Oak Park officials are exploring adding a new parking garage to the Southtown business district. But with a projected $3 million deficit in the 2008 parking fund, village officials are looking for a new way to fund the concept.

The shortfall is caused by long-term debt and lack of revenues from the village’s five parking garages, but business owners in Southtown-which spans Oak Park Avenue from Lexington, across the expressway to Van Buren-say they need more parking for the district to flourish.

“The only way this area is going to expand is if they put a garage down here,” said Dennis Miller, manager at the Avenue Ale House, 825 S. Oak Park Ave.. “They really need one.”

Miller said the restaurant hears frequent complaints about parking and believes, if potential customers have to spend 10 minutes to find a spot, they’ll go somewhere else. He believes some storefronts stay vacant in Southtown because of the parking jam.

Maria Bojorques, assistant manager at Lalo’s, 804 S. Oak Park Ave., says with over 30 employees and over 200 customers coming in each day, it’s a real strain to find parking when the restaurant has no lot or garage.

“It’s pretty bad,” she said. “I think we could do better [business] if we had more parking.”

A manager at Pan’s Food Center, 820 S. Oak Park Ave., said he also hears complaints from customers that more parking is needed in the district. The Pan’s employee did not want his name used.

Greg Houhoulis, chef at Nola’s Cup, 800 S. Oak Park Ave., said employees feel the strain too, adding that one owner has to move her car three or four times a day because of meters or street restrictions.

Future development at the former Avenue Pharmacy, just south of Pan’s, will likely add to the parking crunch in Southtown.

To address these concerns, the village is exploring the possibility of building a garage at Harrison Street and Euclid Avenue, currently a 50-space village-owned parking lot behind Fifth Third Bank, said Bob Clements, director of development services.

Clements said the village is ruling out bonding as a way of funding a possible new garage. Issuing long-term bonds has typically been the method Oak Park has used to pay for construction of its other parking structures. Funding would likely come from parking fees charged to users and/or setting up a special service area where business owners in the district paid for the garage.

Village Manager Tom Barwin calls it a “parking benefits district,” which covers any debt or capital costs, while operations and maintenance costs would be covered by revenues and parking fees.

The village has discussed ways to help parking in Southtown for the last 10 years, but talk of capping or rebuilding the Eisenhower Expressway stalled any real action on the topic, Clements said. Future discussion of an Ike cap could impact a parking garage as Harrison Street could be altered in some fashion.

At one time, the owner of Pan’s wanted to purchase the Avenue Pharmacy building next door, knock it down and turn the space into a parking lot. However, zoning changes last year to the transit overlay district say that surface parking can’t be placed in the front 50 feet of land along the stretch, Clements said.

The village wants to meet with as many Southtown business owners as possible in a joint meeting, possibly sometime over this winter, to talk about parking needs in the district.

“The [village] board wants to explore what options might be available at this point,” Clements said. “Parking continues to be a major concern, and they want to make sure that business district continues to be vibrant.”

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