When city commissioners approved less-strict parking enforcement on St. Armands Circle earlier this month, Deputy City Manager Marlon Brown predicted that commissioners would soon hear from downtown merchants.
And they did.
Downtown advocate Ernie Ritz sent an email to commissioners the following day, asking that the city consider easing parking restrictions downtown, too.
Now parking enforcement — an ongoing subject downtown — could be coming full circle to parking enforcement that was in place before parking meters were installed in spring 2011, and subsequently removed. Ritz has the attention of at least one commissioner who said it makes sense to take another look at downtown parking.
Commissioner Terry Turner said Ritz’s suggestions for possible parking changes are “reasonable.” Turner wants the City Commission to discuss bringing back the pre-2011 parking enforcement program.
Turner supports the following changes to parking downtown, as suggested by Ritz. The changes include:
• Eliminating timed parking enforcement on Saturdays.
• Eliminating timed parking enforcement after 6 p.m. from Monday through Friday. Currently, parking time limits are enforced from 9 a.m. to 8 p.m.
• Implementing a paid-permit program that would allow employees to pay for a monthly permit in exchange for being able to park in parking areas without a time limit.
“The details need to be worked out,” Turner noted. But the commissioner has heard from several other downtown merchants who have responded favorably.
“Why should there be different rules for different neighborhoods?” said J.P. Knaggs, owner of Bijou Café, in an email to Turner and other merchants. “Seriously it is our businesses on the line, too. How are people supposed to go to a restaurant and then the opera or a play and only be allowed to park for two hours?”
Turner wants to know what some of the other downtown merchants think. But he believes a more “limited, soft management” approach is better than aggressive parking enforcement. In 2011, Turner was the lone “no” vote against installing parking meters.
Ritz and other merchants said less-strict rules would entice customers to linger longer to shop and dine. The downtown advocate said that stricter rules have “ruined the experience” of eating an early dinner downtown, because residents and tourists have to leave to make sure they don’t get a ticket.
The evening parking restrictions also deter those early diners who might stop into a store or two after their dinner, said James Derheim, owner of European Focus on Main Street, which will close Dec. 26.
“After dinner those people are hustling to get back to their cars because they parked at 5:15 and it’s now 7:15 p.m.,” said Derheim.
As people head out to shop for the holidays and Main Street is filled with tourists and residents, the changes would help keep customers downtown, Ritz said.
He envisions ticket-free Saturdays, where customers can come to the Sarasota Farmers Market and spend time shopping without having to worry about coming back to their car to find a citation on the windshield.
Bringing back the employee-parking permits would be another significant shift. Ritz said such a program would free up prime parking spaces for customers, while allowing merchants and employees to park and not have to worry about going out to move their cars every two hours.
Under such a program, employees would be able to park in designated areas, such as the third floor of the Whole Foods Garage, the State Street lot and the Palm Avenue parking garage.
Turner thinks the city could issue parking stickers to employees and draft an ordinance to ensure that employees park in those areas — instead of on Main Street and occupying other prime parking spaces.
“As a condition of the permit, employees would be required to acknowledge that they are not to park in time-limited spaces,” Turner said.
The city’s parking manager, Mark Lyons, said he wants to work with downtown merchants to find the best parking solution, and that includes considering Ritz’s suggestions.
“I’ll talk to downtown stakeholders about these ideas and some others that might make sense,” Lyons said.
However, Lyons said the parking system in place several years ago was not without flaws.
“It’s a balancing act,” Lyons said.
A return to the pre-2011 parking hours would limit parking turnover, making it more difficult for downtown visitors to find a parking space during peak times.
And with fewer parking citations, the changes could also necessitate an increase in the amount of general-fund tax dollars needed to subsidize the city’s parking department.
But Turner said if the city moves ahead with the changes, parking-department expenses could be reduced to make up for the revenue shortfall from fewer citations.
“If we reduce to half as many hours (for timed parking), the city would only need half as many resources,” Turner said. “So there is not going to be a significant budget impact.”
When parking meters were installed in 2011, the city increased the hours for timed parking enforcement downtown. Previously, timed parking was enforced from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Friday. It was increased to 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday through Saturday. Commissioner Terry Turner’s proposal would return to the pre-2011 parking times.