City Commission asks for more details from staff before deciding on next steps in regard to paid parking program in downtown Sarasota and on St. Armands

Parking stations already scheduled to go into use on St. Armands Circle when parking garage completed in December

A graphic shows projections for the city Parking Division subsidy over the next several years. Image courtesy City of Sarasota

As City of Sarasota staff prepares to install parking pay stations on St. Armands Circle, merchants in the shopping district have voiced growing frustration over the fact that metered parking will not be returning to downtown Sarasota at the same time.

Circle merchants were promised that both areas would require shoppers to pay, several told the Sarasota City Commission this week.

“It is totally unjust and, in my opinion, unconscionable” for the city to make St. Armands the only district with pay stations, Diana Corrigan, executive director of the St. Armands Circle Association, told the City Commission on the night of Oct. 15. “You will seriously cripple the businesses on St. Armands Circle …”

Hugh Fiore, a past president of the St. Armands Residents Association and a member of the city parking committee that proposed a metered parking plan for downtown Sarasota in 2016, pointed out that the St. Armands paid parking program was predicated on the return of parking meters to Main Street and Palm Avenue. “That process was going along just fine,” he said, “until this current commission was elected and they reversed it.”

When the St. Armands parking garage opens in December, city staff has planned to begin the paid parking program in the shopping district to help cover the $1.3 million per year in debt service, over 20 years, for the bonds that financed the $15-million garage.

On May 16, 2016, the commissioners voted 3-2 — with Commissioner Shelli Freeland Eddie and then-Commissioner Susan Chapman in the minority — to approve issuance of $17.5 million in bonds to cover the initial expense of the garage on North Adams Drive.

City Manager Tom Barwin and city Parking Division Manager Mark Lyons stressed to the city commissioners during their regular meeting on Oct. 15 that the city will have to cover the bond payments one way or another.

Nonetheless, Commissioners Hagen Brody and Freeland Eddie said they remain in firm opposition to meters on downtown streets, especially in the wake of red tide’s negative effect on business owners.

“I didn’t vote for it,” Freeland Eddie added of paid parking on St. Armands and downtown Sarasota. “I don’t support it at all.”

She told city staff she has a folder with information about 23 downtown businesses that opposed parking meters in the past and continue to oppose them.

A graphic shows the areas where meters were proposed again — in 2016 — in downtown Sarasota. Image courtesy City of Sarasota

Brody pointed out that a big focus of his campaign for the seat he won in 2017 was opposition to downtown meters.

“We have to make some decisions,” Mayor Liz Alpert said, before paid parking begins on St. Armands.

With the city budget also projected to have to cover continually rising deficits racked up by the Parking Division, Freeland Eddie suggested that perhaps the city should adjust the parking fee schedule for its garages on Palm Avenue and State Street. The first three hours are free for both facilities. The fee is then $3 for the first hour and $1 for each subsequent hour.

The city subsidy this year is $230,000, even though the deficit is projected to be $633,912, Lyons said. His department has a fund balance that is covering the rest of the loss, he explained.

The subsidy is expected to rise to $461,000 in the 2020 fiscal year, he added, and to $670,000 in the 2021 fiscal year, when the reserves have been depleted.

Lyons pointed out that the cost of maintaining the garages is the primary reason for the parking fund deficit. As the facilities grow older, he said, the expense of keeping them in good condition rises. His staff labor and benefits costs also continue to rise, he noted.

“I feel like if we need to generate revenue for a garage, we should charge for [the garage],” Freeland Eddie said, “and at some point, we can bring down the subsidy. … You can just have parking in the garages that’s paid.”

A chart provides data about parking revenue from the city’s garages. Image courtesy City of Sarasota

Alpert countered that making people pay to use the garages, but not parking spaces on the downtown streets, will lead to most drivers trying to park on the street. That will exacerbate traffic congestion, she said, and make people less inclined to shop downtown.

“There are things that cities choose to subsidize,” Alpert pointed out. Perhaps parking is one of those for Sarasota, she added.

Commissioner Willie Shaw reminded his colleagues that he was on the board the last time commissioners approved the installation of parking meters in downtown Sarasota — in 2011-12. “I sat through the last bunch of this nonsense!”

Business owners did not want the meters, Shaw said, but the city’s Parking Division deficit has continued to rise.

He further noted that the city has given up close to half of its spaces in the Palm Avenue garage to the Art Ovation Hotel next to that facility. (Lyons told the board in June 2017 that about 40% of the spaces are reserved for hotel use.)

