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S400: Why is the City giving away waterfront land for free parking?

2011 September 20
by Gabriel Grant

Why is the City of Seattle, which is facing a severe budget shortfall and aims to promote alternatives to car use, giving away some of its most valuable waterfront land as free parking?

Along just a few blocks of Fairview Avenue to the north of the Fairview/Eastlake Avenue intersection, each weekday morning one can count over 200 cars parked for free on City owned property. There are no parking meters and no requirements that cars have a neighborhood zone parking permit. It’s simply free parking in a valuable and rapidly urbanizing part of the central city.

Not only is this foolish for a city with a budget problem, it’s also remarkable since much of the free parking is on the Lake Union waterfront and aligned in such that the ends of parked cars often protrude significantly into the recently established though still fledgling Cheshiahud Lake Union Loop, making it impassible.

This, it seems, is a fairly stark contradiction of the City’s plan for the trail as a, “multi-use loop around Lake Union…that connects people to open space,” as well as the sensible goal of encouraging people to commute to work and get around the city via means other than cars.

Ideally, I believe that the City should eliminate this free parking and use the land to turn the Cheshiahud Loop into a true trail and not just pretty street signs and colored lines on a Parks Department map. What could be a stronger way to encourage urban living, walking and biking than replacing parking with a wonderful amenity for city residents and visitors, a true multi-usepath along Lake Union? Those people who have been parking for free have undoubtedly gotten a sweet deal which they’ll be loathe to lose, but why can’t they pay to park (or carpool, take transit or ride a bike) like the vast majority of people with jobs in the central city? As many urbanites have recognized over the years, successful, prosperous and livable cities prioritize and orient themselves around people, not cars.

If the parking to trails conversion idea is simply too bold and contentious for our leaders, then how about a compromise in which the City creates more of a true multi-use trail by re-aligning the parking spaces so that they run parallel to the street, and charging market rate for its valuable real estate? Simple math indicates that if in this area there are 200 stalls for which the city could be charging $5 per weekday (comparable to lots in the area), that is $5,000 per week or $260,000 per year that the city is giving up to provide free parking. That amount could pay for the improved trail, save the jobs of at least two full time City employees, or pay for a lot of pothole repairs.


Gabriel Grant is a Vice President at HAL Real Estate Investments


14 Responses leave one →
  1. zefwagner permalink
    September 20, 2011

    Great idea! I walked the trail loop awhile back and it was kind of ridiculous. You’re right that it is mostly just signage without a real trail. A full-size multi-use trail would be a wonderful amenity and would assist with bike commuting as well. It baffles me that there is still free parking in the city center. This is a valuable commodity that people are willing to pay for.

  2. JimB permalink
    September 20, 2011

    Allowing citizens to use something they already own is “giving it away”?
    Well excusssssssse us, BigBrother. Is there anything we can do or own in our own city without paying a ransom?

    • Matt the Engineer permalink
      September 20, 2011

      Sure. Ride a bike!

      “Free” parking isn’t really free. You’re giving one set of people (generally the people who arrive the earliest) a benefit that belongs to the entire city.

    • Matt the Engineer permalink
      September 20, 2011

      Quick thought experiment:

      The city needs to get rid of its entire fleet of vehicles. They have two proposals. You choose which one is more fair.

      1. Auction them off. The proceeds are returned to the general fund and taxes are lowered slightly or new projects are built with the funds.

      2. Give them to the first people that show up, for free. Taxes are kept the same and no new projects are built.

      • JimB permalink
        September 21, 2011

        Thought experiment:
        Try to understand the difference between disposing of an unneeded asset and “allowing” citizens to use an asset they own.

        • Matt the Engineer permalink
          September 21, 2011

          Ok, great third option.

          3. City keeps these vehicles. They pay to maintain them and keep them reasonably clean. Instead of selling them or giving them away, they allow citizens to use this asset they own. First come first served, but please return them to the city hall parking lot when you’re done. Taxes are increased slightly, or some existing projects are cancelled.

  3. Matt the Engineer permalink
    September 20, 2011

    I noticed there’s also free parking at the new SLU park. Though I assume that will be remedied soon. I usually don’t even try to look for parking there, because free parking is almost always unavailable parking.

    • Zef Wagner permalink
      September 20, 2011

      Yeah, I wonder how many people there are actually using the park.

      • Matt the Engineer permalink
        September 21, 2011

        I use it. I love it (ok, the gravel area will be better in a decade after the trees grow in). It’s surrounded by construction right now, but a few weekends ago I met friends there and we each brought our kids in swimsuits to play in the fountain. It was crowded enough that a local Jimmy Johns employee came by with sandwich samples and told us they’d deliver to the park.

        There’s also a sad little “mini-ferry” that’s well used – when we went to see the boats there were a good dozen people waiting for it. I believe it goes to UW, and was a few dollars.

  4. Gabriel Grant permalink
    September 21, 2011

    Another way to think about this is: If this valuable city owned land (i.e. property that abuts a city “trail” along Lake Union) were currently unused, what would be its optimal use?

    I doubt anyone could credibly propose that the optimal use (i.e. maximum utility for the city and its citizens) would be free parking, which generates no revenue for the city and provides no benefit to citizens other than the 200 people who routinely park there for free.

    It might make more sense if this free parking were somehow critical to the use of an adjacent public facility like a park park or the survival of a nearby neighborhood retail area (i.e. if it provided some measure of utility to the public), but that is not the case here.

  5. biliruben permalink
    September 21, 2011

    There is also a vast mile or 2 of free parking all along Westlake. Make that a real trail as well please.

  6. michaelhintze permalink
    September 22, 2011

    The city has blown it on both sides of Lake Union – Westlake is a commonly known failure in design to accommodate parking, however, an area south of where this post is talking about along Fairview, was a complete give away by the city (Norm Rice). The city owns a good 50 ft of additional right-of-way between Fairview and the Lake, which is being used as free parking for the commercial developments in that area (Moss Bay, I Love Sushi, etc).

    • Gabriel Grant permalink
      September 22, 2011

      The city installed pay stations along the right of way you mention (Moss Bay, I Love Sushi, etc) somewhat recently. I personally think that a true trail in that location (also Westlake) would be a better amenity for the city’s residents than parking.

      Or maybe the city could compromise and for starters just reduce and reconfigure some of the parking so that a running/walking/biking path could be added as well?

      Any suggestions out there for how best to broach this issue with the city?

      • biliruben permalink
        September 23, 2011

        Fex Ex them a spine, so that they do the right thing instead quiver and melt every time a business owner looks at them sideways.

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