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Meter-Deal Snag: Council Looks to Undercut Free Parking on Sundays

By Ted Cox | May 28, 2013 9:50am | Updated on May 28, 2013 5:56pm
 Aldermen Brendan Reilly and Ameya Pawar raised complaints about the new parking-meter deal proposed by Mayor Rahm Emanuel.
Aldermen Brendan Reilly and Ameya Pawar raised complaints about the new parking-meter deal proposed by Mayor Rahm Emanuel.
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DNAinfo/Ted Cox

CITY HALL — There's no such thing as a free lunch, and there may not be free Sunday parking in many business districts even if the Emanuel administration passes its revised parking-meter deal.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel trumpeted free Sunday parking in the neighborhoods a month ago as part of his revised settlement with Chicago Parking Meters. Yet several aldermen suggested maintaining  meter fees on Sundays in their wards at a Finance Committee hearing Tuesday, and the Emanuel administration said it would back that with ordinances supported by the mayor.

City Corporation Counsel Stephen Patton said although "free Sundays is something that motorists and residents value," the city understands that some businesses want more turnover in spaces outside their businesses.

 Ald. Michele Smith said if the city was going to limit free parking on Sundays, it should have been considered in the settlement.
Ald. Michele Smith said if the city was going to limit free parking on Sundays, it should have been considered in the settlement.
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DNAinfo/Ted Cox

Emanuel spokesman Tom Alexander said the mayor is willing to work with aldermen on ward-by-ward compromises. He said the mayor is not concerned with the perception that it's a bait-and-switch to offer free Sunday parking but not in areas anyone would actually want to park.

Yet Ald. Tom Tunney (44th) and Ald. Ameya Pawar (47th) joined Ald. Michele Smith (43rd) in suggesting metered parking should be retained on Sundays in some areas to encourage parking-space turnover and thus spur business. Even Ald. William Burns (4th) said he'd explore maintaining Sunday meters in business areas of Hyde Park.

Tunney decried those who take advantage of free Sunday parking to take a space from Saturday night to Monday morning, especially in Lakeview and Wrigleyville.

"We have no idea what the economic loss would be" to businesses if shoppers can't find street spaces to be able to pop in a store and shop, he said.

But Ald. Rey Colon (35th) said altering the deal, which promised free parking, would leave aldermen open to criticism, and Pawar echoed that it was "problematic" in that it would pit an alderman's business interests against the general interest of residents in the ward and citywide.

And Pawar said "piecemeal" imposition of free Sunday parking "puts a target on our back."

But Patton replied that ordinances setting additional limits on free Sunday parking would be put forth by the administration, offering aldermen some political cover.

Free Sundays was offered as a swap for extended evening hours at meters that currently run to 9 p.m. to 10 p.m. citywide, except for River North and Streeterville, where meters would run until midnight. Reilly previously has questioned extending parking meter hours until midnight.

Chief Financial Officer Lois Scott testified that it was "a wash" to exchange Sundays for extended evening hours. She said Sunday parking generated $8.5 million a year, but said the proposed extended hours would earn an estimated $7.4 million instead. But combined with the redesignation of some city spaces and other components of the new deal, Scott estimated just a $110,000 benefit to the city annually.

Patton emphasized the meter enforcement changes are part of a larger settlement cutting $49 million over two years to $8.9 million to settle lost revenues due to Chicago Parking Meters due to street closures. That is a savings of over $1 billion if the more than $20 million in annual savings is projected over the remaining 71 years of the parking contract.

Patton said any revenue from retained Sunday parking in the neighborhoods would go toward the $8.9 million tab. Yet Smith said the potential Sunday give-backs were so substantial, they should have been part of the settlement negotiations.

The Finance Committee will reconsider the settlement on Friday and is expected to vote on it next week ahead of the June City Council meeting. The council will also need to take up any limits on Sunday free parking then in order to avoid any confusion before it is scheduled to take effect July 1.

Top executives from Chicago Parking Meters declined an invitation to attend Friday's hearing, citing pending litigation to be settled in the new deal, and did the same Tuesday, when they were joined by refusals from the William Blair & Co. firm that helped convince the council to pass the original meter deal in 2008.

"These guys lied to us four years ago, and I don't trust them today," Pawar said, adding that they didn't have the "guts" to appear before the council.

"Most of that information supplied to us was bunk," Reilly added. "We've been sold a bill of goods before, and we want to make sure we're not doubling down on a horrendous deal."

Emanuel has said he is trying to squeeze "a little lemonade" out of a lemon of a deal. In the public-comment section, George Blakemore extended that metaphor by saying, "Sometimes if the lemon is rotten at the core you have to throw it away ... at any cost."