The City Commission approved on-street paid parking for downtown Sarasota. Now, staff is working to ensure history doesn't repeat itself.
Despite the contentious history of parking meters in Sarasota, and despite outspoken opposition from some Main Street merchants, city Parking Manager Mark Lyons is confident on-street paid parking can be a good thing for downtown.
He made his case to the City Commission on Monday, delivering an argument persuasive enough to convince a majority of the commission: The board voted 3-2 to approve the return of parking meters to Main Street and Palm Avenue.
The vote authorized a series of staff recommendations on parking policy, which Lyons believes will make the city’s parking operations more sustainable. But he knows the majority of the attention will be devoted to downtown meters, with plans calling for implementation to begin no later than May.
Now, Lyons is focused on making sure the controversial proposal is a success.
“I think it’s very important we talk about the upside of this,” he said.
Following Monday’s vote, city staff will work to implement a plan to install meters between Gulfstream Avenue and School Avenue on Main Street, and between Cocoanut Avenue and Ringling Boulevard on Palm Avenue. The city intends to charge $1.50 an hour to park, though details on the rates and more are subject to additional consideration.
In part, Lyons sees meters as a necessary step to help balance the parking division’s budget. The city has spent more than $3 million subsidizing parking since 2011, and the fund could require more than $1.8 million in additional subsidies in the next three budgets without any changes.
Lyons said the city embarked on a downtown parking program intended to include parking garages and on-street paid parking in the mid-2000s. The city built two garages, but a 2011 initiative to install meters was reversed by 2012 after negative public feedback.
That removed a key aspect from what was supposed to be a symbiotic relationship: Some people would pay to park on the street, while others would opt to use the garages. Revenue from paid parking would help fund expenses associated with the garage, and the availability of the garages would ensure prime parking spaces remained available on Main Street.
Now, the city bears the costs of maintaining the garages, but Main Street spaces remain filled with people parking for free. When commissioners questioned why the city’s parking deficit was so severe compared to other municipalities, Lyons pointed to the garages.
“You can’t pick and pull pieces and think one will work without the other,” Lyons said. “In these environments where you have a busy downtown and the parking garages are very expensive to operate, you have to have them work together so they’re economically viable.”
Although generating revenue is a priority, Lyons said the meter plan isn’t just a cash grab. Downtown businesses have voiced strong opposition to the proposal, concerned the meters will hurt their businesses.
Chip Beeman, owner of Pastry Art Café and Main Bar Sandwich Shop, said downtown businesses are already struggling because of the effects of various construction projects in the area. He said many stores and restaurants suffered the last time the city installed parking meters.
“We do know here in this downtown area, lots of people lost lots of money,” Beeman said.
Lyons, however, argued the changes would provide benefits for downtown merchants. He said industry standards recommend against having more than 85% of parking spaces in a block filled, because that makes it difficult for visitors to find a spot. He said higher turnover would generate business activity, citing experts including retail planner Robert Gibbs.
Lyons pointed to some policy proposals designed to address the concerns he’s heard. The city plans to offer 15 minutes of free time in metered spaces. Five percent of gross paid parking revenue will be reinvested into the areas where the meters are installed, money that could potentially fund a parking validation program, if businesses are worried customers will be scared away.
He also assured residents and businesses that the vast majority of parking in downtown Sarasota — thousands of spaces — would remain free of charge.
Still, Commissioners Hagen Brody and Shelli Freeland Eddie echoed concerns about meters serving as a detriment to downtown merchants.
“I’m not saying never, but we’re just not there yet for downtown,” Brody said.
But Lyons said both public and private entities increasingly see parking meters as an asset, not an obstacle to doing business.
“We’re finding now, in many cities, that there’s documented growth in revenue and sales when these programs are implemented correctly,” Lyons said.
The paid parking proposal drew support from some downtown residents, merchants and property owners. Property owner and entrepreneur Jesse Biter endorsed the plans and said there’s no reason the city is uniquely ill-equipped to handle the addition of meters.
“How could you look at other sophisticated cities that are doing this very successfully and not think it’s a good idea for Sarasota?” Biter said.
Lyons said staff is focused on making sure the transition to paid parking is smooth. The city is establishing a parking advisory committee designed to make recommendations on how to best implement the changes that are coming. Although he’s a believer in paid parking, he’s also sensitive to the community concerns.
He intends to proceed carefully as he embarks on what has historically been a daunting task.
“It’s important we manage this process well,” Lyons said. “Let’s go from a crawl to a walk and then evaluate what’s next.”