Hurricanes, traffic, beach repairs, the economy, balancing budgets, crime, bridges. All of these things have at one time or another confounded Sarasota city leaders. But nothing, nothing, causes unending vexation like parking.
City leaders just can’t get it right, and seem incapable of leaving well enough alone what works.
To be clear, downtown parking was not broken.
Sometimes a situation is working adquately, perhaps needing a tweaking to improve it. If it is working pretty well, a safe rule of thumb is that government will not be able to add that extra little touch to make it perfect. In fact, the far better bet is that government will screw it up completely.
And that brings us to parking meters.
Downtown parking was not broken. It was not perfect. At peak times there were not enough convenient street spaces in certain areas. But what was needed was a little careful fine-tuning.
What we got was a life-changing sledge hammer with the parking meters along Main Street and a few other intersecting streets. And as many feared, it has smashed what only needed modest modification.
Use of parking spaces where meters were installed has plummeted — only half of what was projected by the city are being used. In those purely objective terms, it is a failure. Unless you are a baseball player, hitting 50% of your goal is not going to get you far, at least not in the private sector.
In anecdotal terms, it also is a failure because merchants and customers are complaining bitterly at the loss of business, inconvenience of the metered parking and improper functioning of the pay stations. The recent public meeting to get input should have been the final nail, even though three out of five city commissioners seem to favor giving it more time.
Many merchants are seeing sharp declines in business compared to last year, even when the overall economy, and retail in particular, is improving. They blame the meters, and it is hard to argue.
Customers constantly complain that the pay stations do not work properly — twice they have not accepted my money although I tried to pay repeatedly. Their very concept is poor, requiring the extra step of checking for your curb number and then extra steps of walking to a pay station. Downtown is surrounded by malls where you park and walk into the store. Simple, easy, convenient.
I skipped an impulse stop at Pastry Art the other day, despite plenty of open spaces right on Main Street, simply because I did not want to deal with the parking pay stations. No biggie, unless that is multiplied hundreds of times daily.
So, now that the meters are proving to be a resounding failure, the city is considering putting them in more places, such as St. Armands Circle and around Sarasota Memorial Hospital, along with maintaining earlier plans to look at the Hillview area and Main Street around U.S. 301.
Finessing the downtown parking challenge was too much for the city. But it keeps forging on under the principle that government can do it better.
Private enterprise wanted to develop the surface parking on Palm Avenue. There were multiple plans over the years for hotels, offices, even a convention center — and they all included the public parking spaces the city claimed were needed in that area. The city, knowing what was best over private developers, wound up saying “no” to every one.
That is how we have ended up with a spookily empty parking edifice on Palm Avenue and an empty row of retail spaces on the first floor of a prime downtown street. The city refused to get itself out of the way. This all is such an elementary reality that it is hard to understand why so many people refuse to see it.
Government does precious few things well, and expectations otherwise fall into that definition of insanity.
Dump the meters, swallow the loss and stop plans for any second city-built parking ramp on State Street.
Rod Thomson can be reached at [email protected].