Citizens weigh in on downtown parking

StoryImage( ‘/Images/Story//Auto-img-11920400374501.jpg’, ‘Photo by Stuart R. Wahlin’, ‘Citizens listen to a presentation by Walker Parking Consultants Senior Engineer Rich Klatt at an Oct. 4 forum about downtown parking issues.‘);

Walker Parking Consultants, a national firm with an office in Elgin, hosted two forums Oct. 4 to get the public’s input on downtown parking issues. The meetings, held at the Rockford Public Library’s downtown branch, were the first steps in a lengthier downtown parking study, according to Rich Klatt, a Walker senior engineer.

The study focuses on 140 blocks downtown, including some residential areas. Once a physical inventory and utilization analysis have been completed, immediate and future solutions will be addressed, as well as how to fund any needed improvements.

Under the direction of the city and Walker, Heartland Parking, Inc., of Peoria, will handle the collection of data. As the last step of the study, The Buckley Companies, LLC, will provide an overview of funding mechanisms, stages and timetables for the execution of the plan.

In July, the city council approved $124,500 in Motor Fuel Tax (MFT) funds to pay Walker and Heartland for their work related to the study. City council minutes reflect no mention of Buckley, the firm performing the financial analysis.

Rick May, Rockford’s commercial development coordinator, indicated Buckley is a sub-consultant compensated by Walker at no additional cost to the city.

During the 6 p.m. forum, a number of public perceptions were expressed, including:

Parking garages are unsafe.

Permit parking severely limits the availability of public parking.

Parking for nightlife is minimal.

Parking is not visible to out-of-towners. More signage, preferably lighted, is needed.

Towing vehicles from private lots sends the wrong message.

It’s inconvenient to move one’s car every couple of hours to avoid getting a ticket.

The consensus: Downtown parking needs to be more user-friendly.

Perception, Klatt said, plays a big role in how well a parking system works.

Attendees also seemed to welcome the possible re-emergence of parking meters. At the request of downtown business leaders, parking meters were removed in 1983 in the wake of a debilitating blow to Rockford’s manufacturing base.

Another suggestion voiced Oct. 4 was for shuttle buses to and from more remote lots for downtown employees, freeing up spots for customers.

Klatt identified one-way streets as a certain contributor to any downtown parking problem.

A movement is growing to remove the Main Street Pedestrian Mall, which would allow for better flow between North and South Main Street. Mayor Larry Morrissey (I) has indicated this is an idea he favors. Such a move would also inevitably provide for more on-street parking in the area.

Some present questioned whether there really is a parking problem downtown.

During the 6 p.m. public forum, several attendees argued a lack of parking on East State Street downtown, while others noted the presence of several municipal lots throughout the area. Ald. Carl Wasco (D-4) was among those who said there’s plenty of parking, if you don’t mind walking a block or two.

Wasco acknowledged parking can be scarce when more than one event is taking place, such as at the MetroCentre and Coronado Theatre. Because of this, Wasco said, downtown restaurants suffer.

“If they can’t get a parking spot, they eat up at the Olympic, and then come down,” Wasco stated.

Former Winnebago County Board member Chris Johnson indicated a number of municipal lots are now sites of buildings, adding to the stress on available parking.

“We’ve taken away the parking and haven’t replaced it,” said Johnson, whose wife Judy owns River District Catering.

If downtown’s revitalization is to continue, all agreed, investors need assurance there is ample parking.

The Rockford City Council entertained the idea of purchasing the MetroCentre parking deck. The $2 million price tag, some aldermen argued, was too high. The highest bid the deck received on the market recently came in at about $1.3 million. All bids were rejected.

Mayor Morrissey argued $2 million is a bargain when compared to the cost of constructing a new deck.

According to Klatt, the cost of building a parking structure today would be as high as $20,000 per stall.

The MetroCentre parking deck has 290 stalls, and based on the figure above, it would cost $5.8 million to build it today.

If the MetroCentre deck were to sell to a private buyer, the mayor has noted, there is no guarantee the structure would be available for public use.

The city council defeated a plan to sell the $2 million in bonds for the proposed purchase. Although off the table for now, the matter is likely to come up again.

While many suggestions for improvements were put forward Oct. 4, very few funding solutions were presented. The city’s current parking system operates at a loss and requires annual subsidies.

The potential funding sources that were discussed were: increased parking rates, the creation of a new taxing body in the form of a parking district, general obligation bonds and revenue bonds—all of which could be hard to sell to taxpayers.

The parking study is expected to be completed in February 2008.

from the Oct. 10, 2007, issue

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