Parking availability has been a thorn in Laurie Helmick’s side for the 23 years she has owned Luxe Salon in the 1700 block of Wazee Street in Lower Downtown Denver.

She remembers writing letters to the city, lobbying against it when meters rates were increased from $1 an hour to $1.50 an hour in 2002. Then-LoDo brewery owner and soon-to-be Denver mayor John Hickenlooper campaigned on bringing the rates back down and made good on that promise in 2003. Meters in the city have cost a buck an hour ever since.

For Helmick — and people looking to park at meters the city over — 2022 represents a new escalation in the battle to park cheaply on city streets.

Starting on Jan. 3, meter rates in Denver will double to $2 per hour, according to officials in the city’s Department of Infrastructure and Transportation.

“I read that someone with the city said they thought the timing was right,” Helmick said of the impending rate increase. “I wanted to punch my computer.”

The increase is expected to push meter revenue up to close to $19 million next year, a record amount that will supply an estimated $9.5 million in new money for bike infrastructure, sidewalk repair and transit projects.

Officials are not anticipating more tickets on windshields as a result of the change, at least not right away.

“Our goal is to focus more on getting the word out and educating drivers — especially during the early weeks as this change takes effect,” DOTI spokeswoman Vanessa Lacayo said in an email. “We’ll plan to have our standard enforcement team out.”

Helmick isn’t the only person upset over the new pricing. The timing of it — with consumers dealing with supply-chain-driven inflation and businesses still struggling to recover from hits taken earlier in the pandemic — has some in Denver wondering why now?

Madeleine Hubler didn’t have to feed the meter when she pulled up outside restaurant City, O’ City on East 13th Avenue last week. It was after 6 p.m., the time at which meters in the Capitol Hill neighborhood go dark for the night. Hubler said she hadn’t heard of the impending rate increase. It’s not surprising but still frustrating for the 23-year-old.

“I guess it’s not that expensive,” she said of the $2 rate, “but that along with everything else in this city is getting more expensive.”

In Lower Downtown, Jarrod Perrott is worried about how the change will impact his business, 5280 Custom Framing, near the corner of 15th and Wazee streets. Street parking is all he has to offer and sometimes consultations for custom work can take hours.

“Quite frankly, the timing couldn’t be any worse, in my opinion,” Perrott said. “I don’t think it’s the way to encourage people to come downtown when you’re already having trouble getting people to come downtown.”

But in the eyes of city officials and public transportation advocates, the increase is long overdue.

Lacayo, in an email, said the new increase “will better align our rates with our peer cities and the rates for private on- and off-street parking, which doubled since the early 2000s.”

In Austin, Texas, a city Denver was often compared to as a growing tech hub before the pandemic, street parking rates are $2 per hour for the first two hours and then go up after that, according to the city’s website. Salt Lake City charges $2.25 per hour with a maximum time limit of two hours (the same limit as at most meters in Denver) for parking in its downtown area.

Even Colorado Springs and Boulder’s city parking spots cost more than $1 an hour.

“Streets are public spaces. Everybody should have access to that space and feel safe and comfortable in that space,” said Jill Locantore, executive director of the Denver Streets Partnership, a coalition of groups focused on making Denver less car-dependent and its transportation network safer for pedestrians, cyclists and others.

“Increasing the parking meter rates is applying a more rational value to this scarce and valuable resource in the city of Denver,” she added.

Locantore emphasized a growing body of research demonstrates that when cities add things such as bike lanes and do away with parking spaces, sales at local retailers tend to increase.

How will additional parking meter money be spent?

How the expected $9.5 million in extra parking money will be spent next year comes to 40% to transit projects, 20% for new bike infrastructure, 20% for sidewalk buildout and repair, and 20% to safety projects, DOTI’s Lacayo said.

Meter money has already come up as a possible source of funding to help replace thousands of speed limit signs around Denver. The City Council voted earlier this month to reduce the limit on most neighborhood streets to 20 mph from 25 mph.

The speed limit reduction and the meter increase are viewed as building blocks in Mayor Michael Hancock’s Vision Zero initiative which seeks to eliminate traffic-related deaths on city streets by 2030.”

More investment in transit options doesn’t mean much to Helmick.

For years, the salon owner has focused on encouraging clients to take light rail when coming in for an appointment. Recent publicity around drug activity and other public safety concerns at Union Station has now made that a non-starter for many, she said.

And more expensive parking doesn’t just impact clients but also salon staff who have to find a place to keep their cars for shifts that sometimes last well beyond eight hours. The redevelopment of former surface parking lots into new buildings like the nearby McGregor Square project across from Coors Field has made the search for day-long options even more difficult, she said.

“We have just seen the brunt of the parking challenges. I am really worried about losing regulars and new clients,” Helmick said. “I am not feeling optimistic about the future at all from a business perspective.” 

Dackri Davis, 50, lives in Montbello but says she goes downtown a couple of times a week, mostly for entertainment. Last week, she parked at a metered spot on Bannock Street before walking over to the Christkindl Market in Civic Center Park.

“I think it’s ridiculous,” Davis said of the rate increase. “I think, for the most part, when people come downtown they spend their money on food, beverages. They shouldn’t have to spend it on parking.”

The increase could change Davis’s approach to downtown visits, she said. She may favor Sundays in the future when parking is free. More Lyft and Uber rides are also likely in her future.

And ultimately, “I may not come down as often either,” she said.

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