Vacant parking meters on empty streets add up to a lot of nothing
June 3, 2011
Parking meters that no one ever parks at stretch for blocks. (Photo by Troy T Heinzeroth)

By Jean Lachowicz

When workers installed 1,250 parking meters in October 2008 on the streets bounded by Roosevelt Road and 15th Place and by Ashland and Damen Avenues, people who work or travel through the mostly vacant area asked why.

In the 2-½ years since then, the city has gained a new mayor, officials have privatized more than 36,000 public parking spaces across the city, and the area holds even more vacant lots. One thing that has not changed is the more than 1,200 parking meters lining the empty streets without a parked car in sight, listlessly flashing “expired” on their LED screens.

The meter installations ended the days of free parking in this largely desolate area that lies within the Illinois Medical District’s (IMD’s) district development area.

Initiated by Alderman Robert Fioretti (2ndWard), the original intent was to generate revenue from people visiting the various institutions in the area, including Rush University Medical Center, and to decrease abandoned vehicles on the streets while allowing increased police presence on the cleared streets.

Sam Pruett, IMD executive director, said, “We were just as surprised as you were when they [the parking meters] went in. Mainly, it was UIC students and faculty who used to park on those empty streets, so it affected them most. It also probably hurt Easter Seals and New Zion Missionary Baptist Church, [which] counted on free street parking. I understand the Jewel had to increase security in its parking lot because more cars are out there looking for free spaces. Nobody wants to run out to feed a meter every 15 minutes.”

Based on a price tag of approximately $500 for each meter, the parking meters cost about $625,000 in hardware alone. On numerous visits to the area, it was apparent vehicles on these streets are either parked in places with no meters or are parked boldly next to meters that have not been fed or monitored at all.

According to Pruett, the IMD “just opened up a block of free parking on Leavitt, between Flournoy and Lexington, to help alleviate the shortage of free parking spaces in the area. ”That area is not within the parking meter perimiter in question, however. “We recognize that some of these blocks within the development area are very isolated’” Pruett said. “They get dark at night, and street traffic is sparse. It isn’t a place you’d ever want to see your kids playing, but we recognize the need for free parking spaces. Until the area is fully developed, we will try to make parking as accessible as possible, so long as it does not block streets, alleyways, or intersections or interfere with emergency vehicles for the hospitals.

“We would like some areas to be completely absent of street parking,” Pruett continued. “For some development plans, parking meters are a good idea and could do a good job. Planning and analysis are the keys to making this kind of policy decision.”

‘The figure came to $0’

The anticipated Costco development at 14th Street and Ashland Avenue falls within the area outfitted with the parking meters, and the IMD reports the City is working on removing the meters there and clearing the way for construction to begin. Pruett said, “When you relocate a meter, you must pay for a percentage of the revenue that will be lost from that meter, but when the City was figuring out the formula for the meters in this Costco development area, the figure came to $0 since the meters were generating so little revenue.”

In March, Ald. Anthony Beale (9th), chairman of the City Council’s Transportation Committee, held up approval of a street closing needed for the Costco construction project in protest of the two-year-old land swap with the IMD that spared a little league field at Polk and Leavitt Streets, Livingston Park. Yet according to his spokesperson, Carol Parks, Beale now is “satisfied with the assurances that the Costco project will create construction jobs, full- and part-time jobs, and sales tax revenue for the City,” and he is no longer delaying approval.

According to the Chicago Department of Revenue, “permanent meter removals have and continue to require aldermanic approval and passage by the City Council. The City Council retains the authority under the [meter privatization] concession agreement to add and remove meters, to set rates, durations, and hours and days of operation. When an alderman introduces an ordinance concerning parking meters, the City reviews the potential social economic impacts.

Initial considerations for removing a meter include the impact on congestion, pollution, traffic control, development, and safety. The City also considers the economic impact.

For permanent closures, the City may seek to offset revenue losses through the exercise of reserved powers like adding meters. Alternatively, the City may increase the hours or days of operation or adjust the rates.

“There are really no costs assumed by a developer or business if the meter removal is approved by the City Council. Aldermen and city officials work closely together in an effort to avoid negative economic impacts.”

Andy Pierce, chief of staff for Alderman Fioretti, said, “You may not recall that this area used to be heavily parked by commuters and people who work in the area. Their behavior changed when the parking was no longer Free. You can see another example of this near Promontory Point where the Park District is now charging for parking that was historically free.”

Chicago Parking Meters is the private company administering Chicago’s parking meters. The company currently is completing the citywide conversion from parking meters to pay-and-display boxes.

Avis LaVelle, spokesperson for Chicago Parking Meters, said, “By the end of June [2011], all of the parking meters will be replaced by pay boxes” — despite the low use of meters in this area, which is the last stronghold for the old parking meters.

According to Chicago Parking Meters, more than 34,000 city parking spaces now are served by payboxes. Approximately 2,000 single-space meters remain on the streets, and most of those are the ones located within the IMD.