Columbus, Ohio USA
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The Parking Pinch
Initiative underway to help solve longstanding neighborhood problem
By Cindy Bent Findlay
January 2012 Issue
To park, o where to park,
that is the question:
Whether ‘tis Nobler in the car to suffer
The Slings and Arrows
of tickets of outrageous Prices,
Or to take Laps and Laps around blocks through a Sea of Cars,
Or Just Drive Away.
Photo © Larry Hamill
Melodramatic, maybe. But for residents, merchants and patrons of Short North establishments, searching for a parking solution is enough to make many want, at least temporarily, to take arms.
Years of frustrating memories bubble up in conversation about each new ticket for expired meters or failure to find a spot in time for an appointment.
• A store manager parked in front of her shop, rushing to unload merchandise in the pouring rain, is issued a ticket for an expired meter.
• A waitress unable to find anywhere but a meter to park for her dinner rush shift gets a ticket equal to the entire day’s pay.
• Customers cancel appointments after circling around, unable to find a spot.
• Local media advertises “free parking areas” on permit-free residential streets surrounding the Short North during Gallery Hop, and Hoppers descend in droves. Residents either cannot leave their homes for a day, or must park many streets away from their homes.
It’s enough of an issue that the Short North Business Association puts links to information about parking front and center of their web page.
For the Short North, parking demand is both a symbol of the neighborhood’s success and an annoyance that many fear hurts their businesses and could damage the neighborhood as a whole.
Solutions have been slow in coming, but hope springs eternal, and new long-promised parking spots may be on the horizon in 2012. New garages and new ways of approaching the problem are all in the works.
Quantifying the parking shortage is difficult, and anecdotal evidence shifts depending on whom you are talking to.
“We know that there’s a stereotype that there is no parking, but in fact there is tons, depending on whether or not you’re willing to walk more than a couple of blocks,” says Diesha Condon, senior director of the Short North Business Association. Condon says her association’s members find that parking is mostly tight in the evenings and on weekends.
Still, she says, “there is almost always parking north of Second, and if you are willing to walk, you can experience a new business you never knew existed.”
“As a business owner, for us, so much of our clientele is based in the neighborhood, I’d say 75 percent of the time it’s not an issue. During the Hop and major events you find congestion anywhere, but I’d not say it’s much of an issue,” says Steven Grabner, owner of gourmet emporium Europia.
“As a restaurant that does offer valet parking, it’s still an ongoing headache. On some occasions it takes business away from us, people just don’t want to deal with parking, day or night,” says Amber Herron, owner of DeepWood restaurant at High and Swan streets across from the Convention Center. Herron says their valet service is often abused by shoppers who say they’re going to dine at the restaurant but never walk in the door.
Kristin Cooke, manager of Big Rock, Little Rooster bridal boutique in the Short North (see sidebar) points out that it’s equally impossible for customers and employees.
In fact, a 2005 parking study showed that as much as 60 percent of parking on High Street was taken by area employees. That was one factor that prompted the city to extend meter hours from 6 p.m. to 10 p.m., to allow more customers a chance to score a meter.
Sometimes, solutions for one problem create others, however.
“How can you leave nonstop table rotations to feed a meter? It’s a challenge to keep employees when they’re getting docked a shift’s pay with a ticket from city,” Cooke says. “It’s just a beast, but we know it’s part of what happens when you choose to work in a downtown environment. But it would be nice if they watched us more to prevent break-ins than watched minutes on a meter for a few bucks here and there.”
Finally, there are the long-suffering residents of the Short North. A decade’s worth of boosterism from the city in an attempt to lure more to live downtown grates on the nerves of those who already live there – especially when city meter maids have pushed shoppers to park in front of their homes and rarely cut residents a break either.
You can sense a resigned attitude when speaking to leaders of neighborhood groups like the Short North Civic Association. One can hear a long litany of constituent complaints reverberating behind the background of carefully chosen words.
“Yes, it is true that for residents, the biggest issue is those coming to the area for the businesses, but we’re not anti-business; we understand the Short North is an exciting and vibrant neighborhood to live in because of them and they need to be supported,” says Jeff Smith, president of the Short North Civic Association, formerly the Victorian Village Society.
A Study In Frustration
"We're now going to lead the conversation, not just be bystanders." - John Angelo, director of Short North Special Improvement District. Photo © Larry Hamill
Fixing the parking dilemma has been an ongoing effort for years. The city has tried to work with local groups, from the neighborhood commissions to the business associations, to solve it.
