ST. PETERSBURG — Gone are the days of pulling into a metered parking spot and breathing a sigh of relief when the sticker indicates it’s free on nights or weekends.
Officials have begun a multi-year process of converting downtown St. Petersburg’s metered parking spots from enforcement five days a week to seven days a week with longer hours. The latest wave of changes affects 318 meters on the blocks south of Central Avenue and north of Fifth Avenue S, from Fourth Street east over to First Street.
The meters around Bayshore Drive and Beach Drive and immediately surrounding the University of South Florida St. Petersburg campus were already seven-day meters. The city’s move eliminates most free metered night and weekend parking in the downtown core, with plans in place to add meters to nearly all unpaid parking.
The stickers on the parking meters were updated this week, St. Petersburg Director of Transportation Evan Mory said. November will be a grace period for drivers as they adjust to the new rules. Warnings will be placed on cars, but no fines will be issued until December.
For now, that leaves the two blocks near the Pinellas County courthouse and City Hall as the only ones in downtown with free night and weekend metered spots. But those, too, will eventually be converted.
“I think to the consumer who parks on a Saturday, it is a rate increase because it used to be free and now there’s a charge for it,” Mory said.
City officials said they notified businesses and residents in the area, but not everyone got the message. And many feared the change might hurt business on weekends, when, for years, people didn’t have to worry about meters.
"It’s competitive parking, but it’s the best on the weekend,” said Erin Dickerson, communications director for TeBella Tea Company on First Avenue S. “I think that will make it less likely people will venture down here for tea or a cup of coffee.”
The changes are based on a 2016 city parking study, which recommended more metered spots throughout St. Petersburg, all enforced until midnight Monday through Saturday and 8 p.m. on Sunday.
“That has been intentional and likely will be completed in the next few years,” Mory said. “But to the point of getting all downtown spaces being metered seven days a week ... I don’t see that happening for a long time. That’s not really in the cards.”
The St. Petersburg parking system in 2016 consisted of more than 21,000 spaces supporting a population of about 252,000 residents and 4.7 million annual visitors, the study found.
As the city grows, so do its parking demands. Managing parking — and asking people to pay for it — is part of having a vibrant downtown, Mory said.
“People realize we’re a very busy downtown,” Mory said. “It’s not the downtown we were 15 years ago.”
At the communal work space Station House, 260 First Ave. S, community coordinator Nick Gavulic said he didn’t know about the changes until they happened and will miss the free parking. The building houses TeBella and another restaurant, Ichicoro Ane, and hosts many night and weekend events.
The previous parking situation was "was awesome,” Gavulic said. “On the weekend you could park anywhere and it gave you the freedom to explore. It’s definitely going inhibit kind of going around and pulling into any spot.”
The city study also calls for adding meters over the next few years to existing free parking spots, some of which have two-hour time limits. These changes would add meters north of Second Avenue S between Second Street and Beach Drive, and on most of the blocks on Central Avenue and First Avenue S between Martin Luther King Jr. Street and Fourth Street. The spots in the Edge District west of King Street will remain unpaid spots with a two-hour time limited.
"Good,” said Jorge Banuellos, a bartender at Gratzzi Italian Grille on Second Street S. He said he thinks having meters in those spots is better than the current practice of chalking tires and doesn’t think meters are a problem now that they accept debit and credit cards.
Rodney Contreras, Gratzzi’s manager, disagrees. “I think they’re just trying to rip off the people down here,” he said.
Banuellos, who bartends nights and weekends along the affected area, said the true test will come this winter during Florida’s tourist season.
“Once the snowbirds get here,” he said, "we’ll know if it works for us.”