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Lakefront ‘forever open, clear’ — and metered? Free parking ending in popular Montrose Harbor area

If the city moves forward as planned, the summer picnickers and winter sledders, the beachgoers, fishermen, birders, boaters, dog owners, soccer players and others will now have to ante up if they wish to park their car on the street near the beach or harbor. 

A cyclist sits at a bench Thursday afternoon near Montrose Harbor.
A cyclist sits at a bench Thursday afternoon near Montrose Harbor.
Tyler LaRiviere/Sun-Times

Stacey Greene, who operates Park Bait Shop at Montrose Harbor, was curious when she saw a surveying crew working in the park Wednesday, so she stopped to ask what was happening.

“The city is putting in parking meters,” explained a workman. “Didn’t they tell you?”

No, they certainly hadn’t.

And just like that, with no apparent public discussion or warning, one of the last free pleasures of Chicago’s Lakefront will now have a toll charge.

If the city moves forward as planned, the summer picnickers and winter sledders, the beachgoers, fishermen, birders, boaters, dog owners, soccer players and others who simply appreciate one of the most beautiful, and heretofore accessible, pieces of the city, will now have to ante up if they wish to park their car on the street near the beach or harbor.

I suppose that sounds like a minor matter to some of you. Free parking is a disappearing commodity everywhere in the city, especially near the Lakefront.

But as someone who spends a lot of time in that part of the park, I have come to know it as one of the last havens for regular people in Chicago, a place where families can still afford to come to enjoy the lake.

And they do come, by the carloads (and public transportation) from all over the city, packing the park to the gills on summer weekends, as diverse a group of Chicagoans as you will find. And this is going to be a financial deterrent for some of them.

Nobody could say what the new parking rates will be, but as Juanita Irizarry, executive director of Friends of the Parks, told me: “I imagine it will be prohibitive for many families.”

I imagine so, too. I wonder if anyone understood that before making the decision.

Tressa Feher, chief of staff to Ald. James Cappleman (46th), confirmed Wednesday the meters will soon be installed in the park as part of a revenue producing measure approved last fall by the City Council to balance the city budget.

People fish near Montrose Harbor Thursday afternoon.
People fish near Montrose Harbor Thursday afternoon.
Tyler LaRiviere/Sun-Times

Parking meters will also be installed in other parts of the city under the ordinance, although curiously enough, not north of Lawrence Avenue along the same stretch where the park becomes part of Ald. Harry Osterman’s 48th Ward.

So, soon twice as many people will be competing for those still free spots, which are farther away from the most popular portion of the park.

Feher said the new meters were sought by the Lightfoot administration, but conceded Cappleman approved the request.

She said the alderman had mentioned the plan to some community groups, but it came as a shock to many of the park user advocates who regularly shepherd the Montrose Park-Montrose Beach area.

Feher said Cappleman considered disclosing the parking meter plans in his regular newsletter to constituents but decided against it “because we didn’t know if/when this was finalized and would be installed.”

As far as the parking being cost prohibitive to some people, Feher agreed that is a concern, but said there will still be “a lot” of free street parking nearby and argued that forcing people to move their cars will open up spaces for more users, especially on the weekends when the park fills up early.

Metered parking will now cover Montrose Avenue through the park and West Montrose Harbor Drive where it wraps around the harbor. It will also extend along part of North Simonds Drive and along a stretch of Lawrence that runs parallel to the lake near the dog beach.

Look, I’m lucky enough to live close enough to walk there, which I do nearly every day, so to be clear, this doesn’t adversely affect me.

As word of the parking meter plans spread Wednesday, Chicago Park District officials were quick to distance themselves from the decision to install them, saying they had nothing to do with it.

Stacey Greene, operator of Park Bait Shop at Montrose Harbor, stands inside her shop Thursday afternoon.
Stacey Greene, operator of Park Bait Shop at Montrose Harbor, stands inside her shop Thursday afternoon.
Tyler LaRiviere/Sun-Times

Greene, the bait shop operator who in normal times is in the park nearly every day of the year, was both stunned and angry, concerned the parking fees will run off more fishermen and put her out of business.

The fishermen who braved Wednesday afternoon’s raw March weather with their powerlining gear agreed it will discourage some.

Powerlining is the name given to the method of fishing where the fishermen use fire extinguishers as air cannons to blast their lines farther into the lake, which explains why the diverse crowd of anglers you see this time of year all look like they’re ready to put out a fire.

“It’s too bad,” said a retired Wrigleyville surgeon as he kept watch on his fishing line. “The city needs money. It’s inescapable. It won’t be reversed.”

But after thinking it over, he sent me an email later with what he wished he’d said.

“What a darn shame. During the summer, the lakefront from Montrose to Foster is filled with great normal families doing great normal summer stuff. I bet a bunch won’t be able to afford $10 to park for eight hours, especially coming off the pandemic.”

My point exactly. And this is not inescapable. Difficult to undo, yes. But possible if people speak up now and let City Hall know it’s unacceptable.

Editor’s note: A previous version of this column had two paragraphs that did not meet editorial standards and were removed by editors.

Cars park along West Montrose Harbor Drive near Montrose Harbor Thursday afternoon. The streets near Montrose Harbor and Montrose beach will soon be metered parking.
Cars park along West Montrose Harbor Drive near Montrose Harbor Thursday afternoon. The streets near Montrose Harbor and Montrose beach will soon be metered parking.
Tyler LaRiviere/Sun-Times