By this summer, Colorado Springs Parking Enterprise Director Scott Lee plans to make parking in downtown Colorado Springs a lot more convenient.
The city is working with Milwaukee-based CivicSmart, a vendor of smart parking meters, to replace the current street meters with a product that can interface with a mobile app.
Lee also plans to work on the three city garages, which are in dire need of technological upgrades and repairs.
Those efforts are part of an overall strategy, which includes recent parking rate hikes, to make downtown parking more efficient for customers and more lucrative for businesses.
“Our objective is to work collectively with the county and with private lots throughout town to maximize the opportunities for people to park,” Lee said.
Lee expects to start installing new meters within a few months, to replace nearly 2,600 existing meters citywide, at an estimated cost of $1.5 million.
“It’ll start with the downtown area first and then roll out as quickly as we can through the rest of the city,” he said. “I would guess by late spring or early summer, we’ve got the majority of the downtown hopefully up on this.”
Fully deploying the app may take a little more time, but when it comes online it will let motorists pay for parking and extend their time through their mobile phones.
“We’re doing our research to make sure we choose appropriately and that they work well with our meter vendor,” he said.
The city will collaborate with the county and private lots throughout town on the technology, which ultimately will guide people to available parking so vehicles aren’t circling through downtown looking for a space.
“So we could offer a universal application so people will be able to see where there’s parking and choose their destination appropriately,” he said. “I don’t care if they park in the county garage or a city garage or a privately owned parking lot. I just want people out of their cars walking up and down the street spending money.”
According to a Jan. 3 news release from the city, the technology also will help with planning for the addition of parking capacity in the right locations.
In conjunction with the smart meter project, the gate systems will be replaced at the city’s three parking structures, which offer about 2,600 spaces. The current system is outdated, and the new technology will lower maintenance costs and significantly cut waits to enter and exit the garages.
The parking enterprise is currently working with a consultant on an RFP for installing the new gate systems, Lee said.
“We’re hoping to have the RFP published towards the end of January or early February,” he said. Installation is expected by late summer or fall.
Cost of the gate replacements is estimated at $3.8 million, and the parking structures need $6.2 million worth of repairs, city Chief Communications Officer Jamie Fabos said.
These repairs will be spread out over years, with the most urgent projects being addressed first.
New gates and upgrades at the parking structures are key to Lee’s strategy, which aims to steer longer-term parking toward the garages and off the streets.
In addition, the increases in meter fees and extension of hours that went into effect Jan. 1 are needed to help fund the parking projects.
Parking fees at core downtown meters went up by 25 cents an hour for a maximum allowable time of two hours. Rates in other parts of downtown are $1 an hour or 75 cents an hour, depending on location.
Parking in the garages costs 50 cents for the first 30 minutes, $1 for the next half hour, and $1 for every hour after that, up to a maximum of $9. After 4 p.m., parking is $1 for the entire evening. Monthly parking permits also increased from $60 to $70 per month.
Patrons must pay for parking at the meters from 7 a.m-10 p.m. Monday through Saturday and 1-10 p.m. Sundays, when parking formerly was free.
Lee said he expects the changes to increase overall revenue about 20 percent, from about $5 million per year to $6 million.
The parking enterprise gets all of its revenue from users, and the city has not changed its parking rates in 14 years, Lee said.
According to a 2019 report by Parkopedia, which maintains a global parking database, Colorado Springs’ new core downtown meter rate ranks it 35th among the top 50 U.S. cities. The new garage rates place Colorado Springs significantly below the 50 cities ranked in the report.
“We’ve now got a lot of catch-up to make,” Lee said, indicating that he likely will seek future increases.
Residents have expressed opposition to the fee increases on social media, and the extension of paid parking hours has been even harder to swallow.
Lee said it was expected that some patrons would object to the changes and say they’d refuse to come downtown.
“But when people start seeing spots available for them to park downtown, and there’s more people moving around downtown, I think people are going to say, ‘Gee, this is a good thing. Why didn’t we do it sooner?’”
Raising the meter rates above those at the parking structures is designed to control where people park and create turnover in spaces closest to downtown businesses.
One of the biggest problems the parking enterprise identified was a lack of turnover in the evenings. People could come in late in the afternoon, pay $1 to park downtown, and stay as long as they wished.
Many spaces were being occupied by service employees who work downtown, taking up spaces that could be used by patrons. The previous rates also enabled downtown hotel guests to park on the street overnight.
With new hotels coming online within the next year, “there’s a lot of new activity for people coming downtown,” Lee said. “We’re trying to anticipate the need going ahead in the future.”
Employees are being encouraged to park in the city garages, where parking after 4 p.m. is $1 for the entire evening.
Freeing up the spaces “will increase the volume of people being able to come through the restaurants, the bars and other establishments,” Lee said. “It’s likely they’re going to generate a higher factor of that amount in tips by the additional volume they’re going to be serving.”
Russ Ware, owner of the Wild Goose Meeting House and chair of the board of the Greater Downtown Colorado Springs Business Improvement District, said many business owners have welcomed the changes, as they indicate downtown’s growing vibrancy.
“It’s hard for some to make that transition because we’ve been smaller and less active,” Ware said.
“I’m aware that there are some mixed opinions, but my sense is that the majority supported” the changes, he said.
Business owners want a downtown that’s safe and walkable at all hours, Ware said.
Asked if he thought increased enforcement is needed, Ware said, “I would love to see that. As we grow and have more people downtown, we need more police presence. … That concern and desire is pretty consistent. We would love it, and some of us would be willing to pay more taxes to see that, and some aren’t.”
Chef Eric Brenner, owner of Red Gravy, said his employees already are using the city parking garage at Colorado and Nevada avenues, which is right across the street from his restaurant.
“We all leave together and everyone walks to that garage,” Brenner said.
Brenner said he also encourages patrons to park there by printing a message about $1 parking at the garage at the bottom of each receipt.
“Every guest we’ve had for the past four years has gotten that message,” he said.
For the most part, downtown businesses have been understanding about the need for the changes, said Downtown Partnership President and CEO Susan Edmondson, and they are excited about the updated technology and the smart phone app.
“We’ve been helping the parking enterprise to connect with businesses for over two years,” Edmondson said. “They also especially understand the growing activity we have in the evenings and the challenges when parking spaces are taken up by long-time and all-night users.”
Employees might have to walk a little farther from their jobs to their cars, and Edmondson said the Downtown Partnership encourages businesses to institute a buddy system for places that are open late. But she noted that most businesses within the downtown core aren’t more than a block or two from a garage and that “downtown is pretty darn safe in the evenings.
“If downtown weren’t changing, it would be stagnating,” Edmondson said. “This is part of how any community evolves.”