Would you pay $3 per hour to park in the French Quarter, CBD and Warehouse District?
Mayor Mitch Landrieu's administration is banking on it.
Early in the New Year, the city plans to hike parking meter rates across the city, particularly downtown. Rates would double in the tourism and nightlife district, and meter hours there would be extended from 6 p.m. to 10 p.m. — a plan which Stephen Perry, president and CEO of the New Orleans Convention & Visitors Bureau (CVB), calls "an attack on the service industry workers who serve us."
Konrad Kantor is one of those not happy with the plan. He's the co-owner of El Libre, a Cuban cafe that opened in the Quarter in mid-September. "Over the last five or six years," Kantor says, "I've paid about $4,000 in parking tickets, fines and towing."
The owner of a corner bar in the Upper Quarter, who didn't want to give his name, told Gambit he was concerned about the extra cost to his staff. "My customers, they take cabs or Uber, or they factor in the cost of parking," he said. "But it's really going to hit my employees."
In some cases, it could multiply their parking costs sixfold.
A service worker in the Quarter or CBD who reports to work at 4 p.m. and parks at a meter now pays $3 ($1.50 per hour until 6 p.m.). Under the city's proposed new rates, that server would pay $18 ($3 per hour until 10 p.m.). That also would include two trips back to the meter at 6 p.m. and 8 p.m., or paying through the city's Parkmobile smartphone app (which adds a 35-cent fee to each transaction).
"My concern is not just the service industry," Kantor says, adding he's worried about the effect on tourism, as well as people who drive into the Quarter from elsewhere in the city and from neighboring parishes. "The thing that's a little disturbing is that it's not a vote," he adds.
Indeed it's not. Sarah McLaughlin, communications director for Mayor Mitch Landrieu, clarified to Gambit that the rate hike will not require New Orleans City Council approval.
"Where is the money going to go?" Kantor asks.
The answer: into the city's general fund.
Meter rates downtown were last raised in 2010, from $1.25 per hour to $1.50. Raising rates and extending hours now would plump the general fund by several million dollars, according to 2016 budget projections. The revenue from parking meters in 2015 was $4.8 million, according to city documents. The projected revenue for 2016, with the increased costs and hours, would be $7.5 million.
The change will impact meters from the Mississippi River to Claiborne Avenue and from the Pontchartrain Expressway to Elysian Fields Avenue — roughly 830 meters and 3,000 metered spaces.
Extending meter hours to 10 p.m. raises practical issues for residents and visitors alike. If a CBD resident parks outside his or her home at 7 p.m., will he or she have to go out again to feed a meter at 9 p.m.? How are restaurant workers going to leave work during a dinner shift to feed a meter that might be blocks away? Visitors who eat downtown before 8 p.m., presumably, will have to interrupt their meals to put more money in a parking meter. And what about public safety in a town that's underpoliced?
Freddie King, director of constituent services for District C Councilwoman Nadine Ramsey, whose district covers the French Quarter, told Gambit that the office "has received several calls and emails concerning Mayor Landrieu's proposal to increase parking meter fares and times in the French Quarter" — but Ramsey hasn't taken a position, at least publicly. "We will talk to the administration and make them aware of the constituents' concern," King said.
(Gambit requested comment from Council President Jason Williams and Councilwoman LaToya Cantrell, whose District B includes the Warehouse District. Williams did not provide one; Cantrell said she didn't have one as of last week.)
A change.org protest petition addressed to Landrieu has stories from business owners and downtown workers like Wesundra Farmer. "I currently work in the CBD as a cook," wrote Farmer. "I can't depend on RTA because I work until 1, sometimes 2 am. Paying for parking is factored into my tight budget. If it goes up and hours are extended, that's more of a burden on the people who actually live here."
Others are reacting in a typically New Orleanian way: with satire, sarcasm and a party. An event called "No Parking on the Dance Floor" is set for Nov. 6 at AllWays Lounge in the Faubourg Marigny. Organizer Chris Lane says it's not a protest but "an informational meeting that will have City Council contact numbers and other contacts at City Hall."
The issue of going to 10 at night is so preposterous on so many levels.
- Stephen Perry, President and CEO of the New Orleans Convention & Visitors Bureau
"Nothing says N'awlins like good music and draconian traffic policies," the Facebook page says.
Lane, an artist and musician, often takes freelance jobs in the French Quarter; he hosts burlesque shows at One Eyed Jacks and created a second petition protesting the rates, which he says drew 800 signatories in the first 48 hours it was online.
The change.org petition, meanwhile, warns the hike "could literally make New Orleans parking more burdensome/expensive than any other major U.S. city."
That's not quite true, but the hike would make it more expensive than most.
Chicago has some of the highest downtown parking rates in the nation. In the Loop (downtown core), parking is $6.50 per hour from 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. and $6.50 per two hours from 9 p.m. to 8 a.m. In Seattle, rates range from $1 to $4 per hour, stopping at 6 p.m., except in certain nightlife districts, where meters operate until 10 p.m.
San Francisco, with its dense downtown core, has five different meter regulations around the city. Hourly rates run from 25 cents per hour to $6, with most on the lower side. The meters stop at 6 p.m. all over the city except a few blocks around the Port of San Francisco.
All those cities, however, have more extensive public transportation than does New Orleans. Chicago's public transit system covers the city, much of it running 24 hours; a downtown worker can ride all over Chicago for a flat $2.25 fee. San Francisco has the BART subway as well as MUNI buses and light rail; many employers there provide transit passes for employees.
Public transportation stops early in our 24-hour city. The last Magazine Street bus heading Uptown leaves downtown at 12:20 a.m. weeknights. The last Elysian Fields bus, heading to the lakefront, departs at 11:45 p.m. Many workers whose schedules keep them downtown later are forced to drive.
Blake Lindberg, a partner in El Libre told Gambit, "It'll deter locals, but tourists don't have a choice."
That's one of the things that worries CVB President Perry.
"The city needs more revenues," Perry says. "I support the mayor 100 percent on this. We don't dispute that. But there are better ways to raise revenue than to attack one particular group of workers and residents."
Perry says he's opposed both in his role as tourism leader and as a resident; he lives in the Warehouse District. "The issue of going to 10 at night is so preposterous on so many levels," he told Gambit. "We have been hearing endlessly over the last few days from restaurateurs and workers in hotels and restaurants."
Mark Romig of the New Orleans Tourism Marketing Corporation told Gambit his organization "does not take positions on public policy matters," adding, "We are familiar with the issue and will be monitoring any effect in tourism activity."
But Perry calls the meter hikes "a tremendous disincentive to what the city is focusing on now — to draw residents downtown.
"It's inconceivable to me that in an area that's one of the most prominent growing areas of the city," Perry says, "to have a disincentive to have people want to live and work here, and to the service workers."
Parking meters and parking enforcement falls under the Department of Public Works. The department presents its 2016 budget — which includes the rate hikes — to the New Orleans City Council on Wednesday, Nov. 11. Lane says he's passed out paper petitions around the Quarter and has requested a chance to address the council to articulate concerns of residents, business owners and workers.
"It's not just the parking meters," says Lane, adding he's frustrated the public hasn't had input on the decision. "It has a corrosive effect on the body politic."
He cites the proliferation of Airbnb rentals and the streetcar construction on N. Rampart Street (what he called "the tourist streetcar") as two things in which the public had no input.
"People feel like they don't have a voice any more," Lane says, "and this really drives it home."