Downtown Oak Park wants you all to know that “Downtown Is Rising.” If you’ve been downtown in the past year, you’ve seen the construction sites, the streets often partially blocked by construction vehicles, the Lake/Forest garage closed and now (finally) reopened, just in time for the Colt lot to close (for good). Parking and driving in Downtown Oak Park was never ideal, but lately it’s testing the boundaries of what’s bearable.

As we write this, the village is about to pass new parking restrictions on surface parking in Downtown Oak Park, adding a three-hour limit to make parking that much more complicated. The idea is that there is always space in the garages (true), and too much competition for surface parking (also true). While we can all agree on the problem, we happen to think that this is exactly the wrong kind of solution.

Encouraging people to park in the garages is certainly a worthy endeavor, especially for longer-term parking, but if that’s what we want, why are we constantly making the garages less appealing? When The Book Table opened in 2003, there were numerous incentives in place to use the garages, including free weekend parking and free parking for the first two hours during the week. The rates were also far, far lower.

Now free parking only exists for the first hour during the week, and as with surface parking, all day on Sundays. It’s also considerably more expensive to park in the garages for any period longer than three hours. Yes, the ban on parking for over three hours on the street comes with the insult-to-injury bonus of almost tripling the amount someone would need to pay if they parked in a surface space. If you park for four hours in the garage, it costs $11; if you park on the street or in a lot, it costs a mere $4.

Is it really so hard to figure out why people prefer parking in surface spaces?

As business owners in Oak Park, synergy has always been crucial for us. Without the combination of appealing and diverse businesses and restaurants, we would not have decided to locate here. Without the steady stream of moviegoers from the Lake Theatre, all of us would be out of business. And yet with most movie times exceeding two hours, and the average dining time being an hour or longer, a three-hour parking limit has a crippling effect on retail in particular. We depend on that dinner-and-a-movie traffic, but we lose that if people are racing back to their cars so they don’t get a ticket.

We are in the middle of an awkward growth spurt in Oak Park. However you feel about the “skyscraping” of the downtown (and we have a few opinions on the issue), the deals have been signed and it is coming. While we’re getting there, we ask simply that the village not penalize people for wanting to support local businesses — the people who are willing to spend an afternoon downtown in spite of the construction, the traffic, and the imminent re-streeting of Lake Street scheduled for next year. 

There is a lot of talk about investment in Oak Park’s future. But investing in the future also means investing in business retention, and we promise you, further parking restrictions only mean further hits to sales for local businesses. This would be a great time, during this chaotic growth phase, to add parking incentives not parking restrictions

Lowering garage rates, returning to two hours free during the week and free Saturday parking would be a great place to start.

Jason Smith and Rachel Weaver are the owners of The Book Table in Downtown Oak Park.

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