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No free parking downtown for Christmas season

A pilot program to allow free parking in the downtown in December is on the brink of being scrapped.

By Joel Wittnebel/The Oshawa Express

Councillors have decided to not move ahead with a pilot project that would have allowed for free parking on downtown streets during the Christmas season, citing a lack of evidence to prove that it would actually promote shopping and commerce in the city centre.

Following a request from the Downtown BIA, delivered to council in October, city staff were looking into the prospect of suspending the pay and display system on downtown streets between Dec. 11 and Dec. 22. The report that went before councillors during the community services meeting on Nov. 16, pointed to a report from 2005, where a similar program was introduced on a pilot basis, with limited results.

In December 2005, the city introduced a “Free After 3” program as a Christmas promotion. Following the three week period, it was requested the program be extended. However, the staff report notes that the program did little to provide an uptick in business for downtown stores, actually led to additional enforcement, and that a consultant would need to be hired in order to truly gauge the program’s effectiveness, and that the free parking impacted the self-sustainability of the parking program.

It’s estimated that if implemented this year, the pilot program could cost the city $27,600 in lost parking revenue, or $49,700 if the free parking pilot was extended to municipally owned off-street lots.

With that noted, several councillors took issue that a dated report was being used to back up a current recommendation.

“That’s 11 years ago, I think our downtown and the makeup of our businesses downtown have changed,” said Councillor Rick Kerr, who urged that council should move ahead with the pilot project.

Councillor Amy McQuaid-England also took issue with the fact that the Downtown BIA wasn’t consulted for the follow-up report.

“I believe that was a bit of a misstep,” she said.

However, Ron Diskey, the city’s commissioner of community services noted that because the original request came from the BIA, staff were clear on what their stance was on the proposal.

“We believe we understood why the BIA wanted the request,” Diskey said.

The date of the report aside, Councillor Nester Pidwerbecki said that it still made a collection of valid points, particularly in the matter of a consultant needing to be acquired in order to analyze just how much the parking is being used and whether the project would be effective enough to repeat in the future.

“I have a reservation about supporting something that, in the end, we’re not going to have any knowledge (about),” he said. “I have reservations about this working at all to be quite honest with you.”

It was a statement backed by Councillor Bob Chapman, the chair of the committee.

“I’m not sure how free parking is going to increase the people going into the downtown,” Chapman said, noting it would do little to solve parking issues in the city centre. “We have a problem with parking because the businesses are vibrant and those sorts of things.”

This reasoning didn’t sit well with McQuaid-England who said councillors were overcomplicating things with “hooplah” about something that could potentially help the downtown, which has been plagued with bad news stories in recent weeks.

“I think this is the exact reason people don’t come forward,” she said. “We are overcomplicating something that is very simple.”

Following an attempt to refer the item back to staff for further discussion with the BIA by Councillor John Neal, the recommendation to scrap the idea was carried on 4-2 vote, with Councillors Kerr and Neal voting against it. McQuaid-England, a visiting member at the meeting, did not have a vote at the committee level. The recommendation will go to council for final approval on Nov. 27.

For Mayor John Henry, there is a lot more that can be done to bring people downtown aside from free parking.

“I think there’s an opportunity here to do something different,” he said, adding that creating an “atmosphere” in the downtown with things like carollers and hot chocolate on the street corners may be a bigger draw. “Giving just free parking away may, or may not, bring people downtown.”