree we need a Center City Parking Coalition, I'll staff the group and get it rolling. We'll meet with the consultants, and organize support for well-regulated downtown parking, a system with readable signs and easy-to-understand pricing that will help draw more people to Center City. Each month, I'll report our progress here. We'll see if democracy in Philly still has a pulse, or if it has been bought, bartered and sold, and gone flat-line.

I'm expecting a good crowd. But if no one shows up, I'll report that, too. Then I'll write this: As long as we're willing to take what the parking companies give us, we must be getting what we deserve.