click to enlarge From left, Joel Niermann, Hannah Matrisch, Avia Wang and Kasra Nassirpour are Sangamon CEO students, who completed a survey and study of downtown parking. - CREDIT MARY HANSEN / NPR ILLINOIS
Credit Mary Hansen / NPR Illinois
From left, Joel Niermann, Hannah Matrisch, Avia Wang and Kasra Nassirpour are Sangamon CEO students, who completed a survey and study of downtown parking.

Downtown Springfield is jammed with parking problems. Shoppers and tourists complain about a lack of nearby spots, while study after study shows occupancy rates for spots remain low.

Outdated meters only accept coins, and it's getting harder to repair broken ones. The company that made them discontinued the model Springfield has and stopped servicing them. Parking revenue for the city of Springfield is near its lowest point in the last eight years.

Mayor Jim Langfelder set aside money in his proposed budget to purchase some new parking meters, which would accept credit cards.

The city received seven proposals for parking solutions this month, according to the purchasing department. Two years ago, the same number of vendors responded to a similar request for proposals. Change in personnel and an upcoming election delayed a decision then, Langfelder said.

Meanwhile, a group of high school students looked into the problem in the fall and proposed a few solutions. A couple downtown business owners have also taken to addressing the problem themselves.

Communication is key

When Jessica Kocurek moved her salon, Willow and Birch, from Springfield's west side to downtown, there was one question she got: What about parking?

"In my experience, (parking) is not terrible," Kocurek said as she sewed extensions into a client's hair. "Could it be better? Yes. But are there options? Yes."

Kocurek takes advantage of two options. She leases spaces for her staff in a lot near the train station and validates parking for her customers in the garage under the Old State Capitol. But the biggest thing she does is talk about it.

"Whenever you say, 'Come downtown, this is where our address is, figure it out,' that can be very scary, especially for people who don't patron downtown on a regular basis," she said. "We made sure the communication was there, so it took the fear away from it."

Renehan pointed out that on one downtown block, there are 15 signs that say no parking. Meanwhile, there are few signs directing tourists and shoppers to the public garages.

"We've missed all these opportunities to tell people where to park, (but) we're really good at telling them don't park," Renehan said.

Renehan took a few city officials, including the mayor and some aldermen, on her downtown parking tour, showing them confusing signage and broken meters. And in the last few weeks she's seen progress. The city's public works department removed several no parking signs and added three signs directing people to the parking garages.

Downtown Springfield, Inc. also suggested covering snow emergency signs that say "No Parking" nine months out of the year and converting all metered parking to two hours.

Lagging revenue

Springfield has around 1,400 meters, with 563 spaces in what the biennial parking survey calls the core shopping parking area – bound by Third, Eighth, Madison and Jackson streets. There are seven different meter designations, from 30-minute parking to 9 hours, with most designated as 2-hour spots.

Lisa Clemmons Stott, executive director of Downtown Springfield, Inc., said the variation adds to the confusion around where to park, which is in part why the group recommends changing all meters to two hours.

In the 2019 study, occupancy rates for those spaces were around 48%, meaning that during peak times in the late morning and early afternoon, about half the spaces in downtown were available.

Revenue from meter fees brought in around $426,000 this fiscal year, which ends at the end of this month. That's nearly $100,000 less than they brought in in 2013, according to data from the city's budget office.

Most of the decline in revenue is due to broken meters and the closure of two floors of the Washington Street garage, according to public works director Nate Bottom. He said that the department is removing meters in areas where they aren't being used in order to replace broken meters downtown.

The parking fund is in such trouble that the proposed budget for the coming year counts on a $275,000 subsidy from the general revenue fund to "keep the (parking) fund solvent," said Bill McCarty, city budget director. That's $225,000 more than the $50,000 the city has been contributing for years.

Langfelder agreed the city needs to make changes. He said he hopes to have around 200 new meters installed this spring. But it could come with a rate hike from the current 50 cents per hour.

Before the city of Peoria installed new, smart meters in 2016, the city increased its per-hour-charge to $1. In Champaign, rates vary between $0.25 on the outskirts of downtown to $1.50 in the busiest shopping area.

Decatur instituted free parking in 2016, enforcing a two-hour limit with ticketing. The change has gotten mixed reviews, according to the Herald and Review, with some saying it makes downtown visits easier, while others, particularly business owners, complain that downtown workers take the prime spots.

Langfelder said he's against the free parking idea.

"Parking meters are in place to move traffic. That's the whole purpose," Langfelder said.

A solution in the middle

Last fall, a group of students in Sangamon CEO – an entrepreneurial program for high schoolers – took a closer look at downtown's parking problems, at the request of the city's economic development department.

More than 500 people answered a survey they developed. The students found problems similar to what downtown business owners observed – confusing signage, not enough information about where to park, and outdated meters. As they visited businesses downtown, the students experienced the issues firsthand. Joel Niermann, a senior at Pleasant Plains High School, recounted how early one morning last fall he drove downtown to meet the class at Willow and Birch, and parked in what was labeled a two-hour spot. But when he put in the fourth quarter, the meter wouldn't change. Later, they found the other side of the meter was labeled for an hour and a half.

"It bothered me the whole day," Niermann said.

As they turned to solutions, the group initially thought they would propose more parking spots, said Avia Wang – a senior at Springfield High.

"But with the data, it was clear that the parking we already had was not working," she said. "So we wanted to focus more on how to improve the meters especially because it seemed as if people were the most negatively skewed on that type of parking."

The students recommend a website with information on where to park, and, modeled after the approach in Peoria, a parking app that accepts credit cards. Stickers on existing meters would direct people to use the app, but they could still use coins.

Kasra Nassirpour, also on the Sangamon CEO team, said they looked at other options, like kiosks.

"That's a lot more costly, going from meters to that is a big jump," he said. "Our solution is in the middle – it's modern, but you're still using the meters."

Mary Hansen of Springfield is a member of the NPR Illinois news staff.

Parking hearing

A public hearing on downtown parking, as well as new traffic signals and one-way street conversion, is scheduled for 4 p.m. Feb. 20 at Lincoln Library, Seventh and Capitol.

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