A proposal to end free curbside parking in Midtown is facing some opposition from a handful of business owners who worry about losing employees and customers.
Jason Ferbrache, director at EMBARK, unveiled a proposal Tuesday to the Oklahoma City Council that proposes installing parking meters in Midtown and Automobile Alley.
The money made from new metered spaces would be split, with 60% of revenues going to the city and 40% going to new Midtown and Automobile Alley parking districts.
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Proponents argue the parking meters will turn over to visitors parking spaces otherwise taken up by area employees. Owners of Hall’s Pizza Kitchen, Harvey Street Bakery, 405 Yoga, Ludivine, and R&J Lounge and Supper Club say the plan could hurt them at a time when they’re still recovering from the pandemic.
The plan is based on a study commissioned by EMBARK in 2019 that shows Midtown has 15 surface parking lots the consultants identified that are less than 30% occupied in peak hours. The parking plan suggests at least 50 new parking meters can be added to spaces along Walker and Dewey avenues.
‘I’ll have to leave this area’
Russ Johnson, owner of R&J and Ludivine, said he learned about the proposal earlier this month. He and others argue Midtown, unlike Automobile Alley, is not set up for eliminating free parking for employees and customers.
“At a time when restaurants and small businesses are already struggling and are at the tail end of the pandemic, and we’re just trying to get back on our feet, this is kicking us when we’re down,” Johnson said. “It’s all based on this study done in 2019. Don’t we think the world has changed between 2019 and now? The whole premise needs to be re-examined.”
Johnson, whose restaurants employ 40 people, said his industry is facing an unprecedented struggle of finding and retaining employees.
“Are we not supposed to bring up the employee parking issue since that is the issue they are raising in doing this?” Johnson asked. “My manager’s biggest concerns, way more than our customers, is our employees. We’re afraid we’re going to lose staff if they have to pay to park to come to work every day.”
Megan Burnett, owner of 405 Yoga, was one of the original tenants when the former Swanson’s Tire shop at NW 10 was renovated into a mix that includes Hall’s Pizza Kitchen, Barrio’s, Citizens Bank, Chiropractic House and Baker Street Escapes.
Burnett averages about five employees on any given shift, but classes often range up to 30 clients.
“We see people five, six days a week,” Burnett said. “We even have people who come twice a day. They are there for a 9 a.m. class and then a 7 p.m. class. They’re already having to walk a block — not a big deal. But they’re not going to walk four blocks to park for free to come to a class.”
Burnett said her guests do not just visit for yoga and then leave. She said they often visit other restaurants and shops in the area.
But that could soon end.
“I’ll have to leave this area,” Burnett said. “One hundred percent. There is no way my business model can survive paid parking. My lease is up in three months.”
What options are available?
Ferbrache responds that EMBARK is looking at allowing visitors to pay for more than two-hours for metered spaces. The charge for the third hour, however, could be $3 compared to $2 per hour for the first two. The meters installed over the past few years also allow users to be notified by phone when their time is about to expire.
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Burnett responds that it’s still an interruption for guests.
“It’s an experience,” Burnett said. “You’re coming for the experience and then you leave to increase your parking. You return and the vibe is different, and the energy is lost. There is nothing about this that adds to the visitor experience in Midtown. It makes it more expensive for them.”
Johnson and Burnett question how they can arrange for employees to relocate to surface lots when their owners aren’t willing to discuss leasing spaces. Johnson said some owners told him they don’t want to deal with monitoring spaces or picking up trash.
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Ferbrache wants his agency to be a go-between to change that dynamic. EMBARK is already operating a lot on NW 11 that leases spaces and charges for public parking while ensuring those working for the property owner still park for free.
“Overall downtown, we have 256 acres of parking and 23,000 spaces empty at peak conditions,” Ferbrache said. “That translates to 141 football fields of unused parking. We can work together on shared parking. If you have a business in Midtown that needs those spaces for employees during the day, we can enter into an arrangement to manage that for them.”
One option for employees may be found in surface lots owned by Midtown Renaissance Group, which owns dozens of properties in the district. Chris Fleming, a partner in the group, said his lots are among those where extra spaces may be available for employee parking.
“Free parking is not free,” Fleming said. “It always costs somebody’s money. At any parking lot or structure owned by Midtown Renaissance, we would gladly discuss leasing spaces for employee parking. Happily.”
Johnson and Burnett asked whether proceeds from the proposed parking district can be used to address the parking challenges. Jane Jenkins, whose Downtown OKC Partnership will likely oversee the districts, said the revenues are limited to expenditures allowed under the overlapping business improvement districts.
“It will be spent at the discretion of the Midtown board,” Jenkins said. “It can be used to enhance pedestrian experiences with street furniture, banners, trees and beautification. It can be put into security.”
Johnson warns the end of free parking and extending metered use through as late as 10 p.m. risks jeopardizing Midtown’s successful mix of locally owned, uniquely themed restaurants, shops and entertainment.
“We’ve seen what happens in other areas where the small independent guys get squeezed out,” Johnson said. “I don’t think that’s what the city wants for Midtown. The different types of businesses we have here, and the diversity, I think is what the city wants Midtown to be. And that will be jeopardized by this parking plan.”
Steve Lackmeyer started at The Oklahoman in 1990. He is an award-winning reporter, columnist and author who covers downtown Oklahoma City, urban development and economics for The Oklahoman. Contact him at [email protected] Please support his work and that of other Oklahoman journalists by purchasing a subscription today at subscribe.oklahoman.com.