By the end of the summer, it should be a little easier for shoppers and diners to find a convenient parking spot downtown.
That’s what Borough Council hopes will come from changes to the downtown parking plan it authorized Monday.
It voted unanimously to enact the changes, which include extended metered enforcement hours for on-street parking, incentives for using parking garages and dramatically stiffer penalties for chronic parking violators.
Officials with the borough and the Downtown State College Improvement District, which brought the proposal to council, said the plan should help downtown businesses attract customers who might be put off by a lack of on-street parking, especially in the evenings.
George Arnold, executive director of the improvement district, has said downtown street parking becomes scarce after 6 p.m. when employees and students take advantage of free parking.
“You can’t find a spot,” he said last week. “If you want to come run a quick errand, nothing is more frustrating than not being able to find a convenient spot.”
The changes, which go into effect Aug. 12, are designed to create more turnover in those spaces later into the night. On-street meters, currently enforced between 8 a.m. and 6 p.m. will now be active from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m.
Borough parking manager Charles DeBow told the council Monday that recent parking studies show just how difficult it can be to find spots at night.
“What we saw was a dramatic increase in length of stay after 6 p.m.,” he said.
According to the figures, vehicles on average stayed in a parking spot for 44 minutes before 6 p.m. and for about two hours and 15 minutes in those same spots after they became free. During the day, the average occupancy was around 70 percent, but ballooned to almost 99 percent at 7:30 p.m.
“It showed us the exact behavior we are trying to combat here,” DeBow said.
While downtown businesses may support the plan, council heard from a representative of one group who has concerns.
Chase Englund, student representative for the University Park Undergraduate Association, said students take advantage of the free parking to get to meetings on campus during the evenings. He encouraged council to hold a public hearing before approving the plan to give students a chance to voice concerns.
“This would really negatively impact students,” Englund said.
But Councilman Ron Filippelli said the number of students parking downtown for free was one of the driving forces behind the changes.
“I’m not saying students are to blame,” he said. “But there is an impact on the economy downtown if students are taking up all the parking spaces.”
Officials have said they tried to offset the loss of free parking after 6 p.m. by offering special rates for parking garages. For $25 a month, drivers can park in the garages for a certain amount of hours between 4 p.m. and 4 a.m.
The plan offers further incentives for garages by making the first half hour free. After that, fees will be 50 cents per half hour from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. and 50 cents an hour after that.
The plan approved Monday also changes the fine structure for those who accumulate more than 24 parking violations in a single year. Drivers who exceed 24 parking tickets will face much stiffer penalties — $25 for tickets 24 to 49 and $50 each after that. They were currently paying $6 for each ticket.
But Englund wasn’t the only one at the meeting interested in a public hearing.
Councilman Don Hahn proposed the board put off a vote until such a hearing could be scheduled. Other council members asked that the vote on the changes proceed as planned, citing years of discussions about the plan and consensus among downtown business owners.
A motion to hold a public hearing was defeated 4-3. Council did, however, approve a motion tasking borough staff with studying the effects of the changes this fall and presenting their findings to the board in January.