Believe it or not, parking in downtown Sarasota is not impossible—or even all that difficult. Of course, you have to know where to look. And for now, that means looking past Main Street.
The commonly held belief that there aren’t enough parking spaces downtown is merely a “perceived problem,” insists city parking manager Bob Kamper. At any time of day, he declares, you can find spots that are within a short walk to anywhere. So why does the utter impossibility of finding a downtown parking space seem to dominate so many local discussions?
The problem—and it is a problem—he explains, is along Main Street, where spaces are almost always occupied. When people can’t snag a spot there, they assume there’s no parking to be found.
“In any city, street parking is your valuable commodity,” he says. “Right now, people who visit downtown have to park somewhere else.” That means either in parking garages, lots or on side streets. And especially for out-of-towners, sorting through such places—and their various rules and restrictions—can be intimidating.
A veteran of parking management programs in the Carolinas and New Orleans, Kamper has a number of plans in the works for increasing turnover and freeing up those Main Street spots (see “Reinventing Parking,” below). In the meantime, here’s the scoop on 10 sure-fire parking areas just off Main and convenient to everywhere.
1 Courthouse Centre Just south of the hub of activity, on the corner of upper Main Street and Washington Boulevard, the relatively new Courthouse Centre has 70-odd public spots on its third and fourth levels. You enter the garage from Ringling Boulevard—head west from Washington on Ringling and it’s the first driveway to the right. You’ll have to shell out a little cash (the flat-rate fee is $3 from 6 a.m. to 7 p.m., $5 any other time), but even at noon, spaces will be available—and they’re just steps away from a dozen lunchtime hotspots. Four elevators deposit parking patrons into the Main Street courtyard between Jolly and Mediterraneo. Pay on the way out of the garage via an automated machine that takes quarters, $1 and $5 bills, as well as Visa and MasterCard.
2 Main Plaza’s back lot The lot behind the Hollywood 20 movie theater (at the southwest corner of Washington Boulevard and Fruitville Road) has been virtually empty since management started charging $4 to park there—the same fixed fee as Main Plaza’s adjacent multi-level garage. But if you’re spending money on parking anyway, the back lot’s three entrances on Fruitville, Washington, and quiet Links Avenue make it an easy alternative to fighting the traffic (both automobile and pedestrian) at the garage’s entrance on Main Street. On the other hand, the treeless, canopy-less back lot leaves cars fully exposed to the elements. Pay the attendant at the center of the lot before taking your pick of spaces.
3 Second Street Of course, the Main Plaza lots will always suffer slow business while so many spaces are empty on nearby streets. From Main Street, head north on Links or Osprey Avenue and keep your eyes peeled for spots along the curb. If those cross streets yield nothing, Second Street runs parallel to Main and boasts ample street parking throughout its length. A two-hour limit during the day encourages turnover, so a number of spaces are always open, though you may have to dust off your parallel-parking skills. Nighttime spaces are plentiful, but street lighting on Second is spotty.
4 Sarasota Herald-Tribune parking The 40 spaces surrounding the Sarasota Herald-Tribune building are free to the public weekdays after 6 p.m. and all weekend. But because the city has yet to post signs, most people drive on by. Going west on Main, the entrance is on the right just past the H-T’s enormous glass façade—you can’t miss it.
5 Boca Bargoons All the hubbub about whether the city should install parking meters overlooks that we do, in fact, already have parking meters downtown—nine of them, to be exact, just north of Main in the Boca Bargoons parking lot at Orange Avenue and Second Street. If you’re spending more than two hours in the area on a weekday, the meters are the best way to a guaranteed spot. Payment is only required from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.; at 50 cents an hour, the most you’d need to spend is $4.50. And because Second Street’s two-hour parking is so convenient for shorter stays, the metered spots are virtually unused.
6 City Hall Got a parking complaint? Take it right to City Hall—and park there. Despite signs designating the area for employees and visitors only, the 87-space lot between City Hall (on Orange Avenue and First Street) and the SCAT bus terminal (on Lemon Avenue) is free for everyone after 5 p.m. and all weekend—which makes it ideal for Mattison’s and Gator Club patrons, as well as visitors to the Saturday-morning farmers’ market on Lemon. Enter from driveways on First or Second streets.
7 State Street lot One block south of the busy intersection at Main Street and Lemon Avenue, the virtually unfillable State Street lot boasts 137 numbered spaces at 50 cents per hour, per space (free after 5 p.m. and on weekends). Heading west on Main, turn left onto Lemon and left again onto State Street; the two entrances are on the right. Payment stations at either end of the lot work like multi-space parking meters: Enter your space number on the key pad, deposit up to $5 in quarters or bills, and punch the green button. A printed receipt verifies your check-in time.
8 Whole Foods garage How’s this for a scoop—145 free public parking spaces smack-dab in the middle of it all, and hardly a one taken? That’s always the story on the second level of the Whole Foods parking garage. Unlike first-level parking, which is for Whole Foods customers only and frequently becomes a jumble of cars and pedestrians, the second level is free to everyone and accessible from hassle-free Second Street. Even grocery shoppers may prefer to avoid the chaos by parking upstairs and taking the elevator, which opens directly in front of Whole Foods’ entrance.
9 Gold Lot Lower Main Street’s bustling businesses are served by 50 paid city spaces in a lot on North Palm Avenue, right behind Sarasota News and Books. As on State Street, the spaces are numbered and a payment station accepts 25 cents for every half hour you plan to stay; as always, nights and weekends are free.
10 Gulfstream cul-de-sac Aside from the single, one-way lane that still lets in traffic from US 41 and the Ringling Causeway, Gulfstream Avenue is closed at both ends—which makes it a virtual parking lot at the lower end of Main. The street’s 42 spaces (with two-hour limits on weekdays) culminate at its south end in a cul-de-sac in front of the Church of the Redeemer. While signs on Main direct traffic to the area, spots are consistently available—and located just a block from parking-deficient Palm Avenue. Traveling west on Main from Five Points, turn either direction onto Gulfstream (the cul-de-sac is to the left). The only caveat: Churchgoers snap up most of the spaces during services.
What would make a happy Kamper?
Still in his first year as the city’s parking manager, Bob Kamper has big plans—especially when it comes to those choice spaces on Main Street. He’s already convinced the city to experiment with free permits four public lots—normally $40—through May 31 (visit the police department to sign up). Here are three other changes he’d like to implement:
METERED SPACES Let’s face it, those little chalk dots on tires (used by parking enforcement to determine which cars have overstayed the two-hour limit) do little to discourage long-term parking on Main. People can—and do—dust off the chalk spaces, trade spaces with someone else (usually a fellow downtown employee) and resort to all sorts of other devious maneuvers. Meters, Kamper argues, allow for more consistent parking enforcement, in part because they’re harder to undermine—and harder to argue with.
HIGHER FINES According to Kamper, Sarasota’s $7.50 parking violation fine may be the lowest in the country. Up the fee to $15 and we’ll see a lot more incentive to park by the rules.
"DOWNTOWN AMBASSADORS" Currently reporting to the police department, those who monitor downtown parking—and hand out tickets for violations—may soon become part of Kamper’s jurisdiction. Instead of “parking enforcement” trolling Main in three-wheeled vehicles, Kamper envisions “downtown ambassadors” on foot, distributing informational brochures to visitors—and providing change for those new Main Street meters.