Often overlooked as a necessity, municipal parking can play a major role in a community's future development and transit options.
Done right, experts say, good parking options can pave the way for less reliance on driving and more "complete streets," a buzzword in civic planning meaning local roadways can be made or re-made for all users, like motorists, cyclists, pedestrians, wheelchairs, etc. to truly share the road.
Executed poorly, and it's a recipe for disaster — a couple false moves and some bad planning, and a lot of precious land is gobbled up for a little bit of parking.
How is Oak Park faring?
Well, parking has been a source of consternation among residents and the business community. Residents have griped about higher meter prices and incremental raises to permit prices, while merchants have grumbled that on-street spaces near their businesses are at a premium. More on that in a moment.
Cara Pavlicek, village's parking director and interim village manager, explained to a crowd of municipal and urban planners at the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning's (CMAP) "LTA" event the village's efforts to cleverly integrate parking while promoting alternative modes of transportation.
"It’s really powerful when you can sit down with a business owner and say 'I know your perception is that during lunch break you can't get parking,' but if people go around the corner or the block they've got parking there. Maybe you can put bike racks in front, or maybe you need to have a map in the restaurant showing where you can park," she said. "Sometimes it's as simple as that."
She was mostly referencing the creation of public parking garages. Together, the Avenue, Holley Court and Lake and Forest parking garages offer a total of 2,088 public spaces. The 300 spaces at the Oak Park-River Forest High School garage are only open to the public on days when OPRF faculty aren't parking there.
Yet study after study shows those garages are underused, Pavlicek said. Here's a link to a 2009 study examining the availability of several downtown Oak Park lots and garages during a nonconsecutive 14-day stretch; on average, 49 percent of the spaces were occupied.
"That stopped some of the conversations about 'let's build more parking' and started conversations about 'let's really understand what the parking demand is' and 'let's use data and facts...instead of speculation,'" she said.
For village officials, that's meant shepherding hourly employees of local businesses away from street parking and into the municipal garages (and in theory freeing up on-street spaces for motorists looking for quick stops), creating more bike parking and turning more public spaces over to car-sharing services like iGo and Zipcar.
Lindsay Banks, a planner with CMAP, said providing for alternative transportation doesn't ostensibly seem like a parking strategy.
"But when you make it a lot more pleasant to walk and bike, you don’t need as much parking," she said.
Still, the public garages in Oak Park haven't come cheap. Construction and maintenance of the facilities has left the village's parking fund with a $3.6 million debt to Oak Park's general fund. And a 2008 study concluded Oak Park taxpayers were paying $1,600 per space in each garage each year, compared with the $900 per space those spaces brought in revenue.
Officials have tried to close those gaps by raising parking rates in the garages and residential permits. Between expiration of the downtown tax increment financing district and retiring debt service, the garages should be paid for outright by 2027, allowing Oak Park officials to ponder, and pay for, new technologies (think new meters and pay-by-smartphone) without borrowing millions.
So while it may be counterintuitive now — that higher parking prices make for smart policy— Pavlicek said it's all part of the plan to make Oak Park more a livable and enticing community.
Are you on board with that? Last week, we asked fans of our Facebook page their thoughts on the parking situation in Oak Park's business districts. Here's what you had to say:
Abby Dittmer Miller — Parking isn't cheap which is something I appreciate because it motivates me to bike. I recently sold my car (because I realized I was wasting money on parking permits and stickers) and was surprised at how easy the transition was. I usually can park within yards of the door and when traveling within Oak Park it's much faster than driving. Also, one of Mark Fenton's suggestions for encouraging walking and biking in a community is to increase cost of parking. I don't like paying for it, but I like that it makes me think twice about driving.
Rebecca Vnuk — I absolutely love the parking garages and they are something that makes me choose going to Oak Park over other suburbs (I'm in Forest Park).
Olivia Pikes — I live near Oakbrook where all parking is free so going to Oak Park can be a hassle since I have to pay and parking is limited. However, compared to Chicago it is cheaper.
Michelle Jensen Dirks — Create a system for hourly employees in all districts. they should be able to their cars safely, near their place of business, not at a parking garage 8 blocks away. allow permit street parking for employees too. they are willing to pay to park, but the two - four hour rules hurt many employees, and ultimately, the employer.
For more on the topic, see UCLA professor Donald Shoup's seminal 2005 book, The High Cost of Free Parking. And it's worth noting that Pavlicek's talk more or less coincided with the release of CMAP's "Parking Strategies to Support Livable Communities" report, available for download here.