City staff are proposing to do away with free parking downtown,
City staff are proposing to do away with free parking downtown, | Kimberly C. Moore, Jazbablog

People parking in downtown Lakeland may have to get out their wallets — or their smartphones — in a few months if city leaders take the advice in a study by Kimley-Horn.

City officials are considering several phased changes to downtown parking, including eliminating the daily two hours of free street parking and raising rates for “metered” street spaces from $1 to $2 an hour. But it will only cost half that if you park in a city garage or surface lot.

“The major findings from the planning study were that we have enough parking for the next 10 years, however our on-street spaces are over capacity during peak times and our off-streets spaces are under capacity,” Theresa Schwartz, Lakeland traffic operations manager, told city commissioners at a meeting this week.

Among the changes under consideration:

  • Ending the policy of street parking being free for the first two hours.
  • Raising the price of street parking to encourage people to use city garages or surface lots instead.
  • Adding more pay kiosks for people who prefer not to use the Park Mobile app.
  • Converting some garages, including the one on S. Tennessee Avenue, from “permit only” to a combination of permits and public parking.
  • Updating parking signage throughout downtown to make it easier to see and understand.
  • Extending parking enforcement to 10 p.m. instead of the current 5 p.m. cutoff.
  • Making surface lots more attractive by resurfacing them and giving them logical names.
  • Installing “parking guidance systems” in public garages with electronic displays showing how many spaces are available or if the lot is full.
  • Raising monthly parking permit fees over the next three fiscal years from $80 to $90 and then $100.

In addition to hourly rate changes, those with a monthly permit will pay $80 a month for the remainder of fiscal year 2024. That will increase to $90 a month in fiscal year 2025, which starts July 1, and $100 for fiscal year 2026. Many businesses pay those for their employees. Business owners will also be able to pay for and provide guest parking passes to customers.

Many people find parking signs downtown confusing and hard to read.

The city has nearly 8,600 parking spaces along streets, in garages and in lots within the area between George Jenkins Boulevard and Lake Morton Drive to the north and south, and Lake Avenue and Sikes Boulevard to the east and west.

But zoom into the downtown core, between Lake Mirror and South Florida Avenue, radiating out from Munn Park, and those doing business or enjoying a meal or drink must vie for 3,281 spots.

The city signed a $123,000 contract with Kimley-Horn in August 2022 to study parking downtown — especially in light of developments including the Summit building, NoBay and Mirrorton apartments, and Heritage Plaza since the previous analysis in May 2016.

Currently, street parking is free for the first two hours and then people can pay $1-an-hour for up to two more hours, plus a 45-cent service fee if they use the Park Mobile smartphone app. After that, they must move or face a ticket. Those using the pay station metered lots can pay cash and officials were discussing installing more of those meters, particularly for older residents.

“We do have an aging demographic and that demographic tends to want to use cash,” said City Communications Director Kevin Cook. “If we don't have a cash option and we have an individual come up there like my father-in-law, who still has the old Jitterbug phone that has no smart capabilities whatsoever — it does have a giant 9-1-1 button — so we were looking at a way to accommodate that demographic.”

Some of the proposed changes, like parking rates, are at the discretion of the city's Traffic Engineer. Others must be voted on by the City Commission.

The commission is expected to vote later this month on a contract for a “parking guidance system” that would alert people at the entrances if the garage were full and would have a green light above an empty spot for easier use.

Commissioners will also vote on whether to spend $70,000 to install seven new pay stations at strategic locations downtown. The stations take cash or cards and they’re solar-powered.

A proposed warning notice that could be given to motorists during the first month or so of the new policies. | City of Lakeland

Commissioners are expected to amend the city's parking ordinances this summer to extend the enforcement time from 9 a.m. to 10 p.m. instead of the current 5 p.m. cutoff and add language about electric vehicles.

Schwartz said Public Works will create new signage for downtown that will be easier to read than current signs that are overloaded with text and confusing.

Cook said there will be an extensive public information campaign over the summer to explain the changes. There may also be a grace period during which parking enforcement officials leave an educational leaflet under motorists' windshield wipers, instead of a ticket.

Schwartz said the city’s parking program currently operates at a $22,359 loss. This year’s parking budget breakdown showed:

  • Parking-generated revenue $597,950
  • Parking fines $180,150
  • Subsidy from transportation fund $238,000
  • Total operating expenses $1.038 million

By having people pay more, it boosts the revenue up to $1.043 million and puts the city in the black by $154,541 in the next fiscal year and up to a quarter of a million dollars by fiscal year 2026.

Business owners' concerns

Julie Townsend, executive director of the Lakeland Downtown Development Authority, said it’s about changing people’s behavior, especially downtown workers, who are taking up on-street parking for four hours and paying only $2.

“They don't do it every single day, but if we can change the behavior immediately of employees, then I think you're going to see a lot of spaces freed up,” she said. “If we don't see that then I could see escalating it to $2, but I don't want to penalize the customers with a $2-an-hour (fee) because that's where you're going to hear the most pushback, is people saying, ‘I already pay for parking through my taxes and I'm not going to come downtown anymore.’ That's the kind of rhetoric that we're going to hear. I don't agree with that, but that's what we're going to hear.”

Marcos Fernandez, owner of Nineteen61 on Main Street, said the plan is supposed to drive employees to use the parking garages, which will free up places along the primary roads around and near Munn Park.

“Me, I want more foot traffic downtown,” Fernandez said. “It’s a good way to open up more parking spaces and force employees and businesses to move into less expensive parking inside the garage ... It’s got its pros and cons. I want to see businesses thriving.”

Nikki Hunt, owner of Scout & Tag, said downtowns are the heart and identity of a town.

“Having a welcoming and thriving environment encourages people to want to participate with their community,” Hunt said. “When you create a barrier with a $2-an-hour parking fee it will affect all the businesses downtown in a negative way.”

See the presentation here:

The proposed ordinance must still be voted on by the City Commission. If you want to share your thoughts, commissioners' email addresses are:

You can also email [email protected] to reach all of them.

SEND CORRECTIONS, questions, feedback or news tips: [email protected]

Kimberly C. Moore, who grew up in Lakeland, has been a print, broadcast and multimedia journalist for more than 30 years. Before coming to Jazbablog in the spring of 2022, she was a reporter for four years with The Ledger, first covering Lakeland City Hall and then Polk County schools. She is the author of “Star Crossed: The Story of Astronaut Lisa Nowak," published by University Press of Florida. Reach her at [email protected] or 863-272-9250.

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  1. Lakeland has a long history of greedy downtown landlords who prey on small businesses until they fail. It's ingrained and incestuous. This is just another money grab.

  2. Increasing the parking prices will be the kiss of death for the downtown. The city promoted the downtown but now think they can increase parking prices and everyone will agree to pay them. My family moved to Lakeland 23yrs. ago and if I remember the downtown was not a place you wanted to go. Over the yrs. improvements were made and the downtown became more patron friendly to go to. Why should I have to pay an increase in parking fees to park in front of the place I want to patronize?? My wife and I are retired. Why should we have to park in a city garage and walk to where we want to go?? My concern would always be the weather and our safety. There are too many other places I can go to in Lakeland where parking is free and convenient to patronize. If I was an employee at one of the businesses in downtown, I would not want to park in a city garage and then walk to where I work. I would be concerned about weather and my safety when I got off work late at night. Bet the commissioners and business owners never thought of this. Bottom line the commissioners should have planned for this and at least forecasted what the cost would be. Over time I am willing to bet the downtown is going to lose some businesses because of this.

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