Even Free Parking Isn’t Enough

Every planner has been through it. You worked so hard to publicize your open house. You used Facebook, email listservs, website advertisements, and you even took out an ad in the local newspaper. In your head you are trying to figure out what happens if we don’t have enough space. Then it happens, 10 minutes into the meeting you realize the faces you see are the same faces that are always at City Council. What if your efforts really don’t matter?

The City of Mukilteo recently adopted a paid parking program at Lighthouse Park and decided to exempt Mukilteo residents from paying the $2/hour fee. The program brought news crews to City Hall with claims of inequity. Arguments raged about the exclusiveness of Mukilteo and were the talk of the town. The Mukilteo Beacon continued the conversation with articles about the new program and how residents can get passes. The efforts to advertise the program were more than adequate. But let’s be honest, the program was literally “free parking” for residents and word of mouth should have provided more than enough advertisement. A year and a half after implementing the program, approximately half the households have a pass and every week another long-term resident comes to City Hall to get a pass.

So the nagging question for planners, how do you get residents to spend an evening at a public meeting when they won’t even take advantage of free parking? Unfortunately, you don’t. It is becoming more and more apparent that to have a reasonable amount of public participation, other than the usual suspects, it has to use a contentious topic.

Looking back on the most well attended open houses, they weren’t on fun topics that provided planners better insight on what residents wanted, they were the open houses that frustrate planners. These were on contentious topics where planners typically can’t win. What drew residents out to the meeting? The residents felt threatened by the topic and many were very vocal that the topic would lower their property values and challenge their way of life. These well-attended open houses weren’t high numbers by any means, but the individuals in attendance outnumber the “usual suspects” by at least 2 to 1.

So you could make your open house topic contentious to get higher participation, or maybe we must accept that we will only hear from the usual suspects, and the majority will only care after the project is underway. Ultimately, we must accept that we will never satisfy every resident’s desired level of public outreach, even if we are offering free parking.

Return to the October issue of The Washington Planner