On 3-2 vote, City Commission approves installation of parking meters for 11% of downtown Sarasota spaces

Free time in the two city parking garages to be reduced from three hours to two in January, with meter equipment expected to be operational by May 2019

A graphic shows the areas where meters are planned in downtown Sarasota, denoted by the purple lines. Image courtesy City of Sarasota

On a Nov. 5 motion by Commissioner Willie Shaw, seconded by Mayor Liz Alpert, with support from Vice Mayor Jen Ahearn-Koch, parking meters will be returning to downtown Sarasota by May 2019, if all goes as the Parking Division staff plans.

However, the paid spaces will be just along Main Street, South Palm Avenue and the Judicial District — part of East Main and a section of Ringling Boulevard. Altogether, the meters would cover only 11% of all the city’s downtown parking spots — “the primeparking spaces — as Alpert stressed, referencing information from Parking Division Manager Mark Lyons.

The hours proposed for payments are 10 a.m. to 8 p.m., Monday through Saturday, with a rate of $1.50 per hour. The first 15 minutes would be free.

Lyons did say staff would consider adjusting the hours, making the paid period shorter during the off-season.

Both Commissioners Shelli Freeland Eddie and Hagen Brody continued to voice concerns this week that making the public pay to park will erode business, instead of generating millions of dollars in extra revenue each year for retailers.

Lyons cited a number of national parking studies — and the views of consultants the city has hired in years past — to support his recommendation for the implementation of a paid parking plan, incorporating suggestions a city parking advisory committee offered in 2016.

“I think it’s going to help the downtown businesses,” Alpert said.

She recently had been to downtown St. Petersburg, where the public must pay to park, she added. “It is a happening place. … It’s having a tremendous rebirth.”

Along with the meters, the free time in the city’s two parking garages — on Palm Avenue and State Street — will be reduced from three hours to two beginning in January 2019.

A slide shown to the City Commission cites views of planning and economic development experts on paid parking for the city. Image courtesy City of Sarasota

Further, the commission committed to allocating 5% of the funds from the meters to the streets where the equipment is installed, to improve those parts of the business district.

The City Commission also agreed to the establishment of a new ad hocparking committee, with five members, to advise Lyons and City Manager Tom Barwin on the phasing in of the on-street parking and to provide recommendations on the rates and future use of the revenue “to enhance the downtown business district.”

The action this week followed Lyons’ presentation and board discussion during the commission’s regular meeting on Oct. 15, with additional information provided on Nov. 5.

At the outset of his latest remarks, Lyons explained that the parking program envisioned for the city starting around 2006 called for the garages as well as metered parking. “All those components working together make the system work and affordable.”

Without new measures to increase revenue for the Parking Division, he told the board — as he had on Oct. 15 — “We will see deficits [in that department] that will climb over the next few years … into the $690,000 range.”

Since 2011, the City Commission has had to allocate about $3.3 million to subsidizing the operations of the Parking Division, Lyons pointed out.

Without additional revenue, he stressed, the commission will be forced to continue those subsidies, taking money out of the city’s General Fund, instead of using that fund for other purposes such as enhancement of parks and recreation opportunities, public safety and dealing with homelessness.

This fiscal year, the subsidy is estimated at $230,000, with the overall deficit projected to be $633,912. Reserves will be used to cover the remainder, Lyons explained on Oct. 15. However, those reserve funds will be exhausted by the 2021 fiscal year, he said.

A graphic shows projections for the city Parking Division subsidy over the next several years, without revenue adjustments, such as the implementation of paid parking. Image courtesy City of Sarasota

Lyons and Barwin did caution the commission on Nov. 5 that it probably would take two years to eradicate the Parking Division deficit.

Fourteen people addressed the commission this week, several of whom served on the parking advisory committee that offered the 2016 recommendations. Among them, Carl Shoffstall — who noted that he was the vice chair — explained that he had not intended to address the board this week. However, as he listened to the discussion on a TV at his office, he continued, he felt compelled to come to City Hall.

Earlier that day, Shoffstall pointed out, he had left a construction site on which he was working to go downtown for lunch. It took him seven circuits of Main Street to find a parking space, he added. “There was none. I think that is not right.”

Patrick Gannon, president of the Downtown Sarasota Condominium Association, said the commissioners needed to decide whether to let city taxpayers continue to cover the expense of downtown parking, through the subsidies for the Parking Division, or let users of the spaces pay for it. As proposed, he continued, the program still would allow the public to park for free for two hours in both garages and walk to their destinations, if they did not want to pay to park closer to those destinations.

Ahearn-Koch pointed out that when meters were installed downtown in 2011, “it was pretty disastrous,” with the public expressing frustration and anger over difficulty in using the equipment. However, she continued, “That was seven years ago. Technology has changed.”

People have become a lot more accustomed to using apps on their phones for a wide array of purposes, Ahearn-Koch continued.

Lyons had explained that the meters selected for downtown Sarasota would be similar to those that will go into use on St. Armands Circle later this year, with drivers being able to enter their license plate numbers, so they can be billed for their time in more than one space. The mobile application the city would use also will notify them when their time nearly is up, Lyons indicated.

This chart provides information about paid parking programs in other cities similar to Sarasota. Image courtesy City of Sarasota

Nonetheless, Ahearn-Koch said, “I really wanted to see resounding support from all of the merchants on … Main Street, and I don’t see that.”

Three of those merchants — Ron Soto of Soto’s Optical Boutique and the president of the Downtown Merchants Association; Erik Kent, owner of Parker Robinson; and Chip Beeman, owner of Pastry Art — urged the commissioners not to implement metered parking downtown, citing worries about negative impacts on their businesses. If the city just extended its current restrictions on parking from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. Monday through Friday and on Saturdays, Soto said, that would resolve what he indicated is the biggest problem: people waiting until 4:30 p.m. to secure spaces and then keeping their vehicles in those spots well into the night, after the two-hour parking limits no longer are enforced.

