Parking along downtown Eau Claire streets, including this busy stretch of South Barstow Street, has been free with a two-hour time limit. However, a consultant said Friday that the city should consider parking meters or another pay system as a way to reduce labor spent on parking enforcement and encourage people to use on-street parking just for short-term use.

Meters or some other way of charging for on-street parking should be considered in downtown Eau Claire as the current time limit for free parking is not being strictly enforced, according to a consultant hired by the city.

Jon Forster of Kalamazoo, Mich.-based WGI presented some of his preliminary findings on Friday morning to a small group gathered at City Hall before he’s expected to deliver a final report on several city parking issues early next month.

While he’s not yet ready to make a firm recommendation that Eau Claire should start charging for the frequently full spots along downtown streets, Forster indicated that’s the direction the city seems to be headed.

“I think you’re there,” he said.

The current method of policing the two-hour time limit for on-street parking downtown is labor intensive, he explained, requiring officers to first chalk tires and then come back later to see if they haven’t moved and issue a ticket.

“It’s more than double the effort,” he said.

And in listening sessions with residents in prior months, Forster said he heard that enforcement is not consistent.

To ensure those prime on-street parking spots, especially along South Barstow Street, are free for customers visiting downtown businesses instead of being used by employees and long-term visitors, he said the conventional wisdom is to make people pay for that convenience.

“Paid on-street parking has been a tried-and-true method of managing parking for a long time,” he said.

Considering changes to on-street parking were just part of a study that Forster is doing for Eau Claire, prompted in part by increasing downtown activity due to revitalization and new attractions including the Pablo Center at the Confluence.

“Good news is you have a great city. It’s growing and there’s so much development,” he said. “The reality is from a parking standpoint, you have to adjust to that.”

Other parts of his study address parking in Eau Claire’s older residential neighborhoods and overall changes to how the city runs public parking.

One of Forster’s recommendations is the city should pool its parking resources by creating a department, division, utility or some other form of organizing employees with parking-related duties. Currently the only wholly dedicated staff is a part-time parking administrator in the city’s Engineering Department, but there are other employees, such as community service officers in the Police Department, with duties tied to parking.

Forster commended the city’s customer service, but said its marketing materials and website are lacking when it comes to helping people find a parking spot.

He’s also recommending the city come up with a plan for the anticipated retirement of its older 405-stall parking ramp on Gibson Street.

City engineer Dave Solberg said the city is giving itself a five-year window to develop a solid plan for replacing the ramp built in 1973 at South Farwell and Gibson streets.

With costs becoming “exorbitant” to maintain the ramp as it nears 50 years old, Solberg said it would be more effective to build a new structure that’s better designed and requires less upkeep.

The city is anticipating costs of about $28 million for downtown parking, primarily to replace the Gibson Street ramp, in later years of its 2020-2024 Capital Improvement Plan.

If the city does build a new ramp in coming years, Jennifer Phillips asked that it have adequate lighting and security cameras that are lacking in the old ramp.

“We don’t necessarily feel safe in that parking ramp,” said Phillips, a wealth management trust advisor who works downtown.

Her and other employees who buy monthly ramp parking passes will park along the street if they’re making frequent trips to the office or because they felt uncomfortable in the ramp, she said during Friday morning’s meeting at City Hall.

The parking ramp is used by some homeless people as a shelter, Phillips said, adding that she’s had to avoid stepping on used needles, empty alcoholic beverage containers and evidence that spots in the structure had been used as a restroom.

Contact: 715-833-9204, andrew.dowd@ecpc.com, @ADowd_LT on Twitter