Free public parking? You’ll see a lot fewer spots in downtown Wichita next year

The vast majority of free public parking in downtown Wichita will soon be replaced with metered stalls and other pay-to-park options.

Even public parking structures that have traditionally been free, including the Old Town garage, will charge customers beginning on Jan. 1, 2025. The city is also introducing higher meter rates and a fleet of private parking enforcers responsible for ticketing violators.

It’s the realization of a plan to turn Wichita’s downtown parking system into a self-sustaining operation that can support its own repairs and upkeep through user fees while encouraging quicker turnover in parking spaces near high-traffic businesses and restaurants.

“Having metered parking might help our business. It might hurt it. Mainly, it will cut down on the time that people take when they do park,” said Austin Kitchen, who works at Hatman Jack’s in Delano. “The more we turn over the traffic, it could be better, yeah. I’m not exactly thrilled about the meters going in, but it could improve things.”

The city will charge between $0.75 and $2 an hour for metered parking. Rates will be set and adjusted by the city’s traffic engineer based on data collected by The Car Park, a private management company hired by the City Council. Parking on public surface lots and garages, including the long-promised garage near Riverfront Stadium, is also expected to become more expensive, but specific ranges have not yet been set.

Under a contract approved by the council earlier this month, Wichita will pay The Car Park $12 million over the next six years — $9.7 million to operate the parking system and another $2.3 million in reimbursements for purchasing the soon-to-be-installed meters and other equipment.

Revenue from the parking fund is expected to increase to $3.3 million in 2025, up from between $1 million and $1.5 million in recent years. Beyond the roughly $2 million a year that will be paid out to the Car Park, revenue generated annually by on- and off-street parking will be reinvested in the downtown parking fund, which has operated at a loss for the last five years, budget documents show.

“Parking is not free, unfortunately. It costs money to maintain roads, to maintain parking lots,” said Mayor Lily Wu. “But we’re not here to enforce our way to gaining more revenue. That’s not the idea.”

Upkeep and demand downtown

Some of the garages and surface lots in the city’s downtown core — defined roughly as Central to Kellogg and Seneca to Washington — have fallen into disrepair, Assistant City Manager Troy Anderson told the council.

“We have issues with loitering and illicit activity and graffiti, and the laundry list goes on and on and on,” Anderson said. “And so one of the challenges we have is, our parking fund, because of the lack of robust revenue structure, we’re unable to really respond to that ongoing maintenance.”

Citing safety concerns and lagging demand for parking, the city indefinitely closed the second and third levels of the garage at Old Town Square last August, leaving only the ground floor open.

“Even assets like the Old Town parking garage that may have been paid for through TIF (tax increment financing) will still see the introduction of paid parking,” Anderson said in an email response to The Eagle. “While the debt associated with the asset may have been retired, there are still ongoing operational and maintenance expenses that must be taken into consideration.”

Asked directly if the city plans to eliminate all free public parking options, including the second level of the garage at the River Vista Apartments on North McLean, Anderson said it’s “not quite that simple.”

“At this time, we are not addressing situations like the River Vista Apartment garage/structure,” he said.

“There are a number of factors that contribute to the determination of whether or not to charge for parking at any one particular location. We’ll continue to rely on the guidance of the 2019 Parking & Multimodal Plan and the advice of our traffic engineer, our parking operator and other parking professionals in the industry to determine where paid parking should be located and what rates to charge to achieve the desired outcomes.”

Meeting notes from an Old Town focus group included in that 2019 plan state that “Free parking by patrons and visitors is really desired and charging for parking would make Old Town less competitive with other areas of the city.”

Implementation of new plan

A combination of public and private parking accounts for about 60% of downtown land parcels, not including rights of way. Wichita owns more than 8,000 of the approximately 12,000 available parking stalls in the city core.

Many of the on-street stalls downtown allow people to park vehicles for free for several hours. A dime buys 30 minutes of free parking on Market near the historic courthouse, and a quarter buys an hour and 15 minutes. In the short-term parking lot at City Hall, a dime buys 15 minutes and a quarter buys 24 minutes.

Council member Mike Hoheisel, who voted against the parking plan last year but signed off on the city’s contract with The Car Park, said he doesn’t expect free on-street parking to completely disappear next year.

“I don’t think we’re going to do every street as far as a meter, but I do think that where there’s a high propensity of parking, right in that area is where we’re going to be doing a lot of the meters,” Hoheisel said.

Those meters, unlike current ones on most downtown streets that only accept coins or the parking outside Century II that requires mobile app payment, will give customers more options. They will accept card, coins, app pay, and in some cases, bills. Pricing may be adjusted for time of day and special events.

The council voted in January to establish higher minimum fines for parking infractions, including increasing meter violation and overtime parking fines from $10 to $35 and increasing all other parking violations from a $35 penalty to $50.

“If I get a parking ticket downtown for $35, I’m going to quit going downtown to shop,” service union business representative Esau Freeman told the council at the time.

Private parking enforcement officers will use license plate-scanning technology to identify and ticket vehicles that parked without paying or overstayed their welcome in metered stalls. Sharon Dickgrafe, deputy city attorney, said it will be the first time in city history that an independent contractor has been given the authority to issue citations on behalf of the city.

The Car Park will have no ticket quota and will not receive revenue from issuing citations. The company can earn a performance bonus of as much as 0.5% of the parking revenues generated in a year on top of its base management fee, if the city deems it appropriate.

The 2019 parking plan also calls on the city to “strategically sell-off underutilized surface lots and garages to promote development and redevelopment.”

Wu said ultimately, she expects the implementation of the parking plan next year to have a positive impact on the community.

“Encouraging people to walk, encouraging people to ride together are not bad things,” said Wu, who had not been elected when the council approved the parking plan last year.

“It will encourage people to come out together and then save on spots. You don’t need four cars. You can have four people in one car.”

Alan Kailer with Bike Walk Wichita said he’s also optimistic about the transportation choices the plan will promote.

“For example, using the Q Line to get to the Wind Surge ballpark. Rather than parking right there in the immediate area at a cost, it might make sense to park further away and just take the Q Line,” Kailer said.

The city plans to begin its public information campaign informing residents about upcoming changes to the parking rates and fine structure in the second half of the year. Anderson said he expects new meters to be installed across downtown by late October or early November, in time to test them before they go live on Jan. 1.