Hard data to support the proposals

During his presentation, Lyons provided data from a street sensor program the city began more than a year ago to track parking in the downtown area, and he referenced studies undertaken on behalf of the City Commission, though the latest one was in 2013.

If street parking spaces are occupied more than 85% of the time, he explained, that results in a negative connotation for members of the public; they will stop coming to an area when they perceive an inability to find a parking space there.

A chart shows data about usage of primary downtown parking spaces on weekdays. Image courtesy City of Sarasota

Lyons showed the commissioners two charts tracking use of parking spaces in downtown Sarasota — on weekdays and weekends. Between 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. and again between 5 and 9 p.m., the weekday chart showed, he said, that “the vast majority of the time … we’re exceeding that acceptable standard [of 85%].”

On Saturdays, he continued, in both the morning and afternoon, “these streets are jam-packed. … [Yet] 85% to 90% occupancy is a dangerous position for us to be in from a parking supply standpoint.”

He also pointed to research regarding retail revenue generated by parking spaces. Using an example of one block with 54 spaces, Lyons said that if every vehicle had 1.5 passengers, and a total of six vehicles used that space per day, that would add up to 486 potential customers for businesses in that block. If each of those persons spent $20, the revenue per day would be $9,720 per space, he emphasized.

The information was based on studies, he told the commissioners.

If 30% of the drivers who come to downtown Sarasota cannot find a space, he continued, the daily loss for businesses would be an estimated $2,916 per space, adding up to $1,064,000 for a single block. Lyons stressed that that “is a very conservative estimate …”
A 2014 analysis of the situation in the city of Sarasota undertaken by the Gibbs Planning Group of Birmingham, Mich., which specializes in urban retail planning issues, showed that 23,000 employees were within a 1-mile radius of downtown, Lyons noted. Within a 10-minute drive, almost 60,000 employees were counted, he added.

A graphic explains loss of retail income pegged to lack of turnover in downtown parking spaces. Image courtesy City of Sarasota

Five hundred new office jobs are expected in the downtown area within the next 18 months, City Manager Barwin pointed out.

City staff also researched other cities, in Florida and across the country, to gain data about paid parking in their downtowns, Lyons said. Among those, he continued, he had found that the city of Aspen, Colo., implemented a 25% increase in its parking rates. Afterward, Lyons said, “the results were astounding.”

The sales tax revenue in the downtown area climbed 17%, he added.

A chart shows data about usage of primary downtown parking spaces on the weekend. Image courtesy City of Sarasota

Worries about St. Armands

During public remarks and the board discussion again this week, the issue of fairness arose in regard to St. Armands Circle. Representatives of that shopping district pointed to the city’s plan to put pay stations into operation at the same time the new parking garage is completed on North Adams Drive.

On Oct. 15, St. Armands business leaders argued that when the City Commission in 2016 agreed to the use of meter revenue — as well as an annual assessment of St. Armands property owners — to pay the expense of city bonds for construction of the garage, the goal was to begin a paid parking program again in downtown Sarasota.

A chart shows data about use of the city’s two parking garages. Image courtesy City of Sarasota

“Be fair,” Diana Corrigan, executive director of the St. Armands Circle Association, told the commissioners on Nov. 5. “Don’t single St. Armands out.”

During the subsequent board discussion, Commissioner Brody asked Lyons, “What are our options” if the board members decided not to use all or any of the meters on St. Armands “for a period of time,” to allow merchants to recover from the significant downturn in revenue over past months because of the effects of red tide.

Assistant City Manager John Lege — the city’s former finance director — explained that the bond covenants the 2016 City Commission approved called for the net revenue from the parking meters to be used for debt service on the bonds. “I don’t believe you have the ability,” Lege told Brody, to reduce the number of pay stations or delay their operational start on St Armands.

“So we can’t subsidize … the amount due by some other means?” Brody asked.

Lege replied that that was correct.

“That’s my understanding,” City Attorney Robert Fournier added. The only way he felt the board could change its plan for the use of meters on St. Armands, Fournier pointed out, would be to pay off the bonds. “I think it’s an all or nothing proposition,” he said of the meter program on the Circle.

As Brody continued to express his desire not to implement the paid parking program on St. Armands as planned, Lege stressed that the previous commission approved an ordinance that laid out the entire program, with the revenue pledged to the bond debt.

Brody insisted that the current commissioners needed to know if they had any options.

Finally, Lege suggested that the city’s bond counsel could talk with Brody. Still, Lege added, “All my conversations with the bond counsel over the last couple of months” made it clear that the commission had no options, such as those Brody was proposing.

When Brody started to make another statement on the issue, Mayor Alpert told him that she needed to let other commissioners ask questions, instead of allowing him to make statements.

“You’re so rude,” he replied.

“I’m not rude,” Alpert said.

Commissioner Willie Shaw. File photo

Finally, Commissioner Shaw told Alpert, “Madam Mayor, enough’s enough. We’ve gone around this a number of times.”

Shaw made the motion to implement the staff recommendations for the return of metered parking to downtown Sarasota. Alpert seconded it.

Brody expressed opposition to the motion, saying he did not believe downtown Sarasota had enough population to support a paid parking program, and he reiterated his concerns about the use of meters on St. Armands.

Shaw pointed out that Brody had had weeks to talk to staff about the issues before raising questions that day about St. Armands. “They’re not new questions.”

Then Shaw called for the vote.