On Waterfront Park and Why Charging for Parking is Okay

News broke tonight, after weeks of speculation, that the Board of the Waterfront Development Corporation (WDC) approved a plan to charge $3 for parking at Waterfront Park five days per week (Wednesday – Sunday).

Despite the 6-3 vote by the board, it seems nearly everyone in the public sphere opposes this change — Mayor Fischer, Metro Council (Bill Hollander and Barbara Sexton-Smith, in particular), and “hundreds” of Louisvillians, according to an Insider Louisville article leading up to the vote.

Fischer wrote a letter to the WDC Board Tuesday saying, “This park is our community living room, a gathering place for all Louisvillians. I do not support creating an unnecessary impediment to access.” Hollander, probably the most outspoken critic of the plan, tweeted, “[Waterfront Park] should be accessible to everyone, every day – not just Monday & Tuesday.”

In the hours since the news has come out, both Hollander and Sexton-Smith have issued statements of disapproval. Sexton-Smith wrote: “This is disgraceful. … This decision will promote segregation at a time when we must all do everything we can to bring everyone together. … We must not balance the budget on the backs of those who can least afford it. … Keep Our Waterfront Park Free!”

Social media comments echoed/furthered these sentiments. One user referred to the plan as a “money grab,” another said the park’s board should be disbanded, and another suggested legal action against the park.

Considering all this — the nearly universal, bipartisan, community-wide opposition to this plan — we’d like to weigh in with an unpopular, contrary opinion. Here goes:

It’s okay to ask people to pay to park their cars, even at parks.

First off, it should be noted that, even in Louisville, parks aren’t exempt from charges simply because they’re a shared public space. It costs about $25 to play golf at one of the Metro Parks golf courses and $3 to swim at one of the Metro Parks pools. Camping at Jefferson Memorial Forest has a cost ($15), as does sending your kid to summer camp there ($150). State and national parks have long had base entry fees as well. Nothing new.

Parks cost money to maintain and the city of Louisville and state of Kentucky, Waterfront Park’s primary funders, have left Waterfront Park with a budgetary shortfall. (Of note: this problem seems primarily to come from underfunding at the state level; the city has maintained, even increased, its budgetary allotment for Waterfront Park.)

Far from a “money grab”, this seems to be simply an attempt for the Park to keep its head above water. According to Insider Louisville, David Karem, the president of WDC, said “that if the state or another entity wanted to step up and cover the budget shortfall going forward, then paid parking could be eliminated.”

Still, asking people to pay to use a city park seems just outright ridiculous. It’s one thing to charge for camping or a round of golf, but general use?

But here’s the thing: Waterfront isn’t asking people to pay to *use* the park. It’s asking people who are *driving to the park and parking their cars there* to pay for that convenience.

People can still walk to the park or bike to it or ride TARC to it — or, heck, drive to it and park for free on River Road or Witherspoon or Shelby or Campbell or Preston or Floyd or Brook or First streets. These are all ways to access the park for free year-round.

More to the point: free parking incentivizes driving and degrades public space. This is why it’s so strange, if not downright hypocritical, for a city with acute air quality issues, disastrous public health, and an extreme urban heat island effect — all of which are exacerbated by a *lack* of green space and an *overabundance* of parking lots — to subsidize driving (and parking) while also publicly dressing down a park and its board.

Still. There’s a but.

And this is it:

Of course Fischer, Hollander, and Sexton-Smith are right: Waterfront Park is one of Louisville’s most diverse places, a great gift in a city that is divided east-west, rich-poor, white-black — to say nothing of urban-rural.

Making it harder for disadvantaged groups to walk the Big Four Bridge or play in the spraygrounds or simply watch the boats and ships glide by on the Ohio while sitting under a shady tree — anything that compromises those things should be met with some solutions.

So, with that in mind, we will offer some solutions. Coming August 24 (hopefully).

14 Replies to “On Waterfront Park and Why Charging for Parking is Okay”

  1. Looking forward to the solutions. I hope they explain how a low income family of four having a free birthday party at the Adventure Park can get themselves and all the stuff for the party to the park, given our lack of good transit. Of course, not having accessible parking will encourage better transit-if the community really cares about low income people- but the birthday, well many of them, will be long gone.

      1. Finding a way to help low income families would be good – and it could have been explored in a public hearing and comment period before the Waterfront board voted. Except that there was no public hearing or input of any kind and David Karem told Insider Louisville he didn’t even bother to share the hundreds of emails the park received with board members. That’s unacceptable.

  2. Maybe they could send every Louisville/Jefferson County resident a reloadable card with say 5 visits preloaded.

    A related thought: WDC should let PARC manage the paid parking. That would be more efficient than doing it on their own.

    1. And who would determine who get those cards? Now, I will have to give all my finances to WDC for a determination?

      Having PARC managing requires an extra fee for them, they would not do it for free… It will defeat the purpose…

  3. Is there typically a shortage of available parking in the Waterfront Park lots? If the lots are full on evenings and weekends, then the operators should definitely charge a fee to park in them during times of high demand. If they are filled up, that means other newcomers are pulling in, failing to find parking, and then creating traffic by turning around and cruising for parking elsewhere.

    Bill – how does your sentimental anecdote change if the “free” lot is full when the hypothetical birthday party arrives?

    I’m constitutionally compelled to paste this link anytime there is a discussion about parking fees on the internet: https://www.amazon.com/High-Cost-Free-Parking-Updated/dp/193236496X

    1. High demand really doesn’t change my view at all. And it’s not a “hypothetical, sentimental anecdote.” Visit Waterfront’s water play area and talk to the people there.

  4. I understand your reasoning of the vehicle parking cost. However, not all people have the ease of walking or biking to a park. Consider families with young children who need that convenience of vehicle parking, parkside. This is indeed a problem of access and equity because everyone will not visit the park if there are barriers such as cost for parking or walking further to access the park from free parking. Unhealthy people wishing to have the same quality of life or disabled people will no longer have equal access as well.

    1. What about families that don’t have a car? Aren’t they even more unequal than poor families with a car? How will they access the park? Free cars?

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