Less than a month after making residents irate over parking changes across Oak Park, the village is considering hitting the brakes. Officials are talking to business owners, and the consensus seems to be: Something needs to change.
“People don’t tend to stay as long,” said Nick Gambino, restaurant owner and president of the Avenue Business Association. “They’ll feed the meter for an hour, and they’re pretty much out of here.”
It’s a similar story in Oak Park’s other main business hub.
“There are a lot of different issues, a lot of frustration,” said Pat Zubak, executive director of Downtown Oak Park. “And our businesses are hearing from the community that they’re not happy.”
The Oak Park village board green-lighted the parking changes in July, which were completely in place by Aug. 25. The biggest changes were upping parking meter rates downtown and in the Avenue Business District to $1.50 an hour, increasing meter enforcement times to 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., and cutting free time in parking garages in half to one hour and starting to charge on Saturdays.
After a few weeks of non-stop complaining from residents and customers, Oak Park is looking to change course slightly by decreasing meters in some downtown lots to $1 an hour while shaving two hours off enforcement time village-wide, said Cara Pavlicek, interim parking manager.
“I think we understood from the beginning that parking is pretty dynamic,” she said.
Garages rates and times would stay the same. However, the village is looking to decrease meter enforcement to 9 a.m.-7 p.m. Rates at three parking lots in downtown-one by the 19th Century Club, another by Grace Episcopal Church, and a third across the street-would drop to $1 an hour.
The village may also reduce the parking lot on North Boulevard just west of Marion Street down to $1, said Loretta Daly, business services manager for the village. In addition, Oak Park may try 40 meters (costing $580 each) that take credit cards, if the village board approves.
“It’s nice to be able to test something and see if it really works in this community,” Pavlicek said. “So if you don’t like them, you don’t really have to buy them.”
None of the changes have been approved yet. The village board postponed discussion until tomorrow night and may vote then. Village Manager Tom Barwin will also ask the board to give him authority to make parking changes in the future without going before the board. Tickets for parking meter violations could also jump from $10 to $20 tomorrow, if trustees approve.
“I think there’s quite a bit of flexibility there at this stage, and we’d like a little bit of time to monitor all this,” Barwin said.
However, members of the Avenue district are lobbying the village to make more significant changes to parking. Their suggestions include bumping meter enforcement down to 6 p.m., shaving rates to $1 an hour, tacking on an extra half hour of free time in garages and making all parking on Saturdays free.
“We feel the recent parking rate changes present an extreme challenge that will destroy any chance we have of remaining competitive,” Gambino said in a letter to the village board.
While the higher meter rates may deter meter-feeding, they send the wrong message to shoppers and potential new business owners, he wrote in the letter.
“This is the reality we deal with every day,” Gambino wrote. “And the timing couldn’t be worse, going into the crucial fourth quarter which literally makes or breaks the year for retail and restaurants.”
DTOP sent a similar letter, asking the village for a clearer idea of what is really causing a deficit in the village’s parking fund and what increased rates will achieve. Downtown also questioned why the changes would be made before getting the results of an upcoming study of businesses in the village and hiring of a full-time parking manager.
“It is very difficult to lure customers back once they decide an area is overpriced,” the letter reads.
Pavlicek said the village hopes to compile information comparing parking revenues since the changes to a similar time span last year, possibly by the begining of October when the rates will be in play for a full 30 days.
A consultant assessed the village’s parking picture, grouped areas based on demand, and priced them higher the more popular they are. The village is hoping to move more parkers to garages to free up desirable streets spaces. Trustee Jon Hale voted against the changes back in July.
“It doesn’t seem like a lot, but it’s something people have control over,” Hale said. “It’s not like if we’re raising water rates and people just say, well I have to pay my water bill. If they don’t like [this], they have a way to vote with their feet or cars by going elsewhere.
“Maybe the effect will diminish over time, and it probably will, but for every 10 of those people who say they’re not going to come because they say it’s highway robbery, are we really going to get back all 10 of those customers?”