The engineering firm commissioned to study Forest Park’s downtown parking situation and eventually hand in a recommendation for a solution reported results from the first phase of its study last week at a town hall meeting at village hall.

Much of the information reported by Matt Gauntt of R.H. Anderson and Associates Inc. may seem like common knowledge to those who have struggled to find a spot on Madison Street during peak hours in recent years.

Literature distributed at the meeting to explain parking turnover and occupancy rates in areas surrounding Madison Street, for instance, noted that “curbside parking on Madison Street is highly utilized,” especially during afternoon and evening hours and that parking on un-metered side streets is heavily weighted toward Madison Street, indicating a desire for longer-term parking near Madison Street.

It was also noted that parking enforcement on Madison Street has not been effective, and in some ways has even been counterproductive, shifting cars from metered spaces in parking lots to un-metered residential side streets with two-hour parking allowances.

The primary decision the village will face is whether to construct a parking structure”which could be either above or below ground”or to add to its existing surface parking lots.

If the decision is made to go with the first option, Gauntt said, the village will have to gauge how far people are willing to walk from a parking structure to their destination to determine the ideal location.

“Usually, most patrons are not going to walk more than 600 feet, and employees won’t walk more than 1,000 feet to get to their job,” he said.

According to Gauntt, a parking garage, taking up an acre of land can typically fit around 145 spaces. He estimated the construction cost per space at a minimum of $2,500, though he noted that the expense of building a garage is largely hinged upon what measures are taken to enhance security or beautify the structure.

Expanded surface level lots would solve the walking problem, but could create a “sea of asphalt” throughout the downtown area which might result in an eyesore.

Residents who attended the town hall were also concerned about the possibility of the village declaring eminent domain to acquire property to convert into parking lots, though Mayor Anthony Calderone, who also attended the meeting, said there were no plans at this point for the village to do so.

Another major factor is cost, as a new structure would be significantly more expensive than added surface parking.

“Would you rather see a sea of parking with very little impact on your taxes, or would you rather see it coming out of your pocketbooks?” Gauntt asked.

Surface parking, he noted, could also take up space that would otherwise be developed as retail space, eliminating sales tax opportunities for the village.

Regardless of what kind of parking facilities are eventually built, residents said that more needs to be done to relieve the difficulties they’ve experienced due to Madison Street’s growing pains.

“If there’s going to be a fee for parking [in the new facility], there needs to be some relief for us because people will say, ‘I’m not going to park there. I’m going to park in front of your house for free,'” said Gloria Backman.

Zoned parking requiring permits was one of the options suggested by attendees, but Gauntt offered no commitments. There seemed to be a consensus that the current two-hour parking signs are not deterring patrons and employees from parking in residential areas, and that the time limits are not being thoroughly enforced.

“We try all the time to get businesses to pay for their employees to park in our municipal lots, but it just doesn’t work,” acknowledged Calderone.

One option suggested at the meeting by developer Tim Hague of the Taxman Corporation was to offer discount packages for employees to provide incentive to park in the new lot. He suggested reserving a space exclusively for employee parking to ensure that more desirable spaces remain open for patrons.

At this point, it is still uncertain how the future parking additions will be financed. The village has contributed $140,000 per year to a parking fund, and the village recently was awarded a $300,000 parking grant from the office of State Sen. Kimberly Lightford (4th District).

Calderone noted that once the village has a specific plan in mind, more grant opportunities will likely open up, but the remainder of the cost will likely either be paid for by parking fees, by taxes, or both. Taxes would not necessarily affect all residents, though, as the option of a Special Service Area, i.e. a tax on businesses limited to a certain area, is being left open as a possibility.

According to Hague, a parking structure could, over time, end up paying for itself in other ways.

“A structure could add value residentially. … By being aggressive on the front end, that justifies future density and adds value [to surrounding properties] as well,” he noted.

Once a recommendation is made by R.H. Anderson, village staff will develop a proposal to present to the Forest Park Plan Commission and eventually the village council.