On weekday mornings, Danny Spini watches a steady stream of downtown workers park their cars in City Market lots, walk to the streetcar stop, and catch free rides to their offices.
Spini says the streetcar commuters rarely shop at Global Produce, the fruit and vegetable stand he has operated for 14 years in the City Market. Their cars take up spaces meant for customers, and when the workers return at sundown, most get in their cars and drive off.
Riding the streetcar saves money for workers who would otherwise have to pay to park downtown. But it costs City Market tenants parking spots for their customers.
“It’s a frustrating deal,” Spini says, “and it’s come to a boiling point.”
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Last month, the city announced a plan to address the problem by installing paid parking meters in five City Market lots. A postcard sent to River Market businesses stated that the meters would be installed in mid-January, and that they would charge $3 minimum for the first three hours and $1 per hour afterward on weekdays.
Many City Market tenants scoffed at the plan, saying it would drive off short-term customers along with the all-day parkers. Now the city’s parking plan is unclear, and tenants are anxiously awaiting details. Calls to Kansas City’s Public Works and Urban Redevelopment departments were not returned.
Sue Patterson, director of marketing and events at the City Market, says she expects the city to share its new parking plan by early February.
Patterson says the City Market wants to make sure low-income and short-term customers — the people who shop there the most — benefit from the new system.
As for the all-day parkers? They should still be able to leave their cars in City Market lots, but it won’t be free.
Free parking is available at the KCATA’s park and ride lot at 3rd and Grand Blvd. in the River Market.
Spini and many other City Market tenants say the streetcar has boosted their businesses — sales were up 5 percent in 2017 — but that the resulting increase in cars and apartment buildings has caused once-empty lots to fill up fast.
Now many City Market tenants believe paid parking is necessary, but that short-term customers should get a grace period.
At Minsky’s Pizza, 427 Main St., the average diner pays $8 for lunch, says founder and CEO Gregg Johnson. Under the city’s previously proposed parking plan, that same lunch would cost $11.
Johnson says parking problems caused by the all-day parkers have hurt his lunch business, and that he thinks charging for parking could help.
“I’m all for doing it,” he says, “but I think they should make the first two hours free.”
There’s evidence that might work. On Monday afternoon, the four parking lots surrounding the City Market were full of cars, but the central lot had plenty of open spaces. A sign posted at that lot’s entrance stated there was a 3-hour parking limit, and that violators would be ticketed and towed.
Many City Market tenants shared their concerns about parking with city officials at a Jan. 4 meeting at the former Winslow’s BBQ space.
“It was pretty packed,” says David Hawley, owner of the Arabia Steamboat Museum at 400 Grand Blvd. “People were concerned and upset.”
Their main concern was the proposed $3 minimum outlined on the postcard.
And while City Market employees are expected to get free parking under the new plan, some River Market businesses are worried about what their workers will do if they have to pay to feed the meters in the City Market lots.
Sue Burke, owner of Kansas City Air Filter at 415 Grand Blvd., says she doesn’t have a parking lot and that her on-street parking went away when the streetcar came in 2016.
Burke, a vocal opponent of the streetcar, says her employees would quit before paying to park at the City Market.
“I am likely going to sell the building and move,” she says.
But not all River Market businesses fear the potential change. Amy Piepenbring works at Houndstooth, a men’s clothing store at 507 Walnut St. She says paid parking is a necessary step forward for the rapidly developing area — and that Houndstooth’s customers understand that.
Many City Market regulars say they’d be willing to pay for parking.
“I’m not changing my plans based on potentially having to pay one or two dollars,” says Katie Sowder of Kansas City.
Angel Halls of Overland Park said she would go to the City Market more often if the area had meters: “I’d be happy to pay if it means easy access.”
Casey Hill of Kansas City said he shops at the City Market a few times a year, and would probably go even less often if he had to pay to park.
“But maybe I need to eat more fresh vegetables,” he says.
As new apartment buildings open and the streetcar expands, more people — and their cars — will trickle into the River Market. But City Market tenants hope their customers won’t have to pay for the area’s growth.
“I’m hoping like the rest of the tenants that the city comes to a smart conclusion on how to do this,” Spini says. “We’re waiting.”