Workers want better, cheaper parking options in downtown Portland

·9 min read

Sep. 23—Workers in downtown Portland are struggling to find parking spots, feed meters and move their cars every two hours, and often are priced out of nearby private lots charging a daily flat fee of $40 or more.

Some say they've had enough.

Jordan Canfijn, who lives in the city and works at Gorgeous Gelato on Fore Street, says the city's parking meter rate is a big deduction from his wages. In the Old Port, the rate recently went up from $2 an hour to $2.50.

"Here I make $14.50 base pay, so you take that out and it's $12 an hour," he said.

In addition, he racks up parking tickets if he doesn't move his car in time and the car has twice been booted, with a $50 penalty, for three or more unpaid tickets.

He doesn't even consider parking in the garage closest to Gorgeous Gelato. Fore St. Garage, managed by Boulos Asset Management, charges $6 per hour, $50 per day and $200 for a monthly pass.

Another parking vendor whose rates draw ire from workers is Unified Parking Partners, which is known for its high prices, confusing signs and quick booting and ticketing of cars that overstay payment. The company operates approximately 50 lots and garages in greater Portland, with over 25 downtown, according to COO Derek Brandt. You'll find them scattered around the peninsula, at intersections and on side streets, sometimes marked by sandwich boards displaying a white "P" in a blue square — which might suggest they are public parking lots.

There are Unified lots across the street from Merrill Auditorium and near Cross Insurance Arena. There's a lot on the south end of India Street, and another at Cumberland Avenue and Casco Street. There are several on Commercial Street. Rates at these lots change by the hour and season, and at peak times switch to a daily flat fee, which was $40 on recent visits, without an option to pay by the hour.

Paying that rate on work days would cost around $800 a month — or another rent, says one downtown employee.

"For most people, that's more than a week's wages," said Gracelyn Kilpatrick, manager of OTTO Pizza at 576 Congress St. "And then paying their rent on top of that — rent prices are skyrocketing now post-COVID — and gas prices. It's just a lose-lose situation."

'DYNAMIC PRICING'

Brandt explained that his company uses a "dynamic pricing structure" that fluctuates with time of day, season and demand. While each lot is slightly different, they follow a similar pattern. In off-peak times, the hourly rate is $6-$8 per hour, but this rises to a flat day rate of around $40 when demand is highest — from 11 a.m. or noon to about 4 p.m. After that, the flat rate drops by around $10 before an hourly rate returns in the evening.

"The first thing I always hear is, 'You have a $45 rate,' Brandt said. "We have a $45 rate for a four- to six-hour block of the day when there's no inventory and demand is super high. It's just like Uber does surge pricing when people, when demand, is heavy and after an event. It's just like airlines do. ... As less supply becomes available, their pricing goes up. And it's just like the hotel industry, which is a partner of ours. ... It's flex pricing based on demand."

Visitors to the city get confused by Unified's signs, which they mistake for public parking, and then call the city about how much they had to pay. City spokesperson Jessica Grondin said staff often have to tell callers that many facilities are privately owned and the city can't intervene.

"That is one of our challenges, to help educate people," she said. "I think in many cases the signage is pretty clear, but I also realize that people don't spend enough time reading signs. ... The blue P is like the international symbol for public parking, but that doesn't necessarily mean that the city owns the lot."

In smaller print, the signs do say "privately owned lot managed by Unified Parking Partners," a message repeated on the meters and elsewhere on the lots.

After people began complaining in 2015, Unified added signs alerting customers about the potential for tickets, towing and booting. But Grondin said Portland does not regulate what parking lot or garage operators can charge.

"It's a tricky situation because they're a private company, and they're certainly entitled to charge what they think they can get, but it obviously causes a lot of confusion and frustration from people who receive tickets," she said. "It's hard because we really have no authority or mechanism to change their practices."

Brandt is aware of the frustration the flat rates cause for people who are just looking for a place to park to go get lunch for an hour. He said the company is considering offering a new rate option to allow people to buy two or three hours at peak times for either $20 or $25, with each additional hour at an hourly rate. But it hasn't happened yet.

Meanwhile, employees arriving to work during those peak hours avoid the lots and look for street parking.

