As one downtown restaurant expands, its owner begins questioning the wisdom of the city’s parking meter system and hours
photo by: Chad Lawhorn/Journal-World
Milton’s Cafe, one of downtown Lawrence’s longer-running breakfast spots, is expanding.
Look for more seating and perhaps some evening hours and bar service in the near future as the restaurant at Ninth and New Hampshire streets expands into space next door that formerly was occupied by The Summit gym.
But Milton’s owner has more than that project on his mind these days.
A conversation with owner David Lewis is more likely to be geared toward parking than pancakes. As an early-riser in downtown, he’s been witnessing a sight for years that has confused him and that more recently has begun to anger him.
“If you look all the way up the street right now, there is basically nobody on the street,” Lewis, standing on Massachusetts Street, said during a midmorning phone call last week. “Yet, the city is out here looking for people to give tickets to.”
The city’s downtown parking system, if you recall, requires motorists to pay the parking meters from 9:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Saturday.
This is despite the fact that my exhaustive research into downtown parking patterns has revealed this fact: A lot more people are parking on Massachusetts Street at 6:30 in the evening than at 9:30 in the morning. (In fairness, I am a parking consultant. My specialty is parallel parking advice, with my most frequent finding being “you were supposed to stop 6 inches earlier.” I collect most of my fees from the auto repair industry.)
Lewis, of course, has noticed the differences in parking demand as well. As a businessman, he said he doesn’t understand what the city’s parking strategy is anymore. The city is paying people to walk the streets to monitor parking when there is little parking to be monitored. Such a staffing plan wouldn’t last long in the restaurant industry.
“I don’t have full staffing on Monday morning,” Lewis said. “I schedule it differently than a Saturday or Sunday morning.”
In fairness, I did do a little research, and it is worth noting that even at 9:30 in the morning, downtown Lawrence still has what many Kansas downtowns would consider a good-sized crowd. I walked from Seventh Street to 11th Street at 9:30 a.m. Friday to count the number of vehicles parked on Massachusetts Street. The 900 block had 41 vehicles parked in it, and the the 700 block wasn’t far behind with 36.
However, it also is fair to say there was no shortage of parking. Every block had at least 20 available spaces. That’s important because the city has long said that its primary goal of charging for parking is not to make money but to encourage the turnover of parking spots so that visitors have a better chance of finding one when they visit. That’s a service that didn’t seem needed much, even on a Friday morning when more visitors than normal were in town due to it being a KU football game day. In total, the four blocks had about 55% of their parking spaces empty when I counted.
For Lewis, though, the issue goes beyond just the numbers. Lewis also said the city’s strategy is frustrating because it ends up treating similar businesses differently. While Lewis’ breakfast-oriented restaurant gets the benefit of free parking for some early-morning customers — those who get to the shop before 9:30 — dinner-oriented restaurants and bars are getting the benefit of hours upon hours of free parking for their businesses.
Lewis has been taking his arguments to city officials, but without much success, he said. He would like the city to consider pushing back the beginning of enforcement to about 11 a.m., which then would allow the city to expand its enforcement to 7 p.m. or 8 p.m., which would allow the city to collect parking fees during a peak demand period.
The city is in the process of revamping parts of its parking system. As we’ve reported, it’s creating a new system for people to pay parking fines through a normal city department rather than going through the Municipal Court system.
But when I checked in with city officials this week about whether they are considering changes to parking meter hours, parking supervisor Brad Harrell said via email that the system appears to be functioning well when you take into account all of its functions, which include the short-term spaces along Massachusetts Street in addition to the parking garages and longer-term parking lots along the edges of downtown.
“In our experience, current enforcement hours are producing a desirable degree of turnover and parking availability across these diverse uses,” Harrell said via email. “We will continue evaluating the effects of downtown development projects on our public parking system and adjust our services and enforcement hours to meet changing needs.”
Consultants who were hired by the city in 2017 to create a 10-year strategic plan for the city’s downtown parking system didn’t quite come to the same conclusion. Among their nearly 30 recommendations, the consultants said the city should “extend meter hours in active areas to 9 p.m. on weekdays and Saturday.” That recommendation was made about six years ago and, near as I can remember, the idea of extending the parking meter hours into the evening never got much public discussion from city commissioners.
Politically, the idea may not be a winner. I believe commissioners hear more from people who want paid parking to be eliminated in downtown rather than have its hours extended.
photo by: Chad Lawhorn/Journal-World
Lewis said he hasn’t picked up on much support for the idea among City Hall leaders he’s reached out to.
“They seem more concerned about other stuff,” he said. “They have bigger fish to fry.”
It is likely true that the parking issue isn’t among the biggest in the city — parking rates on Massachusetts are $1 per hour, and several free two-hour lots exist about a block away. But Lewis still thinks the issue is worth addressing because he’s guessing plenty of others don’t understand the logic behind the city’s system anymore. He tells a story about seeing a vehicle get a ticket on New Hampshire near the beginning of the enforcement period. It was an out-of-state vehicle in a metered spot in front of the TownePlace Suites hotel. It was one of only a handful of vehicles on New Hampshire Street, and there were a multitude of empty spots on the street at that hour.
“I’m guessing that guy probably thought, ‘OK, see you later, Lawrence,'” Lewis said. “It probably left a bad taste in his mouth, and that is not what we want to do with a visitor.”
As for Milton’s expansion plans, Lewis didn’t provide a lot of details, especially about how the menu at the restaurant may grow. He still working out those details. But he confirmed that work is underway to locate in about 1,100 square feet of the former Summit workout facility.
“It will give us a lot more seats, especially for the winter,” Lewis said of the restaurant, which currently relies heavily on an outdoor patio for seating.
Lewis said the kitchen also would expand by about 400 square feet. That’s to accommodate a plan to eventually open on Friday and Saturday nights. He said the space would be set up “to have a nice little bar in there.”
Construction work will be finished by the end of the month, he hopes. The restaurant is basically taking what was the lobby portion of The Summit facility. Landlords are still looking for a tenant to fill the rest of the space that was occupied by the gym.