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Why I’m serious about keeping parking meters away from Montrose Harbor

Having to pay $2.25 an hour to park is going to keep some regulars from coming — like the families from all over the city who bring their kids for picnics near the beach.

Cars park along West Montrose Harbor Drive near Montrose Harbor, where parking has long been free. But the streets near Montrose Harbor and Montrose Beach will soon be switched to metered parking.
Cars park along West Montrose Harbor Drive near Montrose Harbor, where parking has long been free. But the streets near Montrose Harbor and Montrose Beach will soon be switched to metered parking.
Tyler LaRiviere / Sun-Times

Chicagoans arrive early to the area around Montrose Harbor and Montrose Beach on a summer day, especially on the weekends, and scoop up all the free street parking.

Many come for family picnics and get there early to stake out the best spots, preferably close enough for the kids to go back and forth to the beach but near enough to the trees for a little protection from the sun.

A lot of them drive because they bring so much stuff that it would be impractical to use public transportation. That often includes a barbecue grill, coolers full of food and drinks, tents, blankets, volleyball nets and other sports equipment.

The picnickers reflect all the racial and ethnic hues of Chicago’s neighborhoods, many of them first-generation immigrants taking advantage of one of the last great free options for family fun in Chicago.

They get there early, and they stay late. When they pack up to go home, the kids are smiling, and the parents look exhausted, and it’s exactly the type of scene I most appreciate in this great city.

These are the people I was thinking about when I reported the other day on the city’s plans to add metered parking this summer on the streets where they now park for free.

The city intends to install meters on the streets that wrap around the harbor and are closest to the beach.

The meters will charge the city’s “neighborhood rate” of $2.25 an hour and must be fed from 6 a.m. to 11 p.m., seven days a week — there’s no overnight parking in the park.

I think that will be cost-prohibitive for some of the park’s current users, especially the picnickers and the fishermen who show up daily like a second job to put food on their family’s tables.

Some agree with my assessment. Others don’t — or don’t care.

I suppose we’ll never know. Most of the people who use the park will never see this story and will have a rude awakening this summer when they show up the first time.

The city says free parking will continue to be offered in other areas of the park, north of where they plan to install meters.

The problem, of course, is that this will only double the competition for the remaining free spaces, already in high demand. The area includes Foster Avenue Beach, which draws a similar crowd. There’s already a lot of competition for those spaces from other park users.

The city offers the standard defense of metered parking: They encourage turnover, allowing more people to enjoy the lakefront and not just those from nearby neighborhoods but from across the city.

Possibly. But we’re not dealing with a commercial strip where people are looking to get in and out. And there’s a time limit on enjoying the lakefront?

The parking meter boxes — and the higher prices that go with them — have worked out great for upper middle income people like me. We can go anywhere in the city and feel pretty confident that we can find a place to park because we can afford to pay. It’s easy to forget that other people deal with different financial constraints.

There already is pay parking at Montrose — parking lots operated by the Chicago Park District that charge $2 an hour. Those lots usually are almost empty even on busy days.

When they can’t find a space in the park, most people will hunt for street parking west of Lake Shore Drive and then walk from there rather than use the pay lots.

The city, which owns the streets in the park and therefore controls the parking rights, expects the new meters near Montrose Harbor to bring in $200,000 a year.

Several readers have written asking why it’s in the city’s financial interest to install new meters when it no longer directly receives revenue from them, having leased the meters more than a decade ago to a private entity in exchange for a $1.15 billion upfront payment.

It does benefit the city because the addition of new meters reduces the millions of dollars in annual payments the city is required to make for parking spaces that have been taken out of service during the course of a year, such as for street construction or a neighborhood festival.

The plan to install meters in the area was included in last year’s city budget as part of a broader plan to install more metered parking downtown and on the North Side.

Unfortunately, the people who use the park don’t read the fine print in city council ordinances, and the local alderman forgot to mention it.