Longform

Confusing overnight parking meters leave drivers frustrated

I was killing at karaoke. That is, I was killing everyone at Star Bar softly with Vanilla Ice's 1990 mega-hit "Ice Ice Baby." I'd memorized the lyrics when I was eight, even though I had no idea what "flow like a harpoon, daily and nightly" meant.

Truth be told, my killing wasn't so much soft as it was loud and shout-y. When the karaoke began that warm June evening, I'd already been guzzling cold cans of Avery Brewing's White Rascal, which was completely unnecessary, because despite my inability to carry a tune, I will do karaoke stone-cold sober. Luckily for my audience that night, "Ice Ice Baby" requires no actual singing, but it does force you to rap the lines "Quick to the point, to the point, no fakin'/Cookin' MCs like a pound of bacon."

The crowd was eating it up and I was on a roll, bobbing my head like a badass between verses. When I finished, there was a rainstorm of high-fives from the people I'd come with, all of whom are apparently fans of grown-ass women singing novelty rap songs. Or maybe they were just being polite — it was hard to tell.

A couple hours and at least one more song later, I paid my tab and called my fiancé (whom, incidentally, I had wooed two years earlier, on our first date, with a karaoke rendition of '90s R&B trio Bel Biv Devoe's "Poison"). Owing to my mass consumption of White Rascals and his good-hearted nature, he offered to meet me at the bar and drive my car home.

When I finally pushed through the throngs of adoring fans and out onto the Larimer Street sidewalk, I was greeted by a horrific sight. Wedged in the crack between the doors of my car, which I'd parked three hours earlier at a metered spot in front of the bar, was a bright-yellow envelope. I'd gotten an effing parking ticket.

But how was that possible? I'd paid the meter when I parked at 8:30 p.m. It was one of the city's newfangled Smart Meters, the kind with the digital display and the slot for your credit card. I'd swiped my Visa and then pushed the "plus" key to add as much time as possible. A sticker on the meter said payment was required until 10 p.m. and, sure enough, the meter would only accept an hour and a half's worth of money. Satisfied that I'd done my civic duty, I headed into the bar to do my duty to the gods of rock and roll.

My ticket, however, said I was a scofflaw. "Flashing Expired" was the reason listed. The time on the ticket was 10:17 p.m., the fine $25.

I'd heard that the city had recently implemented overnight parking at meters downtown, but I was sure I'd read the sticker correctly.

I hadn't — and it turns out I wasn't the only person confused. In May, June, July and August, the months for which the most complete data is available, parking enforcement issued a total of 28,700 tickets between 10 p.m. and 8 a.m. to people caught breaking the brand-new rules, which most definitely require payment after 10 p.m.

*****

For years, meter parking downtown worked like this: Payment was required from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. From 10 p.m. until 2 a.m., parking was free. But you had to move your car off the street after that because parking was prohibited from 2 a.m. to 6 a.m., which is when the street sweepers did their dirty work. Disobey, and you were gifted with a ticket.

Starting in 2005, the city began getting more and more requests for overnight parking, says Matt Wager, director of operations with the city's Department of Public Works. The pleas came from three different groups: residents who were quickly filling lower downtown's hip housing and wanted their overnight guests to be able to park on the street; downtown athletic clubs and breakfast restaurants whose pre-6 a.m. patrons were faced with few parking options; and late-night party animals — or, as Wager puts it, "people taking advantage of the amenities downtown who would call and say, 'I've had too much to drink and you're making me drive my car.'"

But back then, the city couldn't do much about it. Denver's meters were old and ill-equipped to make major changes. "We had, through the years, lost the ability to program them as accurately as we wanted," Wager says.

So Public Works surveyed the parking stock, identifying "hot spots" and meeting with interested parties to figure out what was needed in different parts of the city. The results showed that Denver didn't need more parking spots, says Cindy Patton, senior city planner with Public Works. Rather, it needed to better use the space it already had and to "manage parking as an asset" — one that could boost economic development downtown.

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Melanie Asmar is a staff writer for Westword. She joined the paper in 2009 and has won awards for her stories about education, immigration and epic legal battles. Got a tip? She'd love to hear it.
Contact: Melanie Asmar