By Bob Seidenberg
Evanston City Council members moved November 8 to end the longstanding practice of offering the first hour of parking for free in the city’s downtown parking garages, starting January 1, despite criticism from some on the council as well as the group that represents many local businesses.
Council members voted Monday in support of the change, electing to keep parking free in the garages on Sundays – for now.
The vote was 8-0 in favor of the changes, with Council member Thomas Suffredin absent when the vote was taken.
Council member Clare Kelly, whose First Ward includes a portion of downtown, was one of those speaking out against the changes in discussion at the council and in committee.
“I think this is absolutely the wrong time to be doing this when we’re coming out of COVID and trying to support local businesses,” Kelly said. “This is not the time to be throwing another reason for folks to decide to go somewhere else to park or avoid our downtown.”
The first hour of parking for free at the garages has been in place for years. Officials had used the policy as an incentive so shoppers would park in public garages rather than on the streets.
A proposed $1 charge for the first hour of parking in the garages would generate $366,000 in additional revenue, based on this year’s figures, Parking Manager Michael Rivera estimated.
If pre-pandemic figures from 2019 are used, that estimate would climb to over $700,000 in revenue for the city, he said.
The proposal was not part of a “whimsical plan,” Rivera told the council.
He was responding to a comment from 9th Ward Council member Cicely Fleming, who said officials appeared to be playing “ping pong,” with the recommended changes, having agreed to drop Sunday parking enforcement a few years before.
Funds for climate action, garage maintenance
Rivera said a portion of the revenues would go toward Climate Action and Resilience Plan projects, including installing more electric vehicle chargers in the garages.
In addition, the funds can be used for needed repairs for the garages themselves, he said.
“While they may look new,” he said, “they’re not brand-new. One is 20 years old, one is 15, and the other is 37 years.”
In addition, some of the money could be used toward another program introduced for consideration at the meeting: The proposed Parking Meter Zones program would focus on certain underutilized spaces throughout the city, in some places reducing fees from $2 an hour to 50 cents an hour or extending the maximum time limit for parking from 2-4 hours to 12 hours.
In discussion at the council’s Administration and Public Works Committee as well as later on the council floor, several council members spoke in support of the proposal to charge the $1 first hour fee for parking at the garages Monday through Saturdays.
Council member Devon Reid, 8th Ward, said he wished they could find a way to support all of the staff’s original proposal, including charging on Sundays.
He said if the move makes possible the funding of parking systems improvement through the city’s Parking Fund “as opposed to … shifted out to various parts of the department, I think that will make a lot of sense.”
He also pointed to the aspect of the plan that would use some of the funds to lower meter rates at underutilized spaces throughout the city. “Yes, they’re underutilized,” he said. “But they may become more utilized with those lower parking rates.”
Third Ward Council member Melissa Wynne, the onetime head of the city’s Transportation and Parking Committee, expressed appreciation at Rivera’s innovation coming up with a plan “for us to make sure that our parking structures are still standing.”
She joined other Council members, she said, in wanting to keep Sunday parking free in the garages. “But I also am willing to entertain the idea that we charge $1 for the first hour,” she said. “And I think that still would feel like a bargain to many people and would facilitate remarkably high use.”
Evanston versus Wilmette
But in committee as well as during the citizen comment period, speakers drew comparisons with nearby Wilmette, where visitors can pull up to parking spaces near restaurants and dine while parking for free.
Evanston “is shooting itself in the foot,” said Eric Paset, owner of North Shore Apartments & Condos downtown, during public comment.
Speaking over the virtual hookup for the meeting, he suggested the city go the opposite way and cut in half the current $2 per hour meter rate downtown in order to help the struggling restaurant community.
“I know that might sound like you’re going to lose revenue,” he told council members. “But on the other hand, you know we get a lot of city tax from restaurants. I think we would get it back in spades with more people there.”
“I mean, when my wife and I went to downtown Wilmette Thursday night, you couldn’t get a seat in a restaurant,” he said.
Annie Coakley, executive director of the Downtown Evanston organization, which provides marketing and management services to businesses in the area, addressed the proposal to eliminate free parking for the first hour Mondays through Saturdays as well as the proposal to end free parking in the garages on Sundays, which later failed to move forward.
‘Negatively impact local businesses’
The downtown organization recognizes the financial loss the city has experienced due to a decline in parking over the last few years,” Coakley’s statement read.
“We do not agree that removing the free parking will have a long-term benefit and we know that it will negatively impact local businesses that have also experienced tremendous financial hardship,” she said.
“The free one hour parking and free parking on Sundays encourages visitors to downtown to support these local businesses. Downtown Evanston staff hears from businesses, residents and visitors weekly if not daily about parking issues. Most recently, we consistently hear that everyone is shopping and dining in Wilmette because they have free parking. While we recognize this is comparing apples to oranges, free parking is attractive and the city should not remove any of the free parking that is currently available.
“In the long term, eliminating free parking could deter residents and visitors from thinking of downtown as their first choice to shop and dine. Conversely, it could deter new businesses from considering downtown Evanston as a place to open the store. While these changes may provide a short-term financial gain for the city, it will have a long-term negative impact on businesses downtown.”
No comparison, some council members say
Council members Peter Braithwaite, 2nd Ward; Wynne and Reid all took issue with the comparison to Wilmette during the course of the evening.
“I would like to point out that there is an enormous difference between our downtown and Wilmette,” Wynne said. “They don’t have parking structures, they don’t have tall office buildings that required people to find a place to park. And that makes a significant difference.”
Further, she said, “There’s not much else to do in Wilmette except dinner. So their downtown is not doing particularly well. So I understand that we do need to be sensitive to this and figuring out what happened, what we should do. But I think we do need to continue charging for parking, because if we make it free, it [the garages] will fill up at 6 in the morning.”