Greater Harrisburg's Community Magazine

No Charge: Could free parking be coming to downtown Harrisburg?

A parking meter on 2nd Street in downtown Harrisburg.

Harrisburg restaurateur Steve Weinstock has seen his dinner business drop since downtown parking rates doubled four years ago.

Weinstock, the owner of Stock’s on 2nd and Carley’s Ristorante, said that downtown restaurants like his have experienced dinner-hour declines after the city relinquished control of the parking system as part of its financial recovery plan in early 2014. Afterwards, the cost to park on downtown streets skyrocketed from $1.50 to $3 per hour, leading fewer people to park and patronize the long line of restaurants along and near N. 2nd Street.

“It’s sad to see,” he told members of Harrisburg City Council, who held their semi-monthly work session tonight. “The streets are empty.”

There may be some hope for Weinstock and other downtown business owners, as council tonight learned about a complex plan to make downtown parking free after 5 p.m.

Council is expected to vote as early as next week on a memorandum of understanding in which the city, Dauphin County and the Harrisburg Downtown Improvement District (HDID) would join forces to offset lost revenue that the system now generates between 5 p.m. and 7 p.m.

Under the agreement, the three entities would pitch in to pay Park Harrisburg $270,000 a year to make up for lost street parking revenue. Harrisburg and the county each would pony up $110,000, while the HDID would kick in $50,000.

Mayor Eric Papenfuse told council that the city’s share would come from the “hold-back fund,” an amount of money that Park Harrisburg already owes the city and is “holding back” until the parking operator finalizes a budget. That account has about $550,000 in it, he said.

The county and HDID already have OK’d the agreement.

Papenfuse said that he also expected to get approvals from system manager SP+, which is Park Harrisburg’s parent company, and the Pennsylvania Economic Development Financing Authority (PEDFA), which controls the city’s parking assets under a long-term lease. These entities, he said, don’t care how they get paid as long as they receive the same $270,000 that the system generated during the two-hour time slot last year.

Originally, the city, county and HDID had hoped to make their agreement a three-year deal. However, Harrisburg council pushed back, limiting it to just one year so that they could judge its effectiveness.

“I want to see if revenue picks up from 5 to 7,” said council President Wanda Williams. “I want to make sure it’s working.”

Since 2014, the city has tried several tactics to mitigate the high cost of street parking. First, the Papenfuse administration convinced the system’s operators to lower the “happy hour” rate from $3 to $2 an hour between 5 p.m. and 7 p.m. It later turned many of downtown’s loading zones into 15-minute free parking areas for quick trips.

However, neither of these moves seems to have done the trick, and downtown bar and restaurant owners continue to complain about a loss of business, which they largely blame on high parking rates. The problem seems especially acute after work, as fewer state and downtown workers stick around for happy hour and dinner, business owners have said.

If implemented, the no-fee plan would come with some conditions. First, it would apply only to street, not garage, parking. Secondly, it would take effect only within the HDID boundaries, which run downtown from State to Chestnut streets.

While council seemed generally in favor of the proposal, Councilman Westburn Majors said he was concerned that Park Harrisburg would redeploy its personnel to increase enforcement outside of the free parking zone.

“I’m concerned that other areas then would have higher enforcement,” he said. “I want to see new business downtown, but I also want to see business in Midtown, Allison Hill, all over the city of Harrisburg.”

Papenfuse pushed back, saying that he didn’t think enforcement could get any stricter.

“I don’t know how much worse it could be,” he said.

Council also criticized Park Harrisburg for both its lack of communication with the city and for showing little understanding or care about the effect of high parking rates on businesses, which, they believe, has also meant fewer customers and, ultimately, less revenue for the parking operator.

“I’m flabbergasted that, after four years, there’s no indication that Standard Parking (SP+) wants to be a partner with the business community,” said Councilman Ben Allatt. “I wonder—where is it going to go from here?”

This story has been updated.

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