St. Louis' Residential Permit Parking System Collapses in Key Neighborhoods

"It's total dysfunction," says a resident ticketed five times in one month

Feb 15, 2023 at 9:51 am
click to enlarge Forest Park Southeast, which sits in the shadow of the Grove and Wash U's med school, has been locked in a permit parking quagmire. - FLICKR/PAUL SABLEMAN
Forest Park Southeast, which sits in the shadow of the Grove and Wash U's med school, has been locked in a permit parking quagmire.

For just about a decade, Celia Shacklett paid for a residential parking permit. “I balked at first because I didn’t want to pay for street parking,” Shacklett says. Then, like her neighbors, she got used to it. At $12.50 per car per year, it was pretty cheap.

Shacklett lives in Forest Park Southeast, just a few blocks south of the Washington University Medical School. The neighborhood had mobilized to get the permits, which kept med school students from monopolizing the spots in front of their houses. Her neighbor Zen Harbison describes it as a game of “Whac-A-Mole” — once one block started requiring permits, visitors would invade the next, and then that block would lobby the alderman for a permit district of its own.

The interlopers were easy to spot. Says Harbison, “Anyone who drives up in the morning, gets out of the car with a backpack and starts walking toward campus, duh.” 

Ultimately, Forest Park Southeast and the neighboring Central West End ended up with 10 districts. And it all worked well enough until last June, when the 1,000 or so permits in the area were set for renewal — but no one was capable of renewing them. 

Park Central Development had long been in charge of the 10 districts. But Executive Director Abdul-Kaba Abdullah says the nonprofit development corporation had been working for years to hand the program off to the city.

Abdullah says talks with the city treasurer's office began in 2019 — and while they were interrupted by the pandemic, and then Treasurer Tishaura Jones' ascent to the mayor's office, by 2021 they were back in earnest. Park Central finally announced on its website last spring it was handing over administration to the city.

But the city — perhaps surprisingly — has not administered any residential parking permits for quite some time. Despite that lead time, it simply wasn’t ready for the handoff.

The result? It’s now been eight months since residents of Forest Park Southeast and the Central West End have been able to renew or obtain new residential parking permits. And that means people like Shacklett (who lost her permit after she bought a new car) and newcomers to the neighborhood are out of luck. 

And even though it’s the city treasurer who will be administering the permits, that hasn’t stopped the treasurer’s office from ticketing. Treasurer Adam Layne says he’s had to send in parking enforcement officers — residents were again complaining that med school students were using their streets as a free parking lot. Layne’s staff has urged people to continue to use their expired permits as a stop-gap measure.

Shacklett, out of luck, says she got ticketed five times in October. Since she teaches music lessons out of her home, she previously purchased permits for people visiting, too. Three of her students’ families were ticketed in October, too.

Shacklett found a solution, kind of — at the direction of Alderwoman Tina Pihl, she now sends her tickets to the city's parking administrator. One by one, he voids them.

“I send it to him, and then I yank his chain two weeks later to remind him,” Shacklett says. But she can’t help but marvel at the inefficiency: “What a roundabout way to deal with it!”

Layne won’t estimate just how many tickets his office has voided. But, he says, “It’s happening less and less” as enforcement officers in the area learn which cars belong. “They know them now.” 

Layne says there are plenty of reasons for the lag in a new permitting system: The software cost $20,000, and that meant issuing a request for proposals and getting multiple bids. Rather than put a temporary system in place, and delay even further the actual rollout, he wanted to get the permanent system up and running. He also wanted to set up a system that could work for neighborhoods around the city, should they opt in. (Asked why the city and Park Central announced the handoff when the city still didn't have a program in place, he says the departure of the Park Central employee who'd previously administered the program forced the issue.)

Layne declines to hazard a guess on when the office will be ready to issue new permits.

“We’re in the final stages of testing, and we hope to have applications open in the coming months,” he says. Of the period without a working system, he adds, “We’d hoped it wouldn’t go through February, but we knew it could.”

Once the city's permit system is up and running, Layne says his office would be interested in taking on residential districts throughout the city, which have turned to a hodgepodge of options in the absence of the city’s supervision. Some are apparently administered by their alderman. In other cases, Layne says, an individual neighbor has taken on the responsibility. 

It doesn’t always work well. Layne says he’s heard of one district where someone was unable to get a permit due to a personal grudge on the part of the person charged with administration.

He sees his office as being a good solution for districts in need. “I anticipate people coming to us,” he says. Abdullah, of Park Central, agrees, saying it's a matter of equity for the city to administer the program — not all neighborhoods have the resources to run it themselves.

But for that to happen, Layne says, the treasurer's office needs to get the program going — and eight months after the handoff, he’s asking for patience. “I understand the frustrations in Forest Park Southeast,” he says. “We are doing everything we can right now to have this program up and running as fast as possible.”

Shacklett is one person who’s ready. 

“I just think it’s total dysfunction,” she says. “There are so many dysfunctional facets of our city. I’m sorry to see it. I’m sorry for people who come in from out of town and have to deal with this. It’s not the image I wish St. Louis was projecting.”

Editor's note: We updated this story after publication to add additional information on the timeline of the handoff from Park Central Development.  We also updated the story on May 13 to correct an error. Residents like Shacklett email their tickets to the city's parking administrator, not Treasurer Adam Layne. We regret the prior implication to the contrary.

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