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Originally published Wednesday, October 27, 2010 at 4:27 PM

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Slow down on parking-rate hikes to avoid harm to shoppers, retailers

Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn is seeking higher parking rates in neighborhoods and downtown. After a recession, no less. Parking is a precious commodity that leads to a perception about the ease of traveling downtown to shop. Shoppers who avoid downtown take sales-tax dollars with them.

IT is one thing for Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn to be philosophically anti-car, quite another to make street-parking rate decisions that hurt downtown and neighborhood businesses.

You heard it here first: The mayor's legislation allows $5 an hour parking rates in the city. His specific proposal, however, seeks to raise rates from $2.50 to $4 an hour in downtown, Belltown, the International District and Pioneer Square. His plan would make Seattle more expensive than any other major city in the U.S., save for Chicago — even more costly than New York City. How does that revive a city dealing with a challenging recession?

The mayor wants to raise rates in January and do more comprehensive analysis on variable parking-meter rates and revenues afterward. That is exactly backward. The right order of things is to slow down and study parking in a comprehensive manner. If rates soar too high, the city budget could lose sales-tax dollars because shoppers take business elsewhere.

The Downtown Seattle Association says downtown is the source of 40 percent of all sales tax revenue collected by the city. Half the jobs are downtown. If the city raises rates too much, or too willy-nilly, some people will stay away.

City Budget Director Beth Goldberg argues new higher rates will increase vehicle turnover and ultimately encourage more people to venture downtown.

That sounds partly like fantasy. If parking becomes too much of a headache or cost, retail shoppers have other options — malls, outlet malls, the Internet.

"How do you calculate incremental erosion?" asks Kate Joncas, president of the Downtown Seattle Association. "We will never have free parking so we have to be so exciting and desirable. Putting a parking rate in without thorough analysis and understanding the consequences makes it so much harder."

McGinn says businesses want more turnover in the limited number of on-street parking spaces. True. But there are other ways to achieve that beyond price. The city could also boost the number of 60-minute slots and better enforce rules on meter feeding.

Fostering a healthy business climate is not the mayor's strong suit. Remember, he reveled in his early days in office that he would not meet with business leaders. Apparently, he didn't want to be tainted by people who create jobs and hire people.

Councilmember Tim Burgess proposes "demand pricing," a more complicated and neighborhood-specific approach that ensures two to four spaces per block are available most of the time. This means raising rates in certain neighborhoods at certain times to follow market demand and lowering them when demand is low.

Pricing under this system could be adjusted monthly to make sure the goal of available spaces is achieved. This is not a sure bet. It would take a lot more study and would not be an immediate budget solution.

The council also raised commercial parking-lot taxes from 10 percent to 12.5 percent. The mayor seeks a 17.5 percent commercial-parking tax, a striking increase over current figures. The council must hold the line. This is another sour message to shoppers and, in some cases, employers who charge employees for parking. Someone has to pay the tax.

The council likely will agree to parts of the mayor's street-parking plan and raise rates in some fashion, and maybe the mayor expected that from the start.

If Seattle is to raise parking costs, do it in a way that helps not harms business. Those revenues feed the city budget. The council should insist on more thorough analysis before slamming neighborhood businesses and downtown's delicate retail ecosystem.

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