Parking lots, metered spaces, and changes to residential permit parking zones have all been a part of the neighborhood conversation around parking.
A special commission convened in 2009 that involved stakeholders from around the city. In December 2009, Mayor Michael Coleman formed the Parking Meter Advisory Team to revamp meter policies city-wide. John Angelo was one of those on the commission, as were other community members.
“They [at the city] were shocked to find out how busy we were at night,” says Angelo, who headed a car-counting study for the PMA Team. He was working with the Short North Business Association at the time and now heads the Short North Special Improvement District.
“When I reported the numbers, the city was truly in disbelief. It’s three or four times what we do during the day, even during the week. Pretty frequently we’re between 90 to 100 percent parked up in the evenings,” Angelo says.
The group submitted its final report in 2010. Randy Bowman who heads the Division of Mobility Services for the city’s Department of Public Services has been working with the new guidelines and with neighborhood groups to put the plan into action ever since.
A main thrust of the new meter effort is to replace old coin meters with new “smart” meters which can take multiple forms of payment including credit cards. Another arm of the effort is to install additional meters in areas where the city and the neighborhood together identify a need. Finally, the rates, hours payment is required and the length of time – two hours, three or more – have also been adjusted. It was that commission that prompted the shift increasing meter use to 10 p.m.
Popular opinion says that parking meters are mainly installed to provide revenue for the city, but that’s not the case at all, says Bowman. “The meters are there for turnover of parking for businesses.”
So far, the city has replaced old meters with 2,000 new “smart” meters citywide, and has also installed meters in new spots throughout the Short North district. Bowman says that 2012 will be the third year of the program, which has enough budget to install about 1,000 meters per year through 2015 at a cost of about $500,000 per 1,000 meters.
The meters aren’t the only new parking solutions.
Bowman’s division has also worked with neighborhood groups to revamp valet parking policies, add on-street two-wheeled parking for scooters and motorcycles, and continue to install new bike racks.
In fact, Bowman’s division itself is only three years old. Just having a central agency and a process to work together with the neighborhood is a key new weapon in the battle. The division gets kudos from Angelo, Smith and others for cooperation.
Next on Bowman’s plate is to similarly look at modernizing residential parking
permit policies and procedures, he says. The division issued roughly 6,200 parking permits in Columbus last year. Bowman says that number has been slowly and steadily increasing each year.
“In those three years of managing parking with a renewed focus, we’ve got experience now, and we’re looking at making clearer, more collaborative, and transparent the process for petitioning and reviewing and ultimately approving residential permit areas,” he says.
The Elephant on the Street
The biggest item on everyone’s wish list is, of course, a garage.
The astounding cost of garage construction – by some accounts $10,000 per parking space created – and the dearth of land available precludes the city from simply slapping one up.
But combined parking, residential and commercial projects have been promised for years, most infamously including the defunct Ibiza building at Hubbard and High streets.
Now in bankruptcy, Ibiza just might rise after all, under new ownership. Local development firms Elford and Wagenbrenner are trying to take the reins and construct a five-story mixed-use building featuring 318 parking spots – 250 of them public. Details are blurry – the developers still haven’t managed to wrestle out of bankruptcy, though the Italian Village Commission has given proposed plans preliminary blessings. Hopes are that the project might even break ground in early 2012.
Another developer, the Pizzuti Companies, is working through approvals for a hotel, commercial and retail project on both sides of High Street that will feature a 313-spot parking garage near Millay Alley. The Italian Village Commission will host the next public meeting on the project January 26.
“I’d say approximately 200 spaces night and weekends will be available to the public,’ says Joel Pizzuti, company president. He says groundbreaking is tentatively planned for spring.
“We’re in the process now of doing an analysis of not only parking counts but cost, but we will be very competitive with garages in and around downtown. It’s a service that we need to provide for the project, and it’s very important to the community – it needs to be as affordable and accessible to the community as possible,” Pizzuti says.
Finally, on the southern end of the neighborhood, the Vine Street garage next to the North Market is scheduled to undergo a $16 million reconstruction, doubling from 900 to 1800 spots.
Former reports that hundreds of spots would not be available during construction are inaccurate, according to Bill Jennison, executive director of the Franklin County Convention Facilities Authority, owner of the garage. He says probably about 50 spaces will be out of commission at any given time.
