Evanston’s Economic Development Committee Wednesday night discussed ways the city might change its parking rules to give downtown businesses a boost in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Parking has hardly been a problem downtown during the pandemic. With many shops closed, it’s generally been easy to find on-street parking. But as more businesses reopen, the city expects to again hear complaints that it’s impossible to find a parking space downtown.

Economic Development Committee member Jeanne Lindwall said she’d like to see the city double the free parking allowed in downtown garages from one hour to two.

Lindsay Bayley, a planner at the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning who made a presentation to the committee, suggested that while the garage idea might work, offering free on-street parking downtown would lead to having most spaces monopolized by downtown workers rather than the shoppers that businesses are trying to attract.

She said the best parking rate would be the lowest one that typically leaves one spot available on each block for the next customer arriving to shop.

Ald. Clare Kelly (1st) said the city needs to take action to “get Evanston back on its feet” and that “jacking up prices isn’t appropriate now.”

But Ald. Devon Reid (8th) said that rather than “jacking up prices” overall, establishing dynamic pricing — to vary rates based on the demand would be the right strategy.

Land area devoted surface parking at Old Orchard (pink) and garage parking (brown). (Source: CMAP)

Two maps included in the CMAP presentation illustrating why it’s unlikely downtown Evanston will ever seem to have as much easy parking available as a mall like Old Orchard does.

Surface parking (pink) and garage parking (brown) in downtown Evanston. (Source: CMAP)

Ald. Jonathan Nieuwsma (4th) suggested considering parking with “an equity lens” — and that higher rates might not be a big deal for some people — but would have a major impact on others. But he conceded he didn’t have any specific solutions to offer for how to address those concerns.

Reid suggested that parking should be decoupled from housing. If a low-income single mother lives in an apartment building with parking, but doesn’t have a car, she’s effectively paying for parking she doesn’t use, Reid said.

And on-street public parking, he added is expensive for he city to maintain. “How could we better invest city funds than subsidizing parking?” he asked.

The committee took no action, but Committee Chair Melissa Wynne promised to continue the discussion at a future meeting.

Bill Smith is the editor and publisher of Evanston Now.