Column: Downtown faces challenges; parking is not one of them

They carry no big iron on their hips, no shotguns locked in the racks of those glorified golf carts. No menacing clubs, no snarling K-9 backups.

Just a ticket book and an uncanny ability to spot an expired parking meter at 600 yards. Wartime snipers never had eyesight so keen.

If it sounds as if I am somewhat familiar with the parking police, it's because I am among their best customers. It's mostly expired meter stuff, but it adds up because they somehow manage to catch me every time I overstay my welcome downtown.

As I tool around downtown looking for a space at the curb, I swear I catch a glimpse of their dogged little carts following me at a distance. They are Javert to my Jean Valjean.

Each year they write enough tickets to paper all of downtown, and the dollars generated are devoted to paying their salaries and reducing the monstrous debts the city has incurred by insisting on building additional parking structures downtown. Two are being built at present, a third sits beneath the Neonopolis site, and the infamous Red Garage remains one of the highlights of the otherwise bland Fremont Street Experience.

But now we know that, for all the best efforts of the parking police and the Municipal Court, the city has fallen behind in its apparent effort to provide a covered parking space for every vehicle owner west of the Mississippi. And so the City Council last week voted to double the meter fees to $1 per hour in an effort they assert will raise an additional $865,000 a year.

Most anyone's math is better than mine, but something tells me the public will pay the additional four bits - and maybe four bits more if it means they can hold off a little longer from parking in the Red Garage.

No, they seem to be saying, anywhere but there.

Flatten their Firestones.

Take a key to their car doors.

Make them grip red-hot steering wheels on steaming August afternoons.

But don't make them drive the extra block or so it takes to reach the Red Garage, where they inevitably must circumnavigate the monstrosity in order to find the entrance. Once inside, they will pay $1.50 per hour for the privilege of parking farther away from the courts and City Hall, where so many conduct their business.

Downtown's daily commuters appear more willing to park their Pontiacs in a red zone than in the Red Garage.

More than its inferior location and hourly rate, I think the Red Garage has come to symbolize the frustration that has accompanied attempts to redevelop downtown at a time the rest of Southern Nevada is having so little difficulty developing.

Truth be told, downtown didn't need the Red Garage - it needed the free-spending residents and tourists who would drive the automobiles that would fill the Red Garage.

Despite the price hike, the curbside meters are still cheaper than the city-leased lots at the Four Queens and Lady Luck. Add to that the privately-owned parking garages at the various casinos and the private lots that dot the area, and it becomes ever more clear that the one thing downtown is not short of is parking.

Some of it is free. Some of it is free with a ticket validation. Some of it now costs about what residents of other cities pay.

But none of it figures prominently in the substantial redevelopment of downtown Las Vegas.

At the risk of having this optimistic paragraph return to haunt me, there is a new hope at City Hall that redevelopment will begin to take shape not only with the Neonopolis project, but especially with the 61 acres of land recently acquired by the city at the Union Pacific site. It's enough space to give downtown the dramatic resuscitation it needs.

And the big ideas - and big developers - are already materializing.

Because by now it's clear that you can't force people to spend money in a place they don't want to be.

Can you?

Short of arming those dedicated parking police, the city won't be able to force citizens at gunpoint to stay downtown.

Meanwhile, the redevelopment meter is still running.

John L. Smith's column appears Wednesdays. Reach him at (702) 383-0295 or Smith@lasvegas.com.

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