Jennison says that while Nationwide plans to buy 900 passes on a monthly basis for the employees it has poised to move to its downtown headquarters, usually about 85 percent of such monthly passes are used during business hours and therefore many – several hundred each day – should be available for public use at the Vine Street garage, and when Nationwide workers go home each evening and weekends that many more will be available.
Work on the garage is estimated to wrap up in October 2012.
Part of the Solution
Farther out in the future, John Angelo says the Short North Special Improvement District will take on the parking problem itself, by both horns. In April, the SNSID’s new funding stream will be released and free to devote resources to tackle parking and other issues.
The Short North Special Improvement District was formed in 1998 with a primary focus on constructing the long-awaited arches lining High Street, and also took on many other street improvements. The SID is funded through a special tax agreed to by and levied on district property owners.
Angelo recently took the helm as director after Tim Wagner’s retirement.
“Other organizations have served as conduits to talk about it, but we’re going to actually try to address it for the first time in the history of the district,” Angelo says.
The SID has already been working with the Central Ohio Transit Authority and the city to improve access overall with new bike racks and bus routes. Now, Angelo says, high on the SID’s wish list is a park and ride lot for employees, to take the strain off of those public meters (and employee’s pocketbooks).
Angelo says the SID will investigate potential lot locations, sponsors and a shuttle service system so that area employees could pay a small fee – less than the current meter rates – and ride a circulating shuttle bus to their work sites.
“Finally,” says Angelo, “the elephant in the room is the concept of a garage.”
It’s a hugely complicated topic, he says. There are considerations of garage ownership, the design of the garage, the fee structure to consider, and many more, but the SNSID, he says, will try to study the issue and “spearhead a significant, central garage in the district.”
“To this point, the district has been rather passive, keeping fingers crossed, hoping that a developer would come to the rescue. In the past few years, we were passive in that scenario and stepped back and said ‘phew, we’re good’ and years later we’re back at square one. We’re now going to lead the conversation, not just be bystanders,” Angelo says.
So, this spring, when the construction barriers go up, know that no, your need to find your car a home is not being ignored, and help should be on the way.
After all, being a busy district “is a good problem to have,” says Condon.
“Personally, I think it’s improved already. I don’t hear as many complaints from people coming in. Either they’ve gotten accustomed to it or stopped complaining. My thought is, it’s urban living, and for an urban atmosphere, it’s not bad,” says Grabner of Europia.
“My take is that residents have found places to park and that neighborhood groups are moving forward, working with the city to get these additional public garages built, which will help alleviate some of the parking issues,” Smith says.
“I think the Short North is maturing in thinking, networks and relationships and with that comes richer dialogue with parties who have access to answers,” Angelo says.
PARKING PINCH PUTS CUSTOMERS IN A PICKLE
For many destination businesses, clients finding them is only half the battle, and the other half is often lost, says Kristin Cooke, manager of Big Rock Little Rooster, an upscale wedding boutique in the heart of the retail district on High Street near the corner of Russell.
Cooke says that the parking situation, as free as many say it is, has definitely hurt the business in the past. Her business – wedding dresses – requires that her customers set appointments because the dresses are most often difficult to don solo and because her staff so often provides consultation, direction and suggestions for brides.
Cooke is one shop manager whose suburban customers have cancelled their appointments to try on dresses because they couldn’t find parking.
“I can think of three right off of the top of my head. They just got frustrated and gave up, and they never came back,” Cooke says.
“When you have individuals who drive in from the ‘burbs and are used to going to a large parking lot, they might even be prepared to pay for parking, but they don’t know how to search for it,” she says.
Another challenge is when brides-to-be bring elderly relatives with them. “It’s just not easy to park closely, so they often have to drop Gramma off and go circle for parking,” she says.
Cooke says she tries to let customers know where they might find parking when they make appointments, or suggests they consider making a reservation at Marcella’s or Black Olive and park using the valet, walk to the shop, and have a celebration dinner afterward.
Obviously, the shop doesn’t have the advantage of regular customers who get to know the area – who buys wedding dresses monthly? But she does have employees who have just as much trouble parking as the customers.
“Sometimes I need to have three employees with me, and they need to pay to park. We literally have to help them [customers] in and out of dresses, help with style concepts for the wedding; they’re not just waiting at the register. The meters are only three-hour slots, and you can’t say to a bride, ‘Wait here in the dressing room, I have to feed the meter.’ My girls get tickets probably monthly.”
Cindy Bent Findlay is a freelance writer
© 2012 Short North Gazette, Columbus, Ohio. All rights reserved.
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