Kilpatrick, the manager at OTTO, opts to park at metered spots on the street, but over the past four months she's had to pay about $300 in tickets because of the two-hour limit.

"How am I expected to leave my job, when it's busy, leave my employees hanging, to go move my car and drive around for another 20 minutes?" she said, referring to the time it often takes her to find another spot.

SEEKING SOLUTIONS

Kilpatrick would like to see a better option for workers to park on the street, and imagines a city-issued sticker allowing downtown employees to stay in spots beyond the time limit if they pay through the city's Passport Parking app.

Canfijn, at Gorgeous Gelato, is thinking along the same lines.

"I don't know if this is possible even, but I'd really like to see some sort of pass for residents who work in Portland," he said. "That would be ideal."

Grondin, however, said Portland will not be offering such passes.

"The whole point of on-street parking and the reason why it's capped at two hours is to encourage turnover so that there are spots available for visitors and customers to park," she said. "It is not so that we can give out tickets to people because we like to give out tickets."

She pointed out that the city operates parking garages at 21 Elm St. and 45 Spring St. that charge $3 per hour and $140 for a monthly pass. On Sept. 12, each city garage had a dozen or more passes available.

Portland Downtown, the nonprofit downtown improvement district, offers a "Park and Work" program to assist workers who make below 50 percent of the area median income, or $37,300 as of April for a one-person household. The program allows workers to buy stamps for up to six hours of their stay at the city's garages.

Each stamp covers three hours and a book of 48 costs $100, making the hourly rate just over $2. Employees and employers can purchase stamps through the Portland Downtown office, at 549 Congress St., and employers can subsidize the cost for their workers.

"I think in the eight years I've been here I have always found it very surprising that people in Portland don't seem to like garages," Grondin said. "I don't get it. ... People would rather fight for on-street parking and move their cars every few hours. Maybe they think the cost is prohibitive, but the city-run garages are much cheaper than some of the other market-rate ones. I don't know if it's just a mentality thing ... but it would be better to be in garages. Then you'd be leaving the (street) spaces for customers."

Canfijn said he would consider parking garages if they were cheaper than street parking, but he believes he still comes out ahead feeding the meters — if he can just avoid tickets.

When asked if he'd consider a paid parking garage or lot, a worker at the Strange Maine shop on Congress Street said no. "I think, just the way I go through the world, I've lived here a long time so I'm used to being like there's a hack for everything, but it's definitely less hackable than it used to be," he said. The worker, who gave his name as Patch One, said, "And the meters are substantially more than they used to be."

He said he bikes and walks to work as much as he can — and when he drives to work, he tries to find a street spot with all-day parking. But he often ends up moving his car all day between two-hour meters.

"It kind of sucks, honestly," he said.

MOST GARAGES FULL

A survey of parking garages by the Press Herald found prices for monthly passes ranging from $120 to $200, but most garages were full and had long wait lists.

MHR Management LLC, for example, operates two parking garages downtown, on Temple Street and on Pearl Street, as well as the Casco Bay Garage at the Maine State Pier off Commercial Street. None has any monthly spots available.

"The waiting lists vary per garage," Assistant General Manager Alison Gallant said. "However, the Casco Bay Garage wait time is several years long."

The Press Herald did find some garages with a few spots open at a monthly cost of $130-$140. And a lot at 66-68 Danforth St., operated by J.B. Brown & Sons, had more than 90 monthly passes available, for $130 apiece, as of Sept. 12.

Unified advertises monthly parking passes for $135-$200 on its website, but all of its lots showed waitlists. Brandt said the company caps the number of monthly passes because of the high cost to lease space downtown, but will work with customers who come to them directly to find a monthly space, though it might not be at the closest lot to their work.

Some workers say meters are still cheaper, especially if their work schedules line up with free parking times on the street.

Kilpatrick doubts there really are any monthly bargains.

"That low price of parking monthly is not at all what any of my employees or superiors have found," she said. "I'm not sure who that price is saved for ... but it's definitely not for us."

Her solution? She hopes to transfer to another OTTO location, closer to her home, so she doesn't have to deal with downtown parking at all.

"It's just not worth it," Kilpatrick said. "I got two tickets last week."