March 21, 2009
BY CAROL MARIN Sun-Times Columnist
I spent last week staring at parking meters. And wondering if I was witnessing the beginnings of a boycott.
Boycott is probably too strong a term. Quiet rebellion may be more like it.
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Sun-Times columnist Carol Marin
Whatever the word, on Wednesday at 10:30 a.m. there were at least 10 open parking meters down one short block of Clark Street next to Lincoln Park.
At noon in Wicker Park, where Milwaukee Avenue is usually packed with parked cars, there were open meters waiting.
And at 2 p.m. around the Sheraton Hotel on Columbus Drive, a place where normally you can't crowbar your car into a space, there were at least three or four parking spaces. What's up with this?
What's up is that a month ago, when the City of Chicago privatized parking meters, rates were immediately jacked way up, and you now have to feed 28 quarters into the meter to park a car in the Loop for two hours. In exchange for a 75-year lease, the city got $1.2 billion to help plug its budget holes.
But by handing over municipal parking meters to a private company, the city has given its citizens a colossal case of sticker shock. The cost of most meters will quadruple by 2013.
The deal Mayor Daley rammed through a pliable City Council in 48 hours allows the company to keep all revenue from the meters while the city keeps all cash from parking tickets when meters expire.
But wait. Don't parking tickets reap six, seven, even eight times more than what meters bring in? If people start refusing to park at meters, how can they get ticketed? And how can the city hope to rake in that revenue?
So many questions.
My first call was to Carissa Ramirez, spokeswoman for Morgan Stanley Communications and Chicago Parking Meters LLC, the privatizing firm.
Were they, I asked, sensing a citizen rebellion? How are they doing in revenue? What about tickets?
Ramirez replied by e-mail that it's too soon to know but I would probably have to file a Freedom of Information Act request with the city "as I believe these are special requests."
Then I called LAZ Parking, the subcontractor hired to collect all those quarters and give out tickets.
LAZ Parking didn't even bother to get back to me.
Privatization, apparently, does not mean transparency.
Which takes me back to the rebellion.
Irate citizens have been venting on a Web site called theexpired meter.com. It's written and reported by a 45-year-old Chicago blogger called the Parking Ticket Geek. Geek says he has made regular inquiries of both Ramirez and LAZ Parking.
"I called for a week straight. . . . I am friendly and nice and polite on the phone . . . and never ever get a call back," he said by phone Thursday.
Only five Chicago aldermen bucked the mayor on the privatization of parking meters, and one was Scott Waguespack of the 32nd Ward, which includes Wicker Park and Bucktown. It wasn't that Waguespack opposed raising rates, something that hadn't been done in years, but he believed an increase should be "incremental, not drastic" and that the city could have done it on its own.
Now, he says, people in his ward are suddenly seeing not only empty meters but more cars clogging residential neighborhoods in search of free spaces, a problem for people who live there.
The whole purpose of parking meters was as an urban planning tool, used to generate turnover so businesses could see a steady stream of customers who park for a short time, shop and leave, opening spaces for more shoppers.
Now, Waguespack argues, spaces have become solely "a revenue anchor" and the rates have shot "too high, too quickly."
Are we seeing a boycott?
"I'm not so sure yet," said the alderman, "but it's definitely a refusal."
Call it a pocketbook protest.