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People are up in arms about parking.

Or, at least, about parking meters. And they measure their frustration in quarters and hours.

At the heart of the issue is the upcoming vote by the Champaign City Council on whether or not to increase parking rates in downtown Champaign, and to extend the hours that the meters are enforced. While the city stands to see a not-insubstantial windfall from these measures, it also hoists the burden into the pocketbooks of the people who park downtown.

As commerce continues to grow in Champaign, downtown welcomes a widening range of occasional parkers. Some swing downtown to get a coffee or a haircut, others to grab a bite to eat or get advice on commodities trading or visit Christie Clinic. More frequent visitors include downtown employees and volunteers. Whatever their reasons for coming, this diverse group is the lifeblood of downtown businesses.

Currently, parking downtown is relatively easy and, at 25 cents an hour, economical. Vehicles can occupy a space for up to two hours at a time and evenings are free. But if the city begins asking for an extra quarter or two per visit, and extends its collection hours into early evening, will the visitors keep coming?

This is precisely the question that has small business owners furrowing their brows.

But perhaps this concern is overblown. While a few querulous customers may decide to stay home, most people come to downtown’s salons, cafés, restaurants and other businesses because of the product, not the parking.

What might keep customers away, however, is a lack of parking — and this is an issue addressed indirectly by the proposed increase. Taking advantage of 25-cent hourly rates, people who work downtown tend to park in the spots coveted by consumers. Naturally, these employees don’t want parking rates to rise. But the new rates provide incentive for these workers to park elsewhere — a few blocks away, most likely, where rates will be cheaper. The result would be centrally located spots available for those stopping downtown for an hour or two.

This might also free up spots for older, ill or disabled visitors — a demographic largely absent from the current debate. Many downtown services cater specifically to such folks. Whether through the establishment of handicapped spaces or making nearby parking available for special-needs citizens, the city needs to address the needs of these groups as it moves toward a more aggressive parking system.

Despite the social ramifications of this decision, the proposed rate increase is largely a question of economics and urban planning. In an effort to improve downtown, city leaders want to sell off the current surface parking lots to developers. (After all, nothing says “vacant downtown” like parking lots everywhere.) Development requires building, and building requires available space. Accordingly, the city would like get rid of most surface parking (freeing property for development) and build a garage. To finance this $12–million garage, soon to be built on Hill Street, the city will siphon money from downtown sales tax revenue and may raise parking rates.

If the rate increase plan is accepted, the parking meters’ hours of operation will extend to 7 p.m. in 2009 and 9 p.m. in 2010, which means that primary funders of the new parking scheme will be downtown’s daytime and early-evening visitors. This suggests a potentially costly lack of imagination. The most successful downtown businesses are the restaurants and bars that cater to a night-time crowd. But under the current proposal, this crowd will rarely need to feed a meter. Anyone who has been downtown on a weekend can vouch for the untapped reserves of parked cars whose owners could be contributing to the city’s future.

The plan is not yet final. The Champaign City Council is scheduled to vote on the December 18, which leaves a few weeks for council members to assess the details of the plan and listen to the voices of public opinion.