The humble surface parking lot, which once dominated the landscape of downtown Evanston, may be headed for extinction.

One aspect of the city’s multi-modal transportation planning project, unveiled Thursday night, is a reassessment of how much parking the city needs downtown and how to price available parking more efficiently.

At the same time, the Plan Commission is reviewing a draft downtown master plan that identifies several remaining open parking lots as potential development sites. And the city’s parks department is eyeing city-owned ones as potential new park land.

The commission, which met Wednesday, also debated whether the city now requires too much parking in new developments — forcing them to have more massive and generally unattractive parking decks at their base.

A report from city staff, included in the recently released Civic Center planning study, shows that at the peak usage hour — 1 p.m. on weekdays — only 61 percent of the spaces in the three downtown garages were filled on an apparently typical week in February.

City officials say on-street parking is 100 percent occupied much of the day. Shoppers circle downtown blocks looking for an open space and workers play tag with parking enforcement officers as they move their cars from one metered spot to another through the workday.

The City Council recently raised on-street parking rates from 50- to 75-cents-an-hour downtown — but that still leaves on-street parking a bargain, compared to the $1 hourly rate in the garages.

The usage figures show that the garages handle so many cars that, had the new Sherman Plaza garage not been built, it would be almost impossible to find a space in the older garages on Church Street and Maple Avenue — they’d be 99 percent full at peak hours.

But more revenue from higher garage occupancy rates would make it easier for the city to pay off the bonds used to build the parking structures.

Plans for the new multi-modal transportation study include further research into parking usage at downtown developments. Critics of a study done last summer for the downtown plan say it likely missed cars of vacationers and students away from the city at that time of year.

The Civic Center report suggested Evanston could save money on a new city hall by locating it downtown and relying on the existing garages to provide the estimated 405 parking spaces needed for it.

On its own that might raise peak occupancy levels in the garages by 12 percentage points.

But if city employees, who now park free at the Civic Center, were granted free parking at the downtown garages, the move would do nothing to improve garage funding.

Meanwhile, city-owned open parking lots generate no tax revenue and privately owned lots generate far less than new retail, office or residential buildings would — making them attractive sites for redevelopment — especially if the parking capacity they provide isn’t really needed.

Bill Smith is the editor and publisher of Evanston Now.

Join the Conversation


  1. Parking Consequences
    An informal survey: how many of you travel to Old Orchard or elsewhere to shop, expressly because there is plenty of open, free parking? I know when I worked downtown, this was a real issue for retail businesses.

    Find out more about Brummel Park Neighbors and Michele Hays

    1. You like parking at Old Orchard?
      Hi Michele,
      I’ve bought one item at Old Orchard in the past year — a pair of eye glasses. Went there because the chain optical shop I’m familiar with doesn’t have an outlet in Evanston. Parking was terrible. After driving 15 minutes to get there I had to cruise to the far edge of the lot to find a space and then walk across acres of parking to get to the store.
      I could take a much more pleasant walk from my house to a similar shop in downtown Evanston in less time and get more exercise.
      If I choose to drive downtown, because I expect to have to haul something bulky back home, I find the overall experience no worse than at a mall, even with having to pay for parking.
      — Bill

      1. Why buy the cow when you can get to park for free?
        If I could walk downtown, I’d certainly prefer to shop there – or bike there, or even take public transportation there; and I think the downtown plan banks on the idea of patrons using one of those 3 methods of transportation. However, from my home, with school-age-child in tow, it’s not only cheaper, it’s a quicker shopping trip to drive to an outlying suburban mall and hike from the free parking lot (yes, public transportation is possible, but it would take well over twice the time of driving elsewhere and, with two fares, probably cost more.) Parking at a meter in Evanston is difficult and usually results in an expensive ticket, and the lots are usually not convenient to where I’m headed. While I don’t like parking at Old Orchard, I find it no more hassle than downtown, and certainly cheaper (admittedly, I shop other, cheaper malls more frequently than Old Orchard.)

        Find out more about Brummel Park Neighbors and Michele Hays

    2. No parking zone
      Michele –
      Downtown Evanston will never be able to compete with Old Orchard, much less the strip malls and Targets, when it comes to free parking right in front of the store – just like Michigan Ave. can’t offer free parking either . Stores that require that will just not survive here.
      The only way that we will get plentiful, cheap parking here is if this city becomes like downtown Zion – a place where parking is available, because nobody wants to go there, nobody has any reason to park there.
      Downtown will attract business that serve residents at night or office workers in the day, or attracts the kind of customers who are willing to park in the Sherman or Maple garages (movie, restaurants, and even the class B offices).
      Anyway, there is no such thing as ‘free’ parking. Someone is paying for that real estate where you park your car, and land in downtown Evanston is just too expensive to allow a large empty spaces for parking.
      The city has plenty of locations that are suitable for the parking-dependent shopper ( Dempster Dodge, along Main St. or Oakton, along Green Bay), but downtown is not one of them, and it is not realistic to expect it to become one.

      This applies not just to shopping, but to development and housing. The other neighborhoods can have their low density, car friendly atmosphere – but let downtown be high density, tall buildings, and pedestrian/commuter friendly.

      One solution that I have is to RAISE the meter fees. This will discourage people from taking up a nice meter spot in front of Peet’s or Chipotle for two hours, when I just want to go inside and get a coffee or burrito and be out in 5 minutes. RAISE the meter fee, so short-terms shoppers will be able to easily find meters without circling round and round.

    3. Old Orchard?!?!?!
      Michele, I specifically AVOID Old Orchard because there is NEVER parking available! Unless I go very early in the morning (and what with having a job and all, that’s not very practical) I can never find parking except for at the very edges of the lot! The new development at that mall has only exacerbated the problem. Oh give me the Sherman Plaza garage any day!

  2. parking
    I know that one of the reasons the old Wild Oats is getting so much business now that it is a second Whole Foods is because of the open lot parking. As Evanston turns into a city, there is a push to change the behavior of shoppers to accept parking further away from the store and there is a great deal of patron resistance on this–I know folks who simply drive on when the upstairs Whole foods lot is full. Whole Foods had to work to get shoppers to accept the parking upstairs. Evanston’s move to an urban parking configuration has been a boon to Skokie and Wilmette shopping districts as well as to pushing people to the Internet to shop (the Cook County sales taxes will do more!) Many merchants collect zip codes of patrons and this information may be available to buy. It would be very interesting to see how many Evanstonians are shopping at Old Orchard versions of our downtown stores.

  3. Parking at Old Orchard vs. Downtown
    While they both provide shopping, they’re entirely different retail markets and each location offers something that the other doesn’t.
    There is nothing wrong with shopping in both locations, and I do so frequently. The availability of parking (or lack thereof) has never encouraged or discouraged me from shopping in either location. It is more about the types of stores, what I’m looking to shop for, and what else I’m doing at that time.

    While I usually walk when I’m shopping in downtown Evanston (I live very close to downtown), I would argue that even if I were to drive and park in a downtown garage, I could still park closer to the store I wanted to go to than at Old Orchard, where I have to circle for parking and often park in a garage anyway, then either walk across a huge lot or down from a garage and through the mall to get to the store I want to go to. Plus, it’s not like driving out to Old Orchard on a Saturday afternoon is a very enjoyable experience.

  4. My Parking Requests
    Thanks for letting us know that the city is considering alternatives for future downtown parking. I am one of those who occasionally circles the B&N block looking for a spot. Here’s my wish list for the future.

    1. Have some meters (not all) in operation on Sundays. It’s really hard to find a spot on a Sunday and those 20 min. meters that are designed to keep things moving outside my Citibank ATM on Church don’t. (I’m the one double-parked outside with my husband running inside.) Have you ever tried to park in the Library basement lot on a Sunday? And perhaps many of those people who parked their cars there for the day are not even in the library.

    2. When you build more parking garages as part of new building developments, make the first floor of the parking garage just like street parking with meters and open access to the surrounding streets. Put the ticket dispenser and other things on the second floor, so we can have the best of both worlds. Right now, I never use the parking garages because they’re more hassle for my quick trips to, say, World Market. Instead I troll for street parking. I know it’s not completely rational, but it’s what I do.

    3. Better repaint those bike lanes for the spring. The winter salt erased them completely in some places.

    By the way, thank you for the sprinkling of 20 minute meters. I use them all the time.

  5. leaving Evanston for shopping
    I used to enjoy shopping in Evanston, but I spend more time elswhere now because the parking situation is tiresome, ticketing is too aggressive, and the independent stores that cater to my demographic are being replaced by cookie cutter chains. So, now I often head to Andersonville, where I can find street parking for less at the meter than Evanston (and fine independent stores abound), or maybe Glenview, which has fewer independents in the Glen, but at least the parking is free, and you can stop at Trader Joe’s at Lake and Waukegan on the way (a far better value than Whole Foods). Or how about Wilmette, which also has free parking (and check out the bottle shop, an independent wine store that beats Wine Styles in Evanston). Yes, I would like to support Evanston, but the fact is that the city has not done what it can to capture my dollars, so I will take them elsewhere.
    Gretchen Livingston

  6. Parking or Laziness?
    People in the United States are total car whores and seem to think that parking is needed for everything. I’ve also learned that it’s a laziness factor. If there isn’t an open spot directly infront of the store an individual wants to visit, the 1 or 2 block hike from the meter they find seems impossible.
    The city should be agressive in handing out tickets to scofflaws no matter how much we all hate it. I’d rather more ticket be issues than taxes be raised. Surface parking is for the most part ugly. If you don’t believe me, look at all the parking around IKEA.


    Get over it people and learn to live in an urban environment. People camplain about traffic, well half of it comes from individuals circling the block because they are too lazy or cheap to go into one of the garages.

    I have no sympathy. I mean really $1 an hour is cheap.

    Butler V. Adams

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