Free Parking On Way Out

    GRAND RAPIDS — Parking commissioners may decide what to do with the city’s 60-minutes-free parking policy at their December meeting.

    At that meeting, commissioners are likely to learn whether they can legally start a new validation program for downtown retailers without City Commission approval.

    Such a program could end the free parking policy that has served stores along Monroe Center for more than two decades, but start one that would offer retailers a deep discount on parking rates and allow them to provide free parking for their customers.

    Commissioners are also expected to learn in a few weeks how other cities comparable in size to Grand Rapids handle parking for retailers.

    Parking Services Director Pam Ritsema told commissioners that the policy has cost her department $400,000 during the past fiscal year, which ended on June 30. She said more than 250,000 tickets were stamped with the words “no charge” during FY03.

    The program, however, may not be offered at all by next fall, and downtown merchants are concerned about that potential scenario.

    The free-parking policy, which most storeowners say is vital to their business, is only being offered at the Monroe Center 1 lot and the City Centre ramp. It was available at the Monroe Center 2 lot until the city decided to build its newest parking ramp on that site.

    But the city will close the City Centre ramp on Dec. 31 and groundbreaking for the new art museum is scheduled to take place next summer on the Monroe Center 1 lot, two events that could leave the program without a place to park.

    So 11 downtown retailers recently asked the city to continue offering an hour of free parking in the new Monroe Center ramp.

    “If I have to ask them to pay for parking, we’ll lose their business,” said Gregory Clarin, president of Van Hoeck’s Shoes at Ottawa Avenue and Monroe Center, of his customers.

    Clarin said he gets 50 to 60 customers shopping at Van Hoeck’s on an average day. Most, he said, spend less than an hour in the store and they have become accustomed to parking for free in the Monroe Center lot.

    “My customers pop in and pop out. Without (the free parking) we won’t exist,” he added.

    F. David Barney Clothiers, Blakes Turkey Sandwich Shoppe, The Dog Pit, Groskopf’s Luggage and Gifts, Herkner Jewelers, Little Bohemia, Mulbury’s of London, Two Choppers, Superior Jewelry, and the Yen Ching Restaurant joined with Van Hoeck’s to ask for the free parking in the new ramp.

    But Ellis Parking Co. Chairman Ken Ellis told commissioners that free parking shouldn’t be available for everyone, as it is now. He said it should be restricted to actual shoppers, who could be identified by having storeowners stamp their parking tickets. Others should pay, he said, and the city shouldn’t lose hundreds of thousands of dollars to help a few merchants.

    Michael Ellis, president of Ellis Parking, said commissioners should give merchants a deep discount on the parking rate, up to 60 percent off, and drop the free-parking policy.

    “Free parking isn’t going to make or break their business,” he said.

    As for commissioners, some felt the program should continue while others didn’t. But almost all said they needed more information before they could make a decision on whether to continue the program, expand it throughout downtown, eliminate it, or switch to a new validation program that would give retailers a discount.

    “Some investigation needs to take place,” said Commissioner Lisa Haynes.

    Commissioner John Edison felt that whatever happens, downtown merchants will have to pick up part of the tab. He pointed out that other downtown businesses have pitched in for two parking studies and lease spaces from the city, and he said retailers should expect to do the same.

    “I can’t blame you for wanting to keep it,” said Commissioner David Kammeraad, owner of Preusser Jewelers at 125 Ottawa Ave. NW, to Clarin of the policy. “But you’re not successful because of it.”

    The policy began more than 20 years ago and offered up to three hours of free parking. It was rewritten in 1993 to offer 90 minutes free at four downtown sites between 9 a.m. and 6 p.m. A few years later, the time limit was lowered to an hour.   

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