What happened to free holiday season parking in downtown Spokane?

In November 2012, the City of Spokane heralded a new era in customer-focused parking system by rebranding parking enforcement employees as “parking ambassadors” and announcing other initiatives like downtown resident parking passes.

But the best part of all was the “gift of free parking” during holiday season evenings. From the day after Thanksgiving through the beginning of January, parking enforcement ended at 5 pm instead of 7 pm. We looked forward to seeing it become a holiday tradition — but this past season the announcement never came. So what happened?

In this week’s Ideas Issue we take a look at why meters aren’t just about making money, and why free-for-all parking doesn’t really work. But as consumers we sure like free parking, which is why we noticed when the city didn’t offer it again for the most recent holiday season.

Jan Quintrall, who oversees parking enforcement as the city’s Director of Business and Developer Services, says they couldn’t offer the holiday deal because of how much money was invested into the parking system this year to install smart meters and make other upgrades. Instead, they did some smaller-scale outreach, with parking ambassadors going around during the holiday season plugging meters for some lucky visitors.

“Next year we’ll look at whether there’s something else we can do at the holidays,” Quintrall says.

In December, holiday parking came up in a different context when the Spokane City Council considered a proposal to cut down on the number of free parking holidays each year. Right now parking is free on 10 holidays — New Year’s Day, Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Presidents Day, Memorial Day, Fourth of July, Labor Day, Columbus Day, Veterans Day, Thanksgiving and Christmas — even though City Hall is open on four of those days. After protest from founders of the city’s MLK Day celebration, City Council voted down the proposal.

So the parking holidays are preserved for now, but the city isn’t done with the issue. It doesn’t make sense to have parking holidays on days when City Hall is open, Quintrall says, and the proposal was made in reaction to the business community’s concerns about downtown employees taking up the street parking all day. Quintrall says they’re looking into other strategies for those holidays, like possibly starting free parking after 10 am when most employees are already at work.