No More Free Lunch (Parking)?

. June 4, 2019.

For an update to this story, see here. 

Controversial proposal seeks to eliminate free parking downtown

It’s always an uphill battle to convince the public to start paying for something that used to be free— especially when it’s been free for over 30 years.

Back in the 1980s, parking at metered spaces in downtown Toledo became free during lunchtime hours, from 11 a.m. until 2 p.m. This was ostensibly done in an effort to encourage more people to visit the area during the middle of the day, to provide a boost to restaurants and businesses, and in general to bolster what was, at the time, a struggling downtown district.

Now, over three decades later, downtown Toledo is in the midst of a renaissance, with new development and increased public engagement, thanks in part to the efforts of groups like ConnecToledo, a non-profit development group that has worked to create strategies to revitalize the area.

ConnecToledo’s latest efforts, however, have engendered quite a bit of controversy. Commissioning studies by Walker Consultants out of Chicago over the past few years to examine the area’s parking policy, among all the suggestions that came out of the studies— more consistent enforcement of meters, expanding the service area— the most-discussed proposal revolves around the elimination of free lunchtime parking.

Charge all day

“What the parking study says is, you should optimize all of your on-street parking so you always have at least 15% free [empty],” said Rachel Bach, president and CEO of ConnecToledo. “If you have areas where you have less demand for parking, you should charge less in those areas, and in areas where you have higher demand, the recommendation is to charge more. “But right now, the recommendation on the table is to charge all day, between eight and five.”

Bach is quick to point out that the free parking suggestion is just one part of a broader effort to give the city more flexibility in how it implements its parking policy. “There’s no hard and fast recommendations on those things,” she noted. “The (proposed) changes are just asking the City Council to give the Port Authority— who’s actually the operator of the on-street parking— the ability to make changes to parking times and rates as they see fit, based on demand management.”

Opposition from day one

But the suggestion of eliminating free parking during noontime has run into a barrage of criticism ever since it first began to take shape last year. Business owners like Ed Beczynski of the Blarney Irish Pub and Focaccia’s Market say that their customers greatly appreciate the ability to visit without paying for midday parking. “I see people from out of downtown that come down, and they can park for free at lunch. So, would they come down if they had to pay a dollar-something? Possibly. I don’t want to say that it would ruin my business, but I can say that people appreciate coming downtown when there’s free parking at lunch,” Beczynski said.

Beczynski, a member of the Downtown Toledo Improvement District’s board, first heard of the proposal to eliminate free lunchtime parking about ten months ago. “I was one on the board that has had reservations about it,” he said. “And what I said was… I understand as downtown grows, we need to figure out other ideas as well. But just to eliminate free parking at lunch hours, and eliminating free parking after five, and on the weekends, I said to the board I am against that from day one.”


Turnover is key

Not all downtown business owners and developers are against the plan, however. Matt Rubin, co-owner of Crane Development, has been a proponent of the policy change and believes encouraging more turnover in downtown’s parking spaces will bolster business.

“One of the buildings that we own is 614 Adams, where Fowl and Fodder is operating since 2017. And for Fowl and Fodder, turnover in the few metered parking spaces outside on Adams is key. And what the new parking ordinance and policies would do would be to encourage more turnover in those spaces during the time when they’re most important for the restaurant,” Rubin said.

Rubin also argues that the new policies will encourage those who work downtown to take advantage of long-term parking lots, freeing up more space on the street. “Businesses and their employees use those spaces for long-term, all-day parking, versus what they’re intended to do, which is to accommodate customers and short-term parkers who are coming here for a service or to buy goods.”

Beczynski points out he provides parking for many of his employees, who would otherwise have difficulty affording to park near work. “I rent spots out for eight of my full-time employees, so they’re not running out, putting money in the meter. I know they can’t afford to pay for parking in downtown generally,” he said. “So that frees up spots for my customers as well, so they’re not taking up all the spots.”

Supply and demand

On April 25, Toledo City Council held a meeting where members of the public could speak out on their opinions of the proposed changes. Over 20 individuals addressed the Council that night, many expressing their misgivings and disappointment in the proposal. No vote has been held yet on the issue, and many members of the Council expressed a desire to hold more meetings before a vote is called. “I hope that citizens and the city council will understand that this was a practice that was put in place in the late-to-mid 80’s, when nobody was coming downtown,” Bach of ConnecToledo said. “And now, we do have people coming downtown. So, we want to try to make sure that this is going to benefit people, and that ultimately these spaces are turning.”

“If there’s a problem with the parking— which, to be honest, I don’t see it— but if they feel that there’s a problem, they have to work with the businesses, the bar owners, and say ‘Okay, what can we do to make parking better for you?’” Beczynski said.

“I get the supply and demand, I really do. But we need to have an option for people who want to come down, really don’t want to pay for parking, because maybe they can’t afford it, and be part of what’s been going on downtown.”

Park that thought

So, what’s next? As of right now, not much. While downtown parking is currently free during lunch, the City hasn’t made a final decision on whether or not they will eliminate a policy favored for more than three decades. In general, restaurant owners hate the idea. As expected, organizations who have put up money on studies to “revisit” the policy love the idea. And, as typical, the Toledo City Council isn’t showing their hand. Instead, they are soliciting more input (again), but no dates have been set for public meetings on the topic. Until then, we’ll be taking full advantage of the 11am-2pm lunchtime hours.

Meter Minded

We asked TCP readers for their thoughts.

“Should we keep lunchtime parking free, or start charging?”

  • 91% said Toledo should keep parking free
  • 9% said Toledo should start charging.
  • Out of 191 votes

“The comments below are why Toledo can’t revert on free lunch time parking – no one seems to have an incentive to visit downtown unless it’s free, which is unheard of in any other city near its size.” — Phillip Runyan

“We need to keep Toledo weird, and this along with a FREE art museum, are just a start.” — Gerald Kern

“Free meters to encourage lunching downtown” — Pamela Vollmar

“From businesses to contractors Toledo has not been accommodating and it’s been getting worse.” — Michael Lawrence

“I know paying to park downtown keeps me from doing things down there. I had to pay five dollars just to have dinner for my friends birthday. Our courts are already backed up, why add to the load? If I have to pay for parking downtown are we going to get more police officers? Better streets?” — Dawn Partridge