ALLENTOWN, Pa. - A proposal that Allentown's parking meters must be fed from 8 a.m. until 9 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays is raising concerns that it will have a detrimental financial impact on low-income residents in center city.
Other concerns are that, if approved, it will inconvenience people dining in downtown restaurants and even those attending City Council meetings, because they may have to briefly step outside to put more money in meters.
Proponents of the change maintain it will help both residents and businesses and that it isn't being done to generate more money.
Council member Jeanette Eichenwald said the extension will cost residents $3 more every day to park at meters near their homes from 6-9 p.m.
"Often we expect the most from those who are struggling the most economically," said Eichenwald. "I can park my car in front of my house any time I want. I have to pay nothing."
City Council is expected to act on the proposed ordinance when it meets at 7 p.m. April 16.
After learning about the proposed changes Wednesday night, council's public works committee voted 2-1 to favorably recommend the changes to the full council.
Council members Ray O'Connell and Joe Davis voted yes, but Eichenwald voted no.
Eichenwald wanted to separate the extension in parking meter hours from less controversial changes proposed in the parking regulation ordinance, but was told that could not be done at a committee meeting.
She suggested City Council delay any decision until after it hears from more center city residents and businesses.
"We could wait for four years; we're never going to gain consensus from anybody about increasing parking enforcement," responded Tamara Dolan, executive director of the Allentown Parking Authority.
"Whenever you talk about parking enforcement changes, they're not going to be embraced. You're never going to get folks to say ‘yes, let's do this'."
Eichenwald didn't back down.
"We're being told that we're doing this to help residents and businesses," she said. "Why don't we assure ourselves that residents and businesses feel in agreement with this? Parking is a vital issue. It's the lifeblood of a business."
Why extend the hours?
Now parking meters in the city only have to be fed until 6 p.m.
Dolan said her staff at the parking authority has been planning for a couple of years for changes coming with all the redevelopment in center city. She said their focus is to make sure the existing parking supply will match the demand.
"These revisions come as a result of that planning process," explained Dolan.
She stressed the parking authority has two primary considerations: protecting residents and protecting small business owners.
Dolan said the meter hours are being extended so those spaces don't become free parking for workers at the new arena at 7th and Hamilton streets or for people attending events in it.
Resident Julian Kern said the hours should only be extended at parking meters near the arena, rather than at meters all over center city.
Kern also suggested free parking would do much more to benefit center city businesses.
Said Eichenwald: "We now on the cusp of enormous redevelopment, of a renaissance. So why put an impediment to businesses? A great deal of the renaissance in the downtown, aside from office buildings, will be in the hands of restaurant owners."
Eichenwald maintained the city is making a decision based on 70 arena events a year, when there are 365 days in a year. "So there are still 295 nights when people will have to pay to park their cars."
But Davis said the number of events in the arena could increase beyond 70 or 75 a year. He predicted the city will be very busy – "it's going to be a boom town" –once the arena opens and it should have a parking plan in place before that happens. "It's a good idea," he said. "Is everybody going to be happy? No."
Mitch Hanna, manager of the Hamilton District Main Street program, said he supports the parking meter change "on behalf of business owners and community leaders in the downtown district."
Hanna maintained the change will protect residents by assuring them places to park in residential parking zones and ensure parking turnover for business owners on Hamilton, Linden and Walnut streets.
Eichenwald asked Hanna how many restaurants and stores he met with about the change. He said he only spoke to one.
"What troubles me is that I spoke to many and they have a different opinion," said Eichenwald. "I spoke to 12. All were concerned about increasing the time and how it will impact their businesses --- especially the restaurant owners."
Hanna was blasted by resident Rich Fegley, whose family owns the Allentown Brew Works restaurant at 812 Hamilton St.
Fegley loudly and repeatedly accused Hanna of lying to council by saying he spoke to many business owners and restaurant owners in the city.
But Hanna never said that at the meeting, although he did imply that business owners support the parking change.
"He didn't speak to any," declared Fegley. He said that included the fact that Hanna, who represents Hamilton Street, never spoke to anyone from his family "and we're the largest restaurant in downtown Allentown."
As for the proposed parking meter change, Fegley said meters were intended for shoppers to have a place to park for a couple of hours --- "to be in and out." He also understands that residents need regular places to park every day.
"At 6:30, someone could park in front of my restaurant and be there and be a resident who lives downtown. I understand the need for the later night enforcement."
City police support the change
Capt. Tony Alsleben of the Allentown police department said police fully support the extension of hours on meter parking.
Alsleben indicated parking is a major quality of life issue in the city,
He said ensuring that residents have enough parking around the arena and downtown will help reduce double parking, which is a major issue on some city streets.
He said having the parking meters operating until 9 p.m. will encourage people attending events in the new arena to use parking decks and parking lots.
"We feel this will cut down on disputes between neighbors and people coming downtown to patronize the businesses and the events," said the police officer.
Bethlehem did it
Lynn Cunningham, who runs the Bethlehem Chamber of Commerce, said that city extended its parking meter hours until 9 p.m. a couple of years ago.
"At first it was met with resistance, because nobody really likes change and they fear change," said Cunningham. But she added the impact hasn't really been negative.
Cunningham met with seven Bethlehem merchants Wednesday morning. She said they told her the change has benefited them in some ways "because it keeps people from parking there all night long and it keeps movement in front of their places of business."
Allentown managing director Francis Dougherty said businesses in Bethlehem have embraced the parking meter change. "We know that it works."
But resident Ken Heffentrager claimed Bethlehem is different. "The bulk of the meters in Bethlehem are in an area that is full of stores and businesses," he said. He added in Allentown the meters are on many streets where low-income families live, but there are no stores on those streets.
Heffentrager said paying $3 more a day – or $18 more a week – can have a big impact on low-income residents.
He also said many shops on other metered streets close by 6 p.m.
Other proposed changes
Dolan said to protect residents in Residential Parking Permit Zones, enforcement in those zones also will expand from 6 to 9 p.m., "which will increase the likelihood that residents will be able to find parking in their neighborhood."
Dolan said the parking authority also proposes expanding the form of payment --- using credit cards to pay meters will be allowed and using cell phones to pay them soon will be. But she said people will not be able to use cell phones to extend their time on a parking meter.
She said another proposed change is that tickets for violations no longer necessarily will have to be placed on a vehicle's windshield.
She said the only new fines proposed are $25 for vehicles with outdated inspection or registration stickers.
She now said if a parking authority officer notices such violations, the fine is $15. She said if a city police officer notices them, the fine is $25.
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