Is free parking in downtown Lake Worth Beach about to end?
Updated: May 6, 2022
UPDATE: This story was updated at 5:30 p.m. May 6 to reflect the city's decision to delete the parking study from the May 9 City Commission workshop and reschedule it for a later date.
CITY OFFICIALS IN Lake Worth Beach are planning to discuss a consultant's report that recommends slamming the brakes on a transportation perk residents and visitors have enjoyed for decades — free parking downtown.
The report had been scheduled for discussion by the City Commission at a workshop May 9. But on May 6, city manager told commissioners the study will be rescheduled for discussion at a later date.
"Unfortunately, we were just notified that the WGI consultant is ill and will not be able to participate at the May 9 workshop,'' city manager Carmen Davis said. "Therefore, the parking discussion will be rescheduled.''
A study conducted four years ago by WGI of West Palm Beach suggests the city start charging fees to park at nearly 700 on- and off-street public parking spaces on downtown streets and lots where visitors and residents have long parked for free.
The study determined the downtown parking supply in Lake Worth Beach needs at least another 150 spaces to accommodate demand. That demand would increase by several hundred more spaces If vacant buildings are occupied, the study said.
The parking crunch is felt most on weekends, especially at night, when visitors are often forced to park along residential streets south and north of the main downtown drag of Lake and Lucerne avenues.
“While there is no user fee for downtown parking, free parking is useless if every spot is taken and patrons cannot reasonably reach their destination and find an available parking space,’’ the report concluded. “Lake Worth has reached a point where downtown parking can no longer be managed laissez-faire.’’
The report recommends the city do away with free parking downtown and replace it with a revenue-producing system of meters and pay stations, similar to the one in place at the city’s municipal beach.
It suggested hourly parking rates of $1 during the day and $1.25 to $1.50 after 4 p.m., potentially ending one of the last remaining free parking areas among the popular nightlife districts in Palm Beach County.
While the parking issue is a political hot potato, it's unclear why the city is finally getting around to publicly discussing a study that was conducted in 2018. In the four years since, there have been changes in city managers, the mayor's post and on the city commission.
The city is considering the pay-to-park plan as its larger neighbor to the north, West Palm Beach, is raising downtown parking fees, drawing anger from merchants and workers. Some critics of the West Palm hike have taken to social media to suggest spending money in downtown Lake Worth, citing the free parking.
A paid parking system in Lake Worth Beach would create a dedicated revenue stream to build more parking, including a small garage on CRA land at the northeast corner of South L Street and First Avenue South, the WGI report said.
City officials “must take a leadership role in providing increased parking capacity, implementing growth-oriented parking policy, and daily administration of a high-quality parking program,’’ the study says.
“Leveraging the existing organizational structure of the beach parking program will help the downtown program get started efficiently, while maintaining the separation of parking revenue between downtown and the beach.’’
Among the consultant's recommendations:
Create a parking administration department.
Install 29 pay stations for on- and off-street parking.
Install meter pay stations in four public parking lots.
Offer permit programs, similar to beach decals, for employees ($10-$25 a month) and residents ($25 a year).
Build parking structures.
Although the May 9 workshop is the first time the City Commission will discuss the study, the parking issue has been debated off and on for years, said Andy Amoroso, a downtown merchant who served as a city commissioner from 2011 to 2021.
Amoroso said he pushed city officials to study the issue when he was on the commission because he believed then, as he does now, that the lack of parking has been a problem downtown for too long.
“As a downtown merchant, I want customers who can conveniently park so they can come and spend money,’’ said Amoroso, who runs The Tacky Tourist novelty shop on Lake Avenue.
“When a little old lady on her way to TooJay’s can’t find a place to park, she says, ‘Oh, I’ll come back another day.’’’
If the city educates the public about the long-range benefits of a paid system, Amoroso said he thinks residents and merchants will support it.
“I reached out to a lot of merchants (when a paid system was broached years ago) and it was 50-50,’’ Amoroso said.
“If you just say, ‘We’re going to put meters along Lake Avenue,’ of course they're going to say no. But if you share with them that we’re looking at a complete master plan that will give parking options, a little garage and a sticker program for residents and employees, once you explain it the right way, you get people embracing it.’’
A parking structure must be part of the solution, he said.
The study calls for a parking structure on land purchased by the city’s Community Redevelopment Agency in 2018 for $1.25 million, at the northeast corner of L Street and First Avenue South (in photo below).
“This land will allow for the expansion of an existing City parking lot, and will increase parking capacity by approximately 40 spaces,’’ before construction of a garage, the study says.
The potential construction cost for a parking structure is roughly $8 million, the study says. The structure could accommodate 284 to 325 spaces, depending on whether the city leases parts of it for retail uses.
Some downtown merchants think doing away with free downtown parking would be a mistake, especially at a time when many merchants are struggling.
“It’s already tough to get people to come downtown to begin with. That, to me, will be another obstacle. I will lose business,’’ said Heidi Ferguson, owner of the Lake Avenue vintage clothing store Stitches and Rust.
WGI studied 81 blocks stretching from A Street east to Golfview Road, and Second Avenue North to First Avenue South. Additionally, the consultants reviewed the Artisanal District south from First Avenue North South to Sixth Avenue South between the train tracks and Dixie Highway.
Parking inventory within the downtown core consists of 996 parking spaces, 667 public and 329 private, including a private lot that charges a $5 fee, the study said.
“It was noted that parking demand is high enough on weekend evenings that patrons willingly pay the $5 parking fee at the private parking lot on the corner of Lake Ave. and L St.,’’ the study said.
“The willingness to pay $5 for an evening of parking, when the rest of the area has free parking, indicates a paid parking market already exists.’’
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About the author
Joe Capozzi is an award-winning reporter based in Lake Worth Beach. He spent more than 30 years in the newspaper business, mostly at The Palm Beach Post, where he wrote about the opioid scourge, invasive pythons, the birth of the Ballpark of the Palm Beaches and Palm Beach County government. For 15 years, he covered the Miami Marlins baseball team. Joe left The Post in December 2020. View all posts by Joe Capozzi.