“Free parking is an asphalt commons: just as cattle compete in their search for scarce grass, drivers compete in their search for scarce curb parking spaces,” writes economist Donald Shoup in his book the “High Cost of Free Parking.”
“Drivers waste time and fuel, congest traffic and pollute the air while cursing for curb parking, and after finding a space, they have no incentive to economize on how long they park,” Shoup says.
Parking is a familiar issue in Sarasota — from Siesta Key beach to Southside Village to downtown Main Street to St. Armands Circle. We just can’t seem to figure it out.
This much is sure: Sarasotans are spoiled rotten with free parking.
In the city of Sarasota, the most acute parking shortages occur in two of the city’s most popular restaurant and retail locations — St. Armands Circle and Southside Village. Consider Southside Village, home to Morton’s Gourmet Market, Coffrin Jewelers, Knick’s Tavern, Gecko’s, Libby’s Café and a more than a dozen other shops and restaurants along Osprey Avenue and Hillview Street.
Mark Lyons, the city’s parking manager, refers to Southside as a “mini St. Armands.” “They’re in a tough area,” he told us. “It’s a busy district, and they’ve got the neighborhoods all around them.”
Eddie Morton, owner of Morton’s Gourmet Market, says parking — specifically, the lack thereof — has been an issue in the area since he began working at the store in 1969. Morton’s has its own parking lot and attendant, which it shares with Libby’s Café, but that doesn’t mean his store isn’t affected. Poachers constantly try to park in his lot and stroll off to other stores or restaurants.
Coffrin Jewelers owner Belinda Coffrin, a member of the city’s Parking Advisory Committee, says she has been listening to complaints about a lack of parking for at least the past decade.
The problem is simple: The demand for parking spaces from Southside Village employees and patrons dwarfs supply. Duh.
Diners easily can spend 20 minutes trolling for an open parking space on a weekend evening, ending up disillusioned and heading for another part of the city. Every time that happens, it’s a lost sale — not just for that night, but maybe forever. As we all know, no one enjoys the pain and hassle of looking for parking.
So you stay away.
“I consider that to be a huge problem,” said Chutney’s Etc. owner Denise May.
As bad as that may be, the conditions apparently are not so dire that Southside property owners and business owners have reached a tipping point — the point of taking action.
“The status quo is really always difficult to change,” says Robert Poole, founder and director of transportation policy at the Reason Foundation, a free-market think tank. Widely known in policy circles as one of the foremost experts on transportation issues, Poole is convinced — especially after studying the issue in so many cities nationally and in other countries — there is only one unavoidable choice: “The solution has got to be paid parking,” Poole said.
Oh no, not that again.
We should listen to Poole.
One approach, he says, is the city, or perhaps a formally organized Southside Village merchant organization, could make an initial investment on a demand-based metering system. That would mean oft-used parking spaces would cost more than their lesser-used counterparts, and parking during prime hours would be more expensive.
Doing so would incentivize thrift, and move the “parking market” in the district into equilibrium, Poole says. With meters in place, if a group of friends wanted to meet for dinner, the participants would be more likely to carpool, creating a larger supply of available spaces.
“The idea is that if you can adjust the pricing to keep about 10% or 15% of the meters vacant at any given time, you would have a huge reduction in people cruising around looking for places to park,” Poole said.
San Francisco implemented the idea with SFPark, which Poole said has made “a big difference.”
Or, let’s consider a pure market solution.
In the surrounding area, there are multiple parking garages and spaces. Sarasota Memorial Hospital has three garages, all within less than a one-mile radius of Southside Village. The vacant site of what was once a convenience store at the corner of South Osprey Avenue and Arlington Street has 11 parking spaces, and the adjacent Doctors Garden complex has more than 100 spaces.
The hospital allows non-hospital parking in the garage for special events, such as the Firehouse Chili Cook-off in October. But the property owners of the vacant convenience store and Doctors Gardens don’t allow public parking — the latter was more than 90% empty on a recent Saturday evening.
A market solution could apply here based on the principle that everybody has a price.
Merchants, perhaps even just the restaurants, could approach SMH, Lawrence Wild, the owner of the vacant property, or Élan Skin Spa owner Monee Arpin and work out a leasing arrangement to tap their parking spaces in the evenings.
“There has to be a deal that makes sense,” Poole said.
Businesses owners in Siesta Key Village, including successful property investor Chris Brown, have bartered successfully with each other to meet parking demands established by Sarasota County.
When Poole lived in California, he and his wife often took the 45-minute trip from his home to a historic shopping district called Old Town Pasadena. In the 1970s, that area was a dead zone for commerce, complete with vacant buildings, adult video stores and pawn shops.
But property owners came together with the city of Pasadena to form a redevelopment agency in the 1990s, which implemented metered parking and several parking garages.
“Old Town Pasadena completely blossomed,” Poole said. “People love to go there.”
Southside Village is not like Old Town Pasadena in that it needs to be redeveloped. But bringing together property owners into a special taxing district, with some organizational help from the city, could help fund a public or permitted parking lot or garage.
There already are three special taxing districts in the city of Sarasota, including the Golden Gate Point Streetscape Special District, Downtown Improvement District and the St. Armands Business Improvement District. Additional property taxes within those pay for landscape, streetscape and other capital improvements, as well as parking and market studies.
If Southside Village merchants could tolerate a greater millage rate, the pooled funds could buy out vacant or underused properties on Arlington Street for a parking garage or parking lot. The taxes also could fund a metering system.
In Old Town Pasadena, the revenue collected from paid parking was used to fund storefront improvements throughout the district. They turned one problem into a solution for another.
These all sound like great ideas, but the likelihood of any of them coming to fruition is not high. Here’s why: Somehow the multiple property owners in Southside Village would need to reach consensus.
Collaboration would be essential for any of the suggested parking fixes. On top of that, one of the village’s business owners or property owners would need to take on the role of champion — leader of the cause.
Apparently, though, the pain of lost sales is not and has not been great enough to bring everyone together.
Until then, parking in Southside Village will be a pain.