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A familiar sight greeted those walking down Sherman Avenue to attend the grand dedication of the new fountain at Fountain Square Saturday late morning – an Evanston Parking Enforcement Officer patrolling resolutely, printing out tickets and punishing offenders. Excited residents streamed toward the celebratory event, kids on their shoulders, but one wonders how many of them returned to unpleasant missives under windshield wipers. 

“Thanks for coming! Please visit downtown Evanston again!” 

How many others left the ceremony but did not stay to shop or have lunch for fear of a getting a ticket?

We know that at times our parking boxes pose difficulties for users. The glare of the sun makes it difficult to see the screens, and anyone who does not have two free hands is hampered in completing a payment.

We know that those using the parking app to pay for the privilege of shopping downtown have at times received tickets anyway. And yet, out there every day, you see the blue-shirted deliverers of punitive tardy slips pounding car after car.

The cost of parking is high for a middle-sized City surrounded by communities that offer free and virtually unlimited parking.

Right now, residents and visitors are losing faith and are upset about the cost of parking. They feel preyed upon. Business-owners cringe when the parking jeeps roll up.

We hear that this whole new parking system – the parking boxes, the aggressive ticket-writing, mistakes with the apps, the high rates and the limited maximum time allowed for on-street parking – is creating a hostile environment.

This system does not welcome, it punishes residents and visitors for wanting to patronize Evanston enterprises, it diminishes our attractiveness as a community, and it hurts businesses.

As an example, Curt’s Cafe on Central Street recently held a benefit. Many residents reported returning to their cars to find tickets – all issued between 8:55 and 9 p.m. (parking becomes free after 9 p.m.). This is venial, not reasonable enforcement.

Yet those parking at 8:45 or so would have received an error message if using the app. “Parking not available now,” they would have read, then found a ticket when they got back to their vehicle.

It does not help matters that City Council very publicly viewed parking revenue as a way to solve a budget hole. Increasing rates and eliminating free Sunday parking were seen as revenue-generators without, it seems, any consideration of the damage that is too monstrous to be called “collateral.”

Pure and simple: Council made the decision to fine visitors and patrons to help balance its budget.

As Dirk Cumulo might report in an April Fool’ article: “’Cha-Ching!’ said Parking Punishment Czar Pearl LeBlanc.”

The City seems to know this is a problem, but so far the Council has taken limited action to address it. They have extended the meter time to four hours in certain locations.

We lay these problems at the feet of the City Council, which approved them. Aldermen voted to change to parking boxes that many do not like. Aldermen voted to contract with a parking app company that charges a fairly high service fee for every transaction and then does not report parking payments in time to register with the ticket-writers. They voted to increase rates and fines and to eliminate free parking on Sunday – to try to balance their budget on the backs of Evanston parkers.

Votes were not unanimous, and apologies are due to those like Sixth Ward Alderman Tom Suffredin, who has for months called for a comprehensive parking study, which aldermen finally approved earlier this month.

But this is not enough, not right now, not by a longshot.

Anyone walking through downtown cannot help but notice the vacant storefronts. Business owners feel the pinch. Many, many shoppers shake their heads in dismay, muttering a similar refrain: “Next time I am just going to Old Orchard. Parking there is free.”

The City must take immediate action. Trust has already been destroyed. The damage is real.

It must stop. Until we solve our parking problems, the City should cease issuing violations for any expired meter. The continued viability of Evanston businesses depends on it.

A moratorium must begin immediately and continue until the City has resolved the parking mess, both in terms of the exorbitant rates and the flawed system. The City owes it to residents, visitors and businesses to have a system that works properly, records payments accurately and feels fair.