“So now what do we do?” Shaw asked. Is the city supposed to subsidize all the parking? If that is the case, he continued, then taxes will have to go up, in spite of both Brody and Freeland Eddie arguing against tax increases for the current budget year. “It just doesn’t seem like it’s going to come out right for me.”

Finally, after close to 100 minutes of discussion and public comments — with the commissioners continuing to address the issue after 11:30 p.m. on Oct. 15, as Vice Mayor Jen Ahearn-Koch noted —Alpert asked Lyons to “come back very soon, maybe the next meeting,” with a reprisal of the presentation he made to the City Commission in 2016 regarding the proposal for metered parking on Main Street and Palm Avenue.

A graphic shows the areas where parking pay stations are scheduled to be installed on St. Armands Circle. Image courtesy City of Sarasota

City Manager Barwin also told the board members that he had been discussing a pilot meter program in downtown Sarasota with a few merchants, and he had asked them to try to find enough support among other business owners for the city to undertake such an initiative on one or two blocks. Barwin indicated work would continue on that effort, as well.

Prior to Alpert’s asking Lyons to provide the 2016 report to the board once more, Barwin said, “We can return, I think, relatively soon” with information about a pilot meter program.

At commissioners’ request, Barwin said staff also would analyze the situation on St. Armands to determine whether a different approach would work while enabling the city to pay for the garage.

In response to a question from Commissioner Brody, Lyons said 150 spaces would remain free on St. Armands. “They’re a little bit further away” from the main business district, Lyons noted.

Reprising a years-long discussion

During his Oct. 15 presentation to the commission, Lyons explained that in 2012, the board members at that time asked for strategies regarding parking as the city continued to grow. Among the goals, he said, were reducing traffic congestion and enabling the Parking Division to become self-sufficient.

One of the biggest questions remains how to handle the growing deficit for the division, he added.

Data from paid parking in the Palm Avenue and State Street garages through Aug. 31 showed, he said, that “the revenues are somewhat meager,” thanks to what he called “a significant amount of free time.”

The revenue generated by the Palm Avenue facility was $78,535, he said, while the money paid by users of the State Street garage totaled $61,116.

A graphic lists options for reducing the city’s Parking Division deficit. Image courtesy City of Sarasota

The data also showed that 78% of the Palm Avenue garage patrons utilized the free time option; the corresponding figure for State Street was 87%.

If the city reduced the free parking time in the garages to two hours, Lyons said, that would bring in only about $50,000 more a year. Dropping it to one hour would lead to about $108,000 more a year, he added.

Private property owners in downtown Sarasota have been installing paid parking programs on surface lots, charging $3 to $5 per hour, Lyons continued. If the city installed such pay stations on its surface lots, he said, that would generate about $72,600 per year.

In other cities, he pointed out, paid parking programs in the primary business districts have increased turnover of vehicles and sales tax revenue. For example, he said, Aspen, Colo., had been able to use revenue from a paid parking program to create a micro transit system that makes it easier for people to reach the shopping district without having to drive.

A parking district in downtown Sarasota, he added, could generate revenue that potentially could pay for such a system and other improvements, including enhanced streetscapes and wayfinding systems to help people reach their destinations more easily.

Mayor Alpert asked how much free parking remained in downtown Sarasota in the plan the commission last saw in 2016.

Only 11% of the spaces would have meters, Lyons said. Along with paid parking on Main Street and Palm Avenue, he added, meters were called for along Ringling Boulevard in the Judicial District. Studies have shown that on any block, he pointed out, 10% to 15% of the spaces should be open at a given time.

This chart lists cities similar to Sarasota that have paid parking programs. Image courtesy City of Sarasota

If paid parking is a benefit to businesses, Alpert asked, then why would it hurt merchants on St. Armands?

“Many of these concerns … felt by the owners [are] anecdotal,” Lyons replied. “I don’t want to get into that.”

The benefits of paid parking are “not intuitive,” he added.

Studies have shown that the more turnover in parking spaces, the more foot traffic on the streets of a business district, he continued. Yet, “‘It’s never a good time’” is what the commission and staff hear whenever metered parking is proposed, he pointed out.

In fact, Lyons said, he talked with many business owners when meters were in place in 2011-12, and they told him that was a very good period for revenue.

Most visitors to Florida are accustomed to paying for parking in the areas where they live, Commissioner Shaw stressed. “It’s nothing new to the people coming here … That’s a part of their everyday living.”