Free parking to end in parts of downtown

all photos Casey Morell Catalyst

Downtown Sarasota is known for its high-class shops, boutiques and restaurants, where it is not uncommon to spend a sizable chunk of change for a night on the town. But starting on Oct. 3, a bit more change will be needed as the City re-activates parking meters along Main, First and other streets in the city’s center.

“What makes good cities?” Sarasota Mayor Suzanne Atwell asked the Catalyst while leaning back in her chair. “Ultimately, any city you go to, people will say, ‘parking, parking, parking.’ Parking and meters and the cost of free parking enter into this. There are many, many views on parking — for some people, it’s an assumption of birthright to have free parking. I think that all citizens need to contribute to the amenities that they frequent downtown. I believe there is a cost to free parking.”

Rather than using individual meters at each parking space, the City has adopted a centralized system: each parking space has a three-digit number assigned and patrons will walk to one of many “pay-stations” scattered along metered streets. After entering the numbered space in which they are parked, visitors will have the ability to pay with either a Visa or MasterCard credit card or with cash. The City states that roughly “20 percent of the public parking space downtown will be metered,” according to a Sept. 12 press release.

The meters were installed this past May but were not operational for a long period of time after complaints from locals and business-owners alike; after a new slate of city commissioners took office, they decided to put plans on hold to work out some of the kinks in the system. The City “is implementing several lessons learned from the initial parking meter rollout,” such as using better signage to aid downtown visitors where and how to pay to park, and the use of “parking ambassadors, wearing bright green shirts with a large ‘P’” to guide them to the parking meters, as stated in the aforementioned press release.

Not everyone is enthused about the idea of metered parking downtown, though. “Who wants to pay the city $40 a month to have a job?” Lore Feld, a clerk at A. Parker’s Books on Main Street, told the Catalyst. “It should be required to have free parking for workers downtown and have them park in assigned spaces.” That complaint was echoed by Jennifer, a patron of Pastry Art, who said the plan is “not good for employees — it costs them money just to work. It seems unfair for people to pay just to work.” (Jennifer declined to give her last name.) Atwell, though, said the metered parking is not a tax, but a “user fee” to patronize the downtown area. She also stated that employees of downtown businesses, as well as locals, would be able to buy parking passes on monthly, quarterly, biyearly or yearly scales to avoid paying for parking by the hour.

Atwell explained the parking meters were part of a larger scheme the City has developed to deal with parking issues downtown. “Our city fund was beginning to hemorrhage,” she said. “We needed to figure out how to [fix it]. Our Palm Ave. parking garage is integral to the function of parking meters, and parking meters are integral to function of structured parking garages. That turnover in parking meters feeds into the garage. We’re hoping — and we have seen this already before they [the meters] were taken out and put back in — a lot of people went off to the garage. We saw movement from the main strategic areas near Main and Palm. It seemed like there were a lot more spaces.”

The pay-stations will have “an eye on sustainability,” according to the City. They will be solar powered and will not print receipts, ostensibly to prevent littering. But Feld, the clerk from A. Parker’s Books, argued that the lack of a receipt was a bad idea in case the machines malfunctioned, which apparently happened during their limited summer usage. According to Feld, the machines reset during times of high humidity and downtown visitors received tickets erroneously. From now until next June, though, a driver’s first parking ticket for failure to pay for time on the meter will result in only a warning.

When asked if the City would consider waiving parking fees for area college students — including those at New College — Atwell expressed a desire to bring younger people into the downtown parts of Sarasota and said that she was “open to anything … It is true that, with a vibrant downtown, we want more younger people. That may beg the question: New College students, USF students, Ringling students, what is it you’re coming downtown for that you’d be willing to pay a dollar for parking? I think that may be the operative concern here — how do we get students downtown? What is the incentive on parking to get you to come here? And that’s something that we’ll look into.”

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