by Pete Mazzaccaro
Barbara Kaplan, of Antiques Gallery at 8523 Germantown Ave, said business is worse today than it has been in the 26 years she and owner Gerry Schultz have been in business in Chestnut Hill. But it’s not the economy that’s to blame, according to Kaplan. It’s the new kiosk system at Chestnut Hill’s seven community lots.
“I have never in my life had business worse than I have now,” Kaplan told the Local. “My business is down 50 percent. People come in and complain to me about the parking. Not only do they not know how to work the kiosks, they’re not comfortable. They’re afraid they’ll get a ticket.”
Worse than the kiosks, though, is the way they’re enforced. The Philadelphia Parking Authority has patrolled the lots since May of this year, issuing anyone who overstays their paid-for time a $26 ticket.
“They don’t stop – it’s unbelievable,” Kaplan said of the Parking Authority meter readers who patrol the lots. “There’s two and three. They walk all over the place. When they get a ticket, people come in here and they say, “I’m not coming to Chestnut Hill anymore.”
Kaplan is not alone. Visitors have complained to shop owners and to the foundation. Several have written angry letters that have been published by the Local (including one this week, see page 4). Many other business owners have also complained. They’ve told the Local that they have petitioned the Chestnut Hill Parking Foundation, the local nonprofit that manages the lots, to ease the relentless efforts of the Parking Authority.
Among them are Hill Company owner Linda Moran, Mica owner Chip Roman, and Marty Smith and her daughter Gail Coyle, who own Martha Smith’s Gifts, a gift and card shop at 184 E. Evergreen Ave., all of whom have spoken to the Local. Some feel a meeting in November to slow ticketing made a little bit of a difference, but there’s still a lot of room for improvement, they say.
“It is getting better,” Roman told the Local, “But come here after 6 p.m., and this lot is empty.”
“I think people are getting used to it,” Moran said. “It’s not bad as it was in October, but the ticket’s are steep. It’s not even $15, it’s $26. They can go anywhere and get free parking. We are not CC. We are, what, three blocks from Montgomery County? It’s about making it easy.”
Making parking easy was the idea behind Chestnut Hill’s public lots to begin with. Faced with the advent of the shopping center, Hill business people pooled their property to provide shopper parking in the community. The idea for those lots was promoted by Lloyd Wells, the former Chestnut Hill Business Association president and Chestnut Hill Community Association founder, more than 50 years ago.
What Wells did was get the businesses to lease their property to a newly established Chestnut Hill Parking Foundation, which in turn took responsibility for maintaining the lots.
While the lots have always been a boon to Avenue businesses, they’ve never been easy to manage and run. For decades, the system was funded by merchants who bought rolls of stickers that were good for 30 minutes of parking in each of the lots.
The sticker system, which many enjoyed, had merchants grumbling for years as rising costs forced the parking foundation to raise the rates of the sticker rolls. Those costs prompted the foundation to move to voluntary assessments. Those assessments were issued to every business based on past sticker usage. But those assessments did not work when many businesses did not participate.
In April, when the kiosks were installed, parking foundation president John Ingersoll said more than 25 percent of businesses weren’t participating, and an even greater percentage of the revenue the parking foundation needed was not coming in. The kiosks were installed and, for the first time, the burden of paying for parking fell squarely on the shoppers.
To make things more stressful, according to critics of the kiosk system, the Philadelphia Parking Authority was contracted to police the lots. Once shoppers started getting tickets, tempers flared. Shop owners were left in the unenviable position of defending or explaining $26 dollar fines to their best customers.
“No one likes it – none of our customers like it,” said Gail Coyle, of Martha Smith’s Gifts. “It is really not helping our business. If people can go to a mall and shop for free and have one stop shopping, why would they come here?”
Chestnut Hill Parking Foundation vice president Paul Roller, who owns two restaurants on Germantown Ave., Roller’s Expresso and Roller’s Flying Fish, said he can appreciate the hardship felt by other shop owners, but ultimately, the parking lots are not free.
“There’s got to be a way to pay for parking,” Roller said. “The parking foundation is a not for profit business, but it’s still a business. We have expenses that have to be met.”
Roller said he believes business in Chestnut Hill is down to begin with and that the economy and competition is the real reason for declining business, not the parking lots.
“I certainly don’t discount what [kiosk critics] are saying, but Chestnut Hill is a tough market,” he said. “I think there are other things we should look at.”
And more important, Roller said, the kiosks have taken care of what even kiosk critics agree was an issue before: There was not enough parking for customers in the lots under the old system.
“We’re on track to hit the revenue we expected, meaning people are using the kiosks and parking in the lots,” he said, “And we have turnover, which we needed. It shows us that the price is right. People are getting the parking they need.
Roller said that while the Parking Authority has been aggressive, it has also been responsive. A meeting held in November to address aggressive ticketing apparently resulted in improvements,
“They’ve been great,” Roller said of the PPA, “Without the PPA, we’d have chaos in the lots. We can’t have no enforcement. There has to be structure. And when we asked them to reduce the number of trips through the lots, they agreed.”
Although some of the business owners said they felt the November meeting was productive, they’d still like to see improvements.
The Hill Company’s Moran said the kiosk system was particularly difficult for older customers who had to park, walk to the kiosk and then back to their car before going into a store. Also, without people around to explain the kiosks, she said, a lot of people were easily confused.
Jim Lilly, owner of Metropolitan Bakery, who said his business has actually been up since the kiosks went into effect, said he would like to see a system where quick trips of 15 minutes or less could be made without paying.
“The biggest complaint my customers have is if they want to run a quick errand, they have to deal with the kiosks,” he said. “I’d like to see [the parking foundation] do what other towns do, Collingswood and Haddonfield. They have 15 minutes grace for people who want to run in and out. And they don’t have to plug the kiosks to buy a loaf of bread.”
Roller said the parking foundation is aware of those issues and was particularly interested in finding a way to help people who needed it in the lots.
To make things easier on customers, Roller said shop owners should really try to help out. He noted that owners of Top of the Hill Market are out with quarters in their pockets at the lot in front of their shop. He also said that the parking foundation offers tokens, but few of them were purchased.
“If someone gets a ticket, ask yourself how much that customer is worth,” he said. “Is it worth paying their ticker?”
For some, though, Roller’s advice will not likely be enough.
“I think they should get rid of the damn kiosks in the lots,” Kaplan said when asked how she would change the system. “Let each business take care of their own. Stop these droves of people from giving tickets. They’re like barracudas. We’re not in Center City. You don’t need to do this to us.”