Vice mayor casts only dissenting vote; chair of downtown merchants group indicates a legal challenge may be coming
With only Vice Mayor Shelli Freeland Eddie voting “No,” the Sarasota City Commission this week directed Parking General Manager Mark Lyons and his staff to begin vetting equipment for another round of metered parking in downtown Sarasota.
Commissioner Suzanne Atwell made the motion during the regular meeting on Sept. 6. “I think this is a conservative approach,” she pointed out, referring to the recommendation that meters be installed at only 11 percent of the spaces available and primarily on two streets at the outset of the new program. “This city is growing by leaps and bounds,” Atwell added. “It’s never going to be a sleepy town anymore.”
Moreover, Atwell said, “All people who live, work and play here need to invest in the use of our city. This is a use, not a tax.”
Commissioner Susan Chapman seconded the motion, though she voiced displeasure that the city’s parking garages would remain free. Lyons explained that under an agreement with the developer, as long as no fee is charged for the public to park in the Palm Avenue garage, the city will not be able to submit a bill to the One Sarasota Hotel adjacent to it, after that structure is completed. Yet, Lyons told Chapman, the deal calls for the hotel’s patrons to use 40 percent of the spaces in that garage. That will mean a loss to the city of about $5.3 million per year, she noted.
Nonetheless, Chapman said after seconding the motion, “There is no free parking. … We’re subsidizing it.”
Lyons estimated that subsidy would be about $625,000 in the 2017 fiscal year, which will begin Oct. 1.
In response to a question from Commissioner Liz Alpert, Lyons said, “We weren’t setting a goal for revenue,” but with the planned metered parking footprint, “it’s possible to reach that revenue point.” No thorough revenue analysis has been completed yet, he added.
Chapman also referenced the “hypocrisy factor” in her comments. One merchant who protested the meters during the public hearing that afternoon has a business adjacent to a garage, Chapman said. Another merchant who urged the board not to proceed with meters has had an employee park in front of the person’s business all day, Chapman pointed out.
“Employees are clearly parking all day in some parking spaces,” she added. And members of the public do get angry when they get a $35 parking ticket, she noted.
Freeland Eddie voiced a preference for phasing in the program. “What data do you have that shows that people will use the meters?” she asked Lyons. People could avoid spots where they would have to pay to park, she told him, and the city could end up losing money.
Lyons reminded her that primarily two streets will have meters.
“But [those are] the most important two,” Freeland Eddie replied.
The meters are planned for Main Street between Gulfstream Avenue and School Avenue; South Palm Avenue between Cocoanut Avenue and Ringling Boulevard; and on Ringling between School Avenue and Washington Boulevard.
People will have to pay to park in those spaces Monday through Saturday between 10 a.m. and 8 p.m., according to the plan Lyons has outlined. The fee will be $1 per hour. Holidays will remain free.
The goal, Lyons told Freeland Eddie, is to decrease congestion: “[People] choose a parking location instead of just hunting for one.”
“Part of this is about traffic congestion management,” City Manager Barwin explained. “What we hope to eliminate is this pattern of circulating cars looking for that free parking spot,” as well as the common incident of a driver making a U-turn on Main Street to reach a space he or she suddenly sees is open.
With 3,000 new city residents expected as a result of the construction underway downtown, Barwin added, the metered parking program is essential to creating the necessary turnover in spaces.
When Freeland Eddie again raised a question about phasing in the metered spaces, Lyons told her the city’s Parking Advisory Committee discussed that at length. After speaking with a number of merchants, he continued, the committee learned that “all of them recognize a concern with phasing in as a potential unfair advantage or disadvantage.”
Among the dozen people who addressed the City Commission during the public hearing, Ron Soto, chair of the Downtown Sarasota Merchants Association, was among the majority who criticized the meter proposal. “It seems as though we are making it harder to shop, stroll, dine downtown,” he told the board, referring to a downtown Sarasota slogan. Along with all the construction, he continued, “we have a horrible vagrant problem.”
If the City Commission agreed to install meters once again, Soto said, “this is going to cause an undue hardship for a lot of the businesses downtown.” Soto then noted that “undue hardship” is a legal term. “As a group, do we need to go ahead and hire counsel?” he asked.
Getting to this point
In the backup agenda material provided to the commission, Lyons explained that he and his staff will issue a formal Request for Proposals that will enable them to identify metering systems with such desirable features as large screens, multiple payment options and easy-to-read instructions. After the responses have been vetted, he and his staff will conduct field testing of the equipment provided by two or three vendors. That will encompass surveys of users, he noted in an Aug. 25 letter he sent the commission. Following that process, Lyons indicated the next step probably will be a review of cost estimates for the equipment, installation details and staffing requirements. “This process could be accomplished within the next 90-120 days,” he wrote.
The final step will be for staff to bring the City Commission a budget for approval, along with an anticipated starting date for the metered parking.
Purchasing the right equipment “is extremely important,” Lyons stressed.
As commissioners noted during the discussion, people complained that the last meters installed downtown were difficult to use.
The city’s appointed Parking Advisory Committee began working on a new paid parking plan in 2012, shortly after the City Commission agreed to remove the meters after dealing with waves of protests. Barwin noted this week that, in spite of rumors to the contrary, the ultimate cost of that equipment was $115,000 by the time staff deducted revenue from its use and proceeds from its sale back to the manufacturer.
“The goal of our approach … was to keep [this new program] simple … keep it low-cost to the extent we possibly can” and provide flexibility, Lyons explained on Sept. 6.
The streets targeted for the meters — as Freeland Eddie noted — are “the prime parking areas,” he added.
The expense of 25 cents per 15 minutes was seen as a good beginning point for paid parking, he continued. The reason the committee settled on 10 a.m. for the starting time, he noted, is that Main Street “doesn’t get congested” until that time on the average day.
The plan also encompasses a couple of spaces set aside for free parking for 15 minutes in each block, he said.
Ongoing data analysis will allow him and his staff to refine the parking meter program within six months to a year after it has begun, he pointed out. “There are many, many cities that are doing this … successfully.”
Chapman did raise another concern: congestion in the vicinity of the Silvertooth Courthouse on Ringling Boulevard. “And Adams Lane seems to be excepted from this [proposal],” she said. “As much as I like the Police Department, they have garage parking,” she continued. “In a very congested area, there is no place for people to [park],” she added, if they want to go to the nearby city health clinic, for example. (The Sarasota Police Department headquarters is on Adams Lane.)
Lyons replied that his staff has found that many people are parking in Payne Park as an alternative, and that is a reasonable distance from the Police Department as well as the health clinic.
In response to another question from Freeland Eddie, Lyons said the goal would be to have four or five spaces open at any time in a busy block, equating to 90 percent of free space at peak periods. The industry standard, he noted, is 85 to 95 percent.