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Parking lots: An endangered species?

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.

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