Big changes are coming to the way downtown Newark visitors pay for parking in municipal lots.
City council on Monday unanimously approved the controversial changes, which could start within the next few weeks.
Under the plan, the parking gates will be removed, and the lots will instead be controlled by several multi-space parking kiosks. Upon parking in the lot, drivers will input their license plate number into the electronic kiosk and submit payment or pay through a smartphone app.
Under the current system, drivers park for as long as they wish and pay as they leave. However, under the new plan, they will have to pay in advance for the time they think they will use, and those who return to their car late will be fined, just like at an on-street parking meter. No refunds will be offered for drivers who leave early.
Parking enforcement officers will enforce the parking by driving around the lots in vehicles equipped with automatic license plate readers. When the license plate reader finds a car that has exceeded its time, the system will alert a second officer to respond on foot to issue a ticket.
Lot 1, located behind the Main Street Galleria, will be converted to meters within a few weeks – a year earlier than initially planned. City Manger Tom Coleman said one of the parking gates was damaged recently, and the city decided to expedite the conversion rather than repair the gate – a fact not made public until just minutes before Monday’s vote.
Lot 3, which will be split in two and reduced in size by the soon-to-be-built Lang Development Group hotel, will be converted before hotel construction begins in October.
Lot 4, located behind Walgreens and Panera Bread, will be converted next year, though that could be delayed depending on what happens with a proposal for a second hotel there.
Meanwhile, council rejected a proposal that would have banned motorists from backing into parking spaces and imposed a fine on those who did. If cars back in, their license plates cannot be read by the license plate readers, meaning they will have to be checked by officers on foot. However, council members expressed concern that backing in is safer for some drivers, especially those in large pick-up trucks.
Council also voted to restore the option to pay for parking in half-hour increments, an option the city had removed in 2017. In other words, the rate will be 50 cents per half hour rather than $1 an hour, meaning that, for example, someone who parks for 90 minutes would pay $1.50 instead of $2.
However, the city will eliminate the 10-minute grace period, which has long allowed a customer to make a quick stop to pick up a takeout order or grab a cup of coffee without paying for parking.
Changes part of a broader plan to add parking
The changes in the downtown lots are part of a broader parking plan that will add new spaces on several side streets – including Haines Street, Lovett Avenue and Center Street.
The city will also install kiosks in Lot #2 behind Central Perk and Honeygrow that is currently used for monthly permit parking. The lot is used mostly during the day, and the new kiosks will allow it to be used for hourly parking at night and on weekends.
The approximately 150 new parking spaces are intended to offset spaces lost during the Main Street construction and due to the planned Lang Development Group hotel.
“We’re trying to give you more parking, more convenient parking,” Mayor Jerry Clifton said.
Because the city is planning to use the multi-space kiosks for the new parking areas, it makes sense to move toward that same system for the existing parking areas as well, according to Parking Supervisor Courtney Mulvanity. The city also plans to remove the existing single-space meters on Main Street and replace them with several kiosks placed in strategic locations.
“Moving to a single, unified parking system for municipal parking has major advantages in many areas,” Mulvanity said in a prepared statement.
The new kiosks allow people to pay for parking or add additional time via a smartphone app. The system is tied together, so people can add time to their meter using any of the kiosks, not just the one nearest their vehicle.
“The city understands that any change to any system that people have previously used is going to be a minor annoyance. People are habitual, but we wouldn’t make the change if we didn’t believe the system we are moving to is a move in the right direction,” Mulvanity said. “Admittedly, the new style of payment will take some getting used to for someone who parks daily, but the industry and nearby parking entities have been moving in this direction for some time due to its numerous benefits.”
The University of Delaware has converted its garages to a similar system over the last few years, and other towns in the area have done so as well.
“The paradigms are shifting,” Clifton said. “Other communities are shifting with us.”
The new system, including kiosks for Main Street, the side streets and the lots, will cost approximately $500,000, but officials expect to recoup those costs within two years.
The system will save $200,000 per year in personnel costs, and putting meters on the side streets will generate new revenue.
The city’s parking lot attendants have been informed their positions will be eliminated, but they will be given an opportunity to apply for other jobs in city government.
Mulvanity added that the city does not have an estimate for how much additional fine revenue will be collected in the lots.
“Unfortunately, there are too many variables to answer a question like this,” he said.
Lot changes draw criticism
The parking lot changes drew criticism from AAA Mid-Atlantic.
“One of the primary reasons a driver utilizes a paid lot is the convenience and assurance that they can spend as little or as much time enjoying Newark’s amenities without having to worry about a parking violation. A paid lot enables motorists to be flexible and only pay for what they use,” Jim Lardear, regional director for public and government affairs, wrote in a letter to council. “A metered spot, restricts a motorist to a set time limit. By making all downtown parking similar to metered street parking, Newark could be impacting local businesses as motorists might forgo extra consumer spending activities for fear of exceeding an arbitrary time limit this proposed system would require.”
AAA also expressed privacy concerns regarding the use of automatic license plate readers.
No residents attended Monday’s meeting to weigh in on the lot changes, but an earlier Newark Post article about the issue prompted a barrage of online complaints about the proposal.
“This is a short-sighted plan. People will most likely spend less money in businesses rushing to go refill the meters. In addition, this will drive people away from Main Street, so businesses go under left and right, eliminating jobs and taxes,” Aniela Meinhaldt wrote.
“The whole reason for parking in a lot is so you can have as much time as you want to dine or shop, even both,” Tim Alexander added.
“So...you either leave before your meter is up (free money to the city/parking authority) or you get a ticket (free money to the city/parking authority). It really is a terrible decision for the business and the consumer alike,” Nick Turner wrote.
Councilman James Horning Jr. acknowledged that he heard from constituents concerned about the plan.
“For some people, they really enjoy the idea of coming downtown and not having to guess how long they’re going to be somewhere,” Horning said, adding that he hopes people get used to the new system. “I think as people get more comfortable, maybe they will see the benefits.”
Councilman Stu Markham proposed delaying the conversion of lots #1 and #4 until the city gets a better sense of how people are adjusting to the kiosks in other areas of downtown, but his idea did not have the support of his colleagues, who voted to proceed with the full plan.
“There’s some tradeoffs, but it will overall be a positive move for the city,” Councilwoman Jen Wallace said.