The headline in the Oakland, Calif., East Bay Express read, “Why Oakland’s Free Holiday Parking is Hurting Business.” And once again, my split personality emerged from its usual hiding place. All of the experts quoted in the article said free parking will hurt merchants. But how do they know?Machine parking

You see, I’ve spent pretty much all of my professional life in the field of downtown and community development, but I’ve also been deeply involved in parking for much of that time, both as a manager of a downtown parking system and as a consultant. So I look at situations like Oakland’s and part of me sees what parking professionals see. But another part of me sees what merchants, restaurant owners, shoppers, tourists, and downtown residents see. And I’m not sure that free parking is always bad and demand-responsive parking is always the best answer.

I know: “Free” parking is never free. We’ve buried that discussion, hopefully, years ago. And yes, demand-responsive parking seems to be working in places like San Francisco and Seattle, where demand for on-street parking is extremely high.

But I’ve been working with the City of Lebanon, Penn., for about a year on the creation of a business improvement district, or BID. Lebanon has a visually appealing, historic downtown but its retail component is weak and there are too many vacancies and storefront churches on its main street. Is free Saturday parking the answer to downtown Lebanon’s woes? No. Might it help for a few years until the BID can recruit a much stronger set of shops and restaurants? You bet, if it is managed well. Free parking can be managed so that employees and employers don’t park all day in front of the store.

What we do know is that downtowns that are lively and vibrant need great restaurants and clubs, enticing shops and successful office tenants, and lots of residents. Having a university branch, a good library, a live theater, and a burgeoning farmers market help to round out a place that local residents can be proud of, and city officials can appreciate as a major tax revenue generator.

What are the answers? Come back tomorrow and find out!