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Downtown Sarasota parking meters
Sarasota Thursday, Sep. 12, 2019 5 months ago

Downtown paid parking draws mixed feedback

How is downtown Sarasota adapting to the recent installation of parking meters? Depends on who you ask.
by: David Conway Deputy Managing Editor

At an Aug. 28 meeting of the city’s Parking Advisory Committee, Mark Lyons offered a positive review of the latest effort to implement an on-street paid parking system in downtown Sarasota.

Lyons, the city’s parking manager, shared data on the volume of transactions and the number of people who had used a smartphone app to pay to park. He said the pay station was generating revenue in line with his expectations and that during peak hours, nearly every street was meeting the capacity staff had targeted.

Lyons said he thought the public was responding better than the last time the city installed parking meters downtown. He said the feedback he’s received is mostly questions about the system and suggestions for improving communications.

“Nothing that’s directed to, ‘We think this is a bad idea, terrible idea, don’t do it,’” Lyons said. “I’m not going to say there aren’t people out there that think that; that’s not my point. But I think what we have is what we planned.”

And then, after Lyons completed his remarks, Main Street business owner Christophe Coutelle offered a diverging perspective.

“Right now, for me, it’s a disaster,” said Coutelle, co-owner of C’est La Vie restaurant. “I can tell you: My customers are probably 99% super upset.”

Judgment call

The meeting highlighted the challenges of evaluating the city’s newest paid parking initiative. Different stakeholders have different priorities. There’s no universal tool for analyzing the efficacy of the system thus far.

Through Sept. 4, the city generated more than $78,000 in downtown paid-parking revenue from 43,800 transactions.

Prorated over a full year, that rate of revenue generation falls far short of the $1.09 million from paid parking included in the city’s 2019-2020 budget. But there are several factors that limited the amount of money the city could take in during the first two months of the new system.

The city activated the pay stations on a phased schedule; all of the stations on Palm Avenue and the ones west of Orange Avenue on Main Street did not go live until the end of July. Focused on ensuring visitors were comfortable with a new system, the city de-emphasized issuing citations for meter violations prior to Labor Day.

Paid parking went into effect during a traditionally slower time of the year for downtown businesses. Members of the Parking Advisory Committee expressed optimism there would be more activity — and more transactions — during season.

“I think when the tourists or snowbirds come back, I don’t know if it’s going to be as much of a problem as you think,” committee Chairman Carl Shoffstall said. “They look for it because they’re expecting to pay for parking.”

Lyons said he’s not concerned about the usage rates at this point and instead focuses on any necessary adjustments to the system. Since activating the meters, Lyons has prioritized improving signage and educating the public about how to use the ParkMobile app. Lyons has spent years saying paid parking brings benefits, including addressing a long-standing deficit in the city’s parking fund and improving circulation in high-demand parking spaces.

Right now, he thinks things are going according to plan.

“I’ll say I’m pleased at this point with what I’m seeing,” Lyons said.

For some downtown merchants critical of the prospect of paid parking before it went into effect, the past two months have done little to allay their concerns. Business owners including Coutelle said they have seen declining sales relative to last year. Coutelle said his downtown restaurant is much slower than the C’est La Vie location in University Town Center.

Coutelle said he has heard first-hand reports from customers dissatisfied with the system.

“It’s really not positive,” Coutelle said. “It’s a lot of people that tell me, ‘This is the last time you’re going to see me.’”

Persuasion campaign

Lyons said there are challenges with using anecdotal accounts to evaluate whether downtown paid parking is successful.

He acknowledges that nobody wants to pay for something they used to get for free. But he says even people who loudly complain about the concept are sometimes willing to pay for the convenience.

Lyons recounted an encounter with a customer at Pastry Art Bakery Cafe who was upset about paid parking. When Lyons suggested the man could park at the nearby State Street garage for free, he said he got a telling response.

“He was arguing, ‘Why? Why would we do this?’” Lyons said. “We went all the way around the whole subject, and I said, ‘Well, you know, if you don’t want to pay that, it’s two hours [free] right around the block.’ You know what he said to me? ‘Why should I do that, when I can park right here for $1.50?’”

Even if a store or restaurant has numbers showing it’s struggling following the implementation of paid parking, it’s difficult to isolate the effects of the new system. Businesses might have less activity than the same time last year, but any number of factors could contribute to that, Lyons said.

Coutelle said he felt confident paid parking wasn’t helping matters, though. At the August Parking Advisory Committee meeting, Coutelle said the city should consider initiatives to mitigate any negative effects from paid parking. He suggested a system where merchants could get discounted rates if they pay for their customers’ parking themselves.

Lyons said the city is open to such an idea. For now, though, he and the committee is directing most of its energy toward educating the public — and selling them on the notion that paid parking isn’t a reason to stay away.

Shoffstall and fellow Parking Advisory Committee member Wayne Ruben suggested an awareness campaign could make residents more comfortable visiting downtown. They emphasized the availability of free spaces off Main Street and Palm Avenue, including a concentration of parking in garages on State Street and Palm Avenue.

David Steiner, co-owner of State of the Arts gallery on State Street, agreed public outreach could be a powerful tool. He said he believes many people might not be aware of key aspects of the paid parking system. He suggested the city could promote the need to take down your license plate to input into the pay stations and the ability to download an app to pay.

Although the city would have to put in work to inform residents, Steiner and others think there’s a strong message to pitch. Steiner said the availability of parking spaces, recent street improvement projects and the concentration of businesses makes downtown an attractive destination.

“There’s nothing but positive things in general,” Steiner said.

As downtown adjusts to the post-paid-parking landscape, Lyons echoed Steiner’s thoughts. He was optimistic stakeholders would share a positive perspective on the situation with the rest of the community.

“These are the things that not only the city should be promoting; I think the businesses need to embrace that,” Lyons said. “You want to come in and see us? It’s easy